Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Minimalism - does absence make the art grow stronger?

Many factors go into the production of a story or poem. Sometimes (as in tear-jerkers, say, or porn) one of these dominates, perhaps to the detriment of other factors.

One person's excess is another's lack. An excess of emotion can viewed be a lack of control. An excess of randomness could be viewed as minimal order. I suspect that in literature the amounts of each factor are measured relative to prevailing literary norms, mindful of genre and context. Because so many factors can apply to texts, an absence may well not be noticed, though excesses might well be. However, readers are likely to notice a related cluster of absent features.

Definitions of literary minimalism

"Literary minimalism" is quite a common term, though people used to Minimalism in other arts may be surprised by its usage in literature. In art, Minimalism is associated with non-figurative works, but in literature the term seems to apply to more mimetic works where the minimal amount of literary gloss has been applied.

  • According to Wikipedia, "Minimalism in the arts began in post–World War II Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s". "Literary minimalism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description". Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett are cited as examples.
  • Herzinger suggested that its 'salient characteristics' include - “equanimity of surface, ‘ordinary’ subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don’t think out loud.
  • Phil Greaney writes "I have translated these ‘salient characteristics’ into several more precise elements as they appear in minimalist writing: a reduced vocabulary; a shorter sentence; a reticence towards the expression of a character’s thoughts or feelings; unresolved, even slight narratives which reveal more than they resolve; the use of unadorned language and the rejection of hyperbole; a detached, even ‘absent’ narrator; a more abundant use of dialogue; fewer adjectives and, when used, not extravagant; showing, not telling as a primary means of communicating information; an interest in the accurate depiction of the everyday; and a focus upon the present tense".


In general the assumption is that the audience may need to work harder than usual to see the "artiness" of the work. The audience may need to be more sophisticated - "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system" (Yury Lotman, "Analysis of the Poetic Text"). Fried saw this displacement of the viewer's experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art in general.

Realism, in a minimalist way or otherwise, is queried in The end of realist stories (Alex Gallix).

In "An Introduction to literary minimalism in the American short story" by Phil Greaney other criticisms are cited -

  • John Aldridge’s "Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction" reflects a concern that the minimalist approach was banal, trivial and inconsequential, privileging form over effect: ‘[Minimalism] suspends all aesthetic innovation in favour of parsing out the most mundane concerns of superficial life’.
  • The hostility to Minimalism culminated in 1989, when five critics convened on Minimalism, and under the heading ‘Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism’, declared that it was ‘dead'.

Variations on a theme

Dirty Realism tends to have more lurid content than traditional literary minimalism, but shares its stylistic traits.

The New Puritans group emerged in the year 2000 with a manifesto that included style issues - "We believe in textual simplicity and vow to avoid all devices of voice: rhetoric, authorial asides"; "In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing" but also content-related issues - "As faithful representation of the present, our texts will avoid all improbable or unknowable speculations on the past or the future"; "We are moralists, so all texts feature a recognisable ethical reality". The movement doesn't seem to have lasted long - see Are litblogs making writers risk-averse? (A Stevens).

Specialised Minimalism

The term "Literary minimalism" doesn't seem to have been applied to Concrete Poetry (where words' conventional meanings are reduced). Barthes in "Writing Degree Zero" had perhaps this notion in mind when me saw poetic literature existing only in the "absence of all signs", a medium that expressed new, previously non-existent thought or images by questioning or expunging conventional ones. Neither is "Literary minimalism" applied to Prose Poems (where a major poetry indicator, the line-break, is excluded), Haiku, or Found Texts (where the minimum of literary gloss is applied). And what about "The Red Wheelbarrow" or the Blue Mountain poets, or even Larkin?

What a work of art studiously avoids can form an outline, a negative space around what readers have to deduce. Particular absences may be significant -

  • "For (Pierre) Macherey, a work is tied to ideology not so much by what it says as by what it does not say. It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt", Terry Eagleton, "Marxism and Literary Theory", p.34
  • "To understand a literary style, consider what it omits", Mason Cooley
  • "We tend to define our poets by that aspect of sensibility they actually must lack and strive towards", Jorie Graham, "Denver Quarterly", V 26, no 4
  • "The true artist may be best recognised by his acts of omission", Pater, "Appreciations with an Essay on Style", p.18.

Tactical Minimalism

By using more mundane language and situations, writers might be able to encourage readers to look deeper and wider for the aesthetic value, forcing them to re-calibrate their expectations so that they'll more alert to nuance. Displays of emotion can be all the more powerful for being understated or apparently repressed. However, like Art Minimalism, it can appear rather easy to do. What one reader might think is masterful restraint, another may see as a literary cop-out - the author avoiding the issue.

No comments:

Post a Comment