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Literary Minimalism

In the middle of the twentieth century, a new way to tell stories was born. Gone were the excessive adjectives and metaphors, and in came simple sentences telling stories that represented real life. Here we will look at the rise of literary minimalism and its enduring appeal.

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Literary Minimalism

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In the middle of the twentieth century, a new way to tell stories was born. Gone were the excessive adjectives and metaphors, and in came simple sentences telling stories that represented real life. Here we will look at the rise of literary minimalism and its enduring appeal.

Literary minimalism movement

Literary minimalism is a style of writing which dispenses with elaborate and descriptive language to present a story in a simple and effective manner. This was largely an attempt to present the reader with the facts pertaining to the story. This allows the reader to make their own judgements regarding a character's morals and actions.

Minimalism is an art movement that began after World War II. The movement spanned across many mediums, including; visual arts, music, architecture and literature. The movement was seen as a reaction to modernism. Minimalists' work would often be pared back to its essentials.

Some critics believe literary minimalism originated from American poets such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, who used simple, minimal language in their poems. Others believe that the work of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett held greater influence with their stripped-down storytelling.

The prominent feature of literary minimalism is not that sentences are short and simple but that the reader determines a character's motives. Characters rarely express their thoughts or emotions, so readers interpret these for themselves. The emotional distance between the character and the story offered a new way to present a narrative.

Many minimalist writers wrote short stories, some predominantly, such as Raymond Carver and William Gass. The short story form is suitable for the minimalist style. The literary minimalist style became popular in the 1970s and is still popular today. Popular writers like Cormac McCarthy and Brett Easton Ellis have had their work associated with the literary minimalist style.

Characteristics of literary minimalism

Perhaps fittingly, the literary minimalist style has three characteristics that are simple in their nature. Here we will look at what makes a minimalist story.

Less is more

Rarely do minimalist writers overuse adjectives and adverbs; descriptions are kept short and simple. The aim is to allow the reader's imagination to paint its own picture. This same tactic is used in accordance with a character's thoughts or emotions. It means fewer words and more work for the reader, which is used to enhance the reader's enjoyment.

Simple sentences

In literary minimalism, sentences are kept short and simple. The structure of the short sentence is to aid clarity and also quicken its pace. It would not be unusual to find many sentences without adjectives or commas. The aim of the minimalist writer is to present the reader with the facts of the story and little else.

Straightforward plot

It is not so much that nothing happens in minimalist literature but that the plots are straightforward and easy to follow. It is common for minimalist stories to reflect normal life. The emphasis in minimalist stories is on how characters react to the situation they find themselves in. Plots are kept simple so that readers can observe the nuances of a character's relationships. Readers often see characters develop rather than the plot.

Literary minimalism: examples

Here we will look at some examples of literary minimalism. We will also look briefly at the authors themselves.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)

Raymond Carver is one of the first names people think of when they talk about literary minimalism. Carver was a prolific short story writer whose stripped-back prose made the literary minimalist style popular in the seventies and eighties. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is one of Carver's more famous collections. The collection contains the stories 'Why Don't You Dance?' and 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love', both of which are published in many magazines and anthologies.

The Road (2006)

Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel is so minimalistic that its characters and locations are left unnamed. Punctuation like apostrophes and speech marks do not feature in the prose. The bare descriptions in the novel match the barren world that the man and boy travel through. The pair is unrelated, but the man feels an intense sense of duty to keep the boy safe as they travel across a dangerous nuclear winter.

Sing To It (2019)

Like Raymond Carver before her, Amy Hempel is a short story writer whose name has become synonymous with literary minimalism. Each story in this collection is as short as one page. The stories lack elaborate descriptions yet still present emotionally charged narratives. Amy Hempel's stories are widely anthologised, and she has been writing since the 1980s.

Factotum (1975)

Charles Bukowski's second novel is a somewhat rare example of a picaresque narrative that is also minimalist. The story follows Henry Chinaski, a man who was not accepted into the US army during World War II. Henry spends his time moving from one menial job to another, each ending with Henry being fired due to his behaviour. Bukowski's pared-back prose was little appreciated while he was alive but has become far more popular since the author's death.

Literary minimalism in postmodern literature

Literary minimalism can be seen as a reaction to postmodern literature. Postmodern literature often uses somewhat unusual literary techniques such as metafiction, unreliable narrators and lengthy digressive sentences. Minimalism does not tend to use such grandiose techniques, telling the story simply in an effort to make it as clear as possible.

Metafiction is fiction in which the author makes the reader aware of the fact that what they are reading is made up or artificial.

The unreliable narrator is a technique used by authors in which the person telling the story can not be trusted, either because they are misinformed or deliberately withholding information.

Both literary styles came to prominence in the aftermath of World Warr II. Postmodernism itself was a reaction to modernism and the destructive power of the two wars that had preceded it. Postmodernist literature gives little reverence to reason or reality. Postmodern stories do not always have clear answers or meaning to them. Literary minimalism, on the other hand, is deeply entrenched in real life and aims for its characters to be truly understood.

Modernism is a literary genre originating in the late nineteenth century. The genre chose to reject traditional forms of storytelling. Modernist stories are more self-conscious and psychologically reflective than earlier Victorian literature.

Postmodernism is a literary genre that spawned as a reaction to modernism. Where modernism tried to find reason in the world, postmodernism rejected reason altogether.

Another difference between the two styles is the nature of their plot and worldview. Postmodernist literature is often vast in its scope, taking in many aspects of life and society. Politics, war and culture can often find themselves entwined together with their characters and plot. Literary minimalism, however, tends to focus on one aspect of life and examine it closely. The stories are usually simple and clearly told. Postmodern literature can use footnotes, fragmentation and even books within books to tell its tales.

Criticism of literary minimalism

Some critics find that literary minimalism can be boring or too simplistic. The language used by minimalism is sometimes regarded as basic. Another complaint is that the stories can be known as 'slice of life'- a term for any art that reflects a reality audiences are already familiar with. Some authors wished to distance themselves from the movement, thinking the term 'minimalist' to be reductive. Despite these criticisms, there are also many advocates for minimalism who champion its brevity. Literary minimalism is still incredibly popular among readers and has had a resurgence in the early twenty-first century.

Literary minimalism - Key takeaways

  • Literary minimalism is a style of writing which dispenses with elaborate and descriptive language to present a story in a simple and effective manner.
  • A modern example of literary minimalism is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006).
  • There are three characteristics used in minimalist literature: simple sentences, less is more, and the use of a straightforward plot.
  • Some critics find that minimalism can be boring or too simplistic.
  • Literary minimalism is seen as a reaction to postmodern literature.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Minimalism

Literary minimalism is a style of writing which dispenses with elaborate and descriptive language to present a story in a simple and effective manner.

A modern example of literary minimalism is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006).

Minimalism in literature is when a story is presented using clear, simple language.

There are three characteristics used in minimalist literature: simple sentences, less is more, and the use of a straightforward plot.

Some critics find minimalism can be boring or too simplistic.

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