The Tip of the Iceberg

And what lies beneath it

Hemingway, in his 1958 Paris Review Interview, says:

‘I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it will only strengthen your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not now it then there is a hole in the story.’

-(p57, The Paris Review Interviews, vol I, Gourevitch, Picador,2006)

Hemingway’s metaphorical iceberg has been on my mind recently. I mentioned it in a review of Kurt Tidmore’s short story collection All The Things You Are (posted on BHDandMe’s blog  on 04/03/20). His story, Inventory, which is a simple, eponymous list, catalogues the possessions, events, memories, hopes and fears of a single life. Each item implies and evokes more than itself, and prompts the reader to imagine its origins, causes and consequences along with the nature of the experience of having been in possession of it.

What Hemingway seemed to mean is that for everything that is written down in a story there will be much more that is implied by the writer or assumed by the reader. That bulk, which he calls ‘the iceberg’, both creates and governs the way the visible tip will appear, how it will move and how stable it will be.

Kurt’s story without sentences or narrative sequences is an extreme example of the iceberg tip, but Hemingway wasn’t writing about unusual experimental stories. His theory was for story in general.

I have found myself becoming increasingly aware of and concerned with the unseen iceberg in my own stories and with how I need to shape it as well as the visible tip. More than that, I begin to realise that it is the iceberg itself that will suggest and perhaps reveal the true intent of the story.

My recent prize-winning story, The Last Snowfall, which you can access on the Strands Flash Fiction competition results page, is I think, such a story. In this flash fiction an old man types into his journal his unease with the telling of story in type as opposed to voice. He commits to his digital journal the account of a typed, presumably digital, story he has told to and online conversation he has had with his grandchild.

The iceberg, if there is one, might be the unspecified ‘when’ of his typing, that of the time at which the story he tells took place, the ‘when’ of the normality that he looks back to with nostalgia, and the ‘now’ of our reading.

The story he tells, might make us think of the title’s ‘last snowfall’, but he points out that the landscape over which that storm rolled is now under water, thus placing it, and his past, by implication, in our future. These implied ‘thens’ and ‘nows’ form the iceberg that governs the reader’s perception of the closing of the story. At this point the conversation is broken off because something exciting and new has come up in the grandchild’s life. The child has given excuses in terms that show our present normality as a novelty revision of their past, an idea that has been foreshadowed earlier in the piece. The final sentence – the point of a short story in my opinion – sees the old man reflecting upon their different uses of the word ‘normality’, the reader’s understanding of which will depend upon the iceberg, or the ‘holes’, whichever I have actually created.

The function of such an iceberg would be to shift the focus of the story from its events to the issues raised by them. Hemingway may have been more concerned with the credibility of the story depending on the iceberg, but the two ideas are not in conflict. In A.E.Coppard’s tale, Weep Not My Wanton, the true state of rural England, rather than the ‘romantic notion’ that he both describes and dismisses in the opening paragraph, is the iceberg. Its truth is not described though, for Coppard expects the reader to know it. He only has to indicate its relevance to the story for the knowing reader to feel its power.

Had Coppard himself not known that truth, the ‘holes’ that Hemingway warned of might have been plain to the reader, making the story seem unlikely or even unbelievable. The same must be true if the reader did not know.

So the iceberg is not simply a creation by implication of the author’s, but may also be a shared knowledge of the reality that the story is located in, in place and time. Just as each consecutive word in a story contextualises those that follow and re-contextualises those that preceded it so the wider perceptions of both author and reader will contextualise the story in the guise of Hemingway’s iceberg.

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