Hemingway vs. Steinbeck

My personal copy of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. October 2012.

My personal copy of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. October 2012.

I worked at a bookstore in college. (For more on that experience, read my post about customer service.) Because I stood in the kiosk in the middle of the floor marked "Information," people often requested book recommendations.

It's hard to recommend books to strangers.

At first, I asked what book they'd loved recently. Based on their response, I'd recommend something in the same genre or with a similar plot. Yet when I followed up with return customers, reviews were mediocre.

I'm not entirely sure what tipped me off. Likely a conversation about Hemingway's writing style and subject matter, which I may have contrasted with Steinbeck's because the two authors were contemporaneous yet diametrically opposed in these areas.

Light bulb.

Everyone read Steinbeck and Hemingway in high school. Knowing which author a person prefers—even if he likes both writers, he'll always prefer one—could guide my recommendations.

Style and subject matter cross genres and eras and plots. People who like Hemingway's spare prose and lone-wolf protagonists surviving harsh environments love Cormac McCarthy, for example. Readers who love Steinbeck's rich language with multiple interwoven, fleshed-out characters experiencing class or domestic challenges will find John Irving of taste.

So I began to ask, "If you had to choose one over the other, would you pick Hemingway or Steinbeck?"

Results? Readers raved about the subsequent recommendations. Even today, if someone asks me what to read next, I ask the question.

Which do you prefer: Hemingway or Steinbeck?