Synopsis: Ernest Hemingway worked for over a year writing and revising The Sun Also Rises. Financial writers don’t have that kind of time to perfect their narrative. A two-step process will help investors decide if any story should keep them from running with the bulls.
The fiesta had ended badly. It had begun brilliantly, but ended badly. Flaming and sparking, the fiesta ran white hot, spitting and hissing until it faded to nothing. The writer thought of this while drinking strong coffee and watching workers gather spent fireworks in the square in the late morning. The cafés were putting out the good furniture, gathered up and stored for seven days while the fiesta went on. The coffee was strong and helped him keep the general feeling of lousiness at bay.
The morning ended and afternoon came on. Bill came down and met him in the café. They ordered shrimps and beer while shop owners swept the streets. The town felt cooler now that the rains and the crowds had come and gone.
“Fella, that was some fiesta.” Bill’s face had a weary, parchment look to it.
“Some good, some not.”
“Well, the bulls were excellent.”
He nodded. “Yes, the bulls were very good.” He did not really feel it, but he said it anyway.
“Quite right. I say, that Ordonez fellow was wonderful to see.” Bill was from Michigan and as American as apple pie. But a few weeks with the English and he’d taken up their speech. He liked the bullfighter named Ordonez.
“Wonderful. I may just write about that.”
“About the bulls?”
“About all of it.”
Bill was quiet for a time. He ordered more beer from the waiter. “All of it?”
“Well, how would it go? Give me the draft version if you please. Let’s talk it through.”
“Well, a man living in Paris and his friend from the States take a trip to Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin to watch the bull fights.”
“They are joined by some English ex-pats and the man is in love with one of them.”
“Well, she is engaged to one of the Englishmen, but has had an affair with another man on the trip. Everyone drinks too much and there is a big row. The end.”
“What about the fishing?”
“Yes, I’ll write about that too. They fish the Irati river and teach the trout a hell of a lesson.”
“Well, that about sums it up. Tough sell for your publisher, though. Too life-like. No one will believe it.”
“Must not be daunted, though. Write it anyway and see what happens. Secret to my considerable success? I was never daunted.”
Ernest Hemingway was not daunted. He turned his sojourn to Spain, featuring his friend Bill Smith from Michigan and a mishmash of other ex-patriots, into The Sun Also Rises. The novel propelled him to stardom and made him the premier writer for what became known as the Lost Generation. His style became legendary for being long on dialogue and short on adjectives, adverbs and the semicolon. Having learned his craft as a journalist, the result was spare, direct prose focused on telling the story. He got quickly to the question: “and then?” And only stopped when the tale was told.
Hemingway was also known to be a tireless and fanatical revisionist, rewriting, reworking and stripping out unnecessary prose. After beginning the book immediately after the festival in July of 1925, he had his fist working manuscript by the end of the Fall. His editor still felt that “it is almost unpublishable.” In May 1926, Hemingway would again refocus, stripping out detail and deleting the first sixteen pages. By August, after another trip to Pamplona, he finished the proofs for the novel in Paris for publication in the Fall of 1926.
Today, journalists face more pressure to publish quickly than Ernest “Papa” Hemingway ever did. In a 24-hour digital news cycle there is very little time to rework and revise. Hence, we get a lot of information, usually without the full plot or context. Finance journalists usually don’t ask the important question “…and then?” They will leave you (or me) to fish for it.
Take, for instance, a recent Wall Street Journal article that mentioned that interest in the VIX, ostensibly a measurement of short-term market volatility, has risen of late:
“There is a pattern emerging here: A Google Trends search shows the last time interest in the VIX was this high was August 2011, when tumult in Washington over the debt ceiling sent markets tumbling.”
Well, two can play the Google game. A Google Finance search will show that the S&P500 returned over 79% since August of 2011. If it all turned out the same this time around, like Hemingway and his friends, we’d all have a lot to drink about. Of course, it won’t turn out exactly the same. Past performance is certainly no guarantee of what the future holds. But there is no reason to be more nervous than usual about something that last happened in 2011. Here is how to read this story à la Hemingway:
1) Strip out the extraneous information. The VIX hasn’t been this high since August 2011.
2) And then? The bull (market) was excellent.
Papa, I think, would be proud.
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