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What Is Literary Minimalism?
Literary minimalism refers to writing with a small, specific focus, usually devoid of flowery, excessively descriptive language and backstory. Literary minimalism prioritizes brevity, allowing the reader to make up for a lack of verbiage with their imagination. Minimalism focuses on slices of life and general context rather than relying on literary conventions, and is sometimes seen as a rejection or rebellion against postmodernism—a form of literature that relies on lofty literary conventions like unreliable narration, impossible plots, and fragmentation.
Origins of Literary Minimalism
Certain academics—like Robert C. Clark, author of American Literary Minimalism—argue that literary minimalism can be traced back to the imagist poets of the early twentieth century. These poets, like Ezra Pound, Stephen Crane, and William Carlos Williams, favored precise, minimal language (like haiku) in their poetry. In the post-World War II era, writers like Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett told stories with simple plots full of matter-of-fact observation, both of which would become a hallmark of literary minimalism.
In the 1960s, the sparse prose of writers like John Barth, Robert Coover, and William H. Gass continued the trend of writers adopting an emotional distance from their subjects. By the early 1970s, this style made its way into American literature with Raymond Carver bringing minimalist fiction into mainstream literature. The writing of contemporary authors like Bret Easton Ellis, Amy Hempel, and Cormac McCarthy is also associated with literary minimalism.
3 Characteristics of Literary Minimalism
Literary minimalism has a number of distinct traits that make it a recognizable form of writing. Below are some of the common characteristics seen in literary minimalist works:
- Short sentences: Unlike the maximalist style of writing, minimalist literature often relies on short sentences that are structured very simply.
- Less is more: Minimalist writers tend to write succinctly, without using adjectives and adverbs excessively. This brevity in both structure and description leads to nuanced work that allows the reader to derive their own interpretations from the text.
- Simplistic premise. Minimalist novels often avoid intricate plotlines, instead centering around more emotional subject matter and character development. While the relationships between characters can be layered, the premises themselves are usually more straightforward.
11 Minimalist Authors and Books
Some authors who exemplify the minimalist style include:
- Frederick Barthelme: Barthelme was a minimalist author widely known for his use of “K-Mart realism”—a term used to describe narratives in American literature centered around the bleak nature of the working-class experience, as a means to explore the more mundane aspects of life. His novel Natural Selection (1990) explores the defeated nature and cynicism of its main male protagonist and how he deals with the malaise of everyday life.
- Ann Beattie: American short story author and novelist Ann Beattie is known for her spare sentences and matter-of-fact tone, delivering a terse narrative through economical use of words, particularly noticeable in her 1980 novel Falling in Place.
- Samuel Beckett: In the play Waiting for Godot (1953), Beckett creates an entire existential narrative with two characters contemplating their days, as they wait for a mysterious man named Godot to appear. Ultimately, Godot never arrives, and his identity is not revealed.
- Raymond Carver: Carver was a short story writer who helped popularize minimalist literature in American fiction during the 1970s. “A Small, Good Thing” is one of Carver’s minimalistic stories that uses short, compact sentences to emphasize the gravity of his narrative. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) is a collection of Carver’s short stories that uses economic language and brief prose.
- Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises (1926) was Hemingway’s first serious novel to make use of short sentences and dialogue. The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is also considered a prime example of “barebones storytelling,” with Hemingway using simple, direct language to portray this brief but emotional narrative to the reader in this minimalist short story. Additionally, In Our Time (1925) is a short story collection by Hemingway that exemplifies the minimalist style.
- Amy Hempel: Hempel is known as a master of minimalist writing. Sing to It (2019) is a collection of short stories containing works around a page long. This aggregation of short vignettes makes use of sparse prose to create a powerful, emotional impact.
- Cormac McCarthy: McCarthy’s The Road (2006) features two characters: a father and son, who navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape together, with only dialogue and behavior to indicate their identities. McCarthy does not employ extensive backstory or endless description to these characters, allowing only their actions to define who they are for the reader.
- Mary Robison: Robison’s 2001 novel Why Did I Ever uses fragmented paragraphs to create a narrative, stringing together minimal words to express the main character’s unhappiness along with a manifestation of her attention-deficit disorder (ADD).
- Sandra Cisneros: Caramelo (2002) by Cisneros is a series of fragmented vignettes united by theme and imagery. She makes efficient use of every word in each story, sharing her collection of memories in a brief yet emotionally impactful way.
- Richard Ford: American writer Richard Ford often anchors his strong, compelling narratives in “dirty realism”—depicting the more gritty elements of life with deadpan language. Ford’s collection of short stories Rock Springs (1987) most exemplifies the minimalist style with brisk prose and a lack of heavy plot details. Ford’s work has won him a series of distinguished honors, including a lifetime achievement award from the Paris Review and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Tobias Wolff: Wolff’s work often centers around straightforward slices of life and honest portrayals of his characters and the challenges they face. Two of Wolff’s minimalist short stories include “Hunters in the Snow” (1987) and “Bullet in the Brain,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1995.
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