Fall 1987, Volume 4.2


John Barth

A Few Words About Minimalism*

"Less is more," said Walter Gropius, or Alberto Giacometti, or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, or Henri Guadier-Brzeska, or Constantin Brancusi, or Le Corbusier or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; the remark (first made in fact by Robert Browning) has been severally attributed to all of those more or less celebrated more or less minimalists. Like the Bauhaus motto, "Form follows function," it is itself a memorable specimen of the minimalist esthetic, of which a cardinal principle is that artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means, even where such parsimony compromises other values: completeness, for example, or richness or precision of statement.

The power of that esthetic principle is easy to demonstrate: contrast my eminently forgettable formulation of it above—"artistic effect may be enhanced," etc.—with the unforgettable assertion "Less is more." Or consider the following proposition, first with, and then without, its parenthetical elements:

Minimalism (of one sort or another) is the principle (one of the principles, anyhow) underlying (what I and many another interested observer consider to be perhaps) the most impressive phenomenon on the current (North American, especially the United States) literary scene (the gringo equivalent to el boom in the Latin American novel): I meanthe new flowering of the (North) American short story (in particular the kind of terse, oblique, realistic or hyperrealistic, slightly plotted, extrospective, cool-surfaced fiction associated in the last 5 or 10 years with such excellent writers as Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Robison, Mary Robison and Tobias Wolff, and both praised and damned under such labels as "K-Mart realism," "hick chic," "Diet-Pepsi minimalism" and "post-Vietnam, post-literary, postmodernist blue-collar neo-early-Hemingwayism").

Like any clutch of artists collectively labeled, the writers just mentioned are at least as different from one another as they are similar. Minimalism, moreover, is not the only and may not be the most important attribute that

their fiction more or less shares; those labels themselves suggest some other aspects and concerns of the New American Short Story and its proportionate counterpart, the three-eighth-inch novel. But it is their minimalism I shall speak of (briefly) here, and its antecedence: the idea that, in art at least, less is more.

It is an idea surely as old, as enduringly attractive and as ubiquitous as its opposite. In the beginning was the Word: only later came the Bible, not to mention the three-decker Victorian novel. The oracle at Delphi did not say, "Exhaustive analysis and comprehension of one's own psyche may be prerequisite to an understanding of one's behavior and of the world at large"; it said, "Know thyself." Such inherently minimalist genres as oracles (from the Delphic shrine of Apollo to the modern fortune cookie), proverbs, maxims, aphorisms, epigrams, pensees, mottoes, slogans and quips are popular in every human century and culture—especially in oral cultures and subcultures, where mnemonic staying power has high priority—and many specimens of them are self-reflexive or self-demonstrative: minimalism about minimalism. "Brevity is the soul of wit." "Silence is golden." "Vita brevis est, ars longa" Seneca warns aspiring poets in his third Epistle; "Eschew surplusage," recommends Mark Twain.

Against the large-scale classical prose pleasures of Herodotus, Thucydides and Petronius, there are the miniature delights of Aesop's fables and Theophrastus' Characters. Against such verse epics as the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid—and the much longer Sanskrit Ramayana, Mahabharata and Ocean of Story—are such venerable supercompressive poetic forms as the palindrome (there are long examples, but the ones we remember are "Madam, I'm Adam" and "Sex at noon taxes"), or the single couplet (a modern instance is Ogden Nash's "Candy is dandy/But liquor is quicker"), or the feudal Japanese haiku and its Western echoes in the early-20th-century imagists up to the contemporary "skinny poems" of, say, Robert Creeley. There are even single-word poems, or single words that ought to be poems; the best one I know of I found in the Guinness Book of World Records, listed as the "most succinct word": The Tierra del Fuegian word "mamihlapinatapei." In the language of the Land of Fire, "mamihlapinatapei" is said to mean: looking into each other's eyes, each hoping that the other will initiate what both want to do but neither chooses to commence.

The genre of the short story, as Poe distinguished it from the traditional tale in his 1842 review of Hawthorne's first collection of stories, is an early manifesto of modern narrative minimalism: "In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency . . . is not to the pre-established design . . . . Undue length is . . . to be avoided." Poe's codification informs such later 19th-century masters of terseness, selectivity and implicitness (as opposed to leisurely once-upon-a-timelessness, luxuriant abundance, explicit and extended analysis) as Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov. Show, don't tell, said Henry James in effect and at length in his prefaces to the 1908 New York edition of his novels. And don't tell a word more than you absolutely need to, added young Ernest Heningway, who thus described his "new theory" in the early 1920's: "You could omit anything if you knew that you omitted, and the omitted part would strenthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood."

The Bauhaus Functionalists were by then already busy unornamenting and abstracting modern architecture, painting and design; and while functionalism and minimalism are not the same thing, to say nothing of abstractionism and minimalism (there is nothing abstract about those early Hemingway stories), they spring from the same impluse: to strip away the superfluous in order to reveal the necessary, the essential. Never mind that Voltaire had pointed out, a century and a half before, how indispensable the superfluous can be ("Le superflu, chose si necessaire"); just as, in modern painting, the process of stripping away leads from Post-Impressionism through Cubism to the radical minimalism of Kasimir Malevich's "White on White" of 1918, and Ad Reinhardt's all but imageless "black paintings" of the 1950's, so in 20th-century literature the minimalist succession leads through Hemingway's "new theory" to the shorter ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges and the ever-terser texts of Samuel Beckett, perhaps culminating in his play Breath (1969): The curtain opens on a dimly lit stage, empty but for scattered rubbish; there is heard a single recorded human cry, then a single amplified inspiration and expiration of breath accompanied by a brightening and redimming of the lights, then again the cry. Thirty-five seconds after it opened, the curtain closes.

But it closes only on the play, not on the modern tradition of literary minimalism, which honorably continues in such next-generation writers as, in America, Donald Barthelme ("The fragment is the only form I trust," says a character in his slender novel Snow White) and, in the literary generation overlapping and following his, the plentiful authors of the New American Short Story.

Old or new, fiction can be minimalist in any or all of several ways. There are minimalisms of unit, form and scale: short words, short sentences and paragraphs, super-short stories, those three-eighth-inch thin novels aforementioned, and even minimal bibliographies (Borges' fiction adds up to a few modest, though powerfully influential, short-story collections). There are minimalisms of style: a stripped-down vocabulary; a stripped-down syntax that avoids periodic sentences, serial predications and complex subordinating constructions; a stripped-down rhetoric that may eschew figurative language altogether; a stripped-down, non-emotive tone. And there are minimalisms of material: minimal characters, minimal exposition ("all that David Copperfield kind of crap," says J.D. Salinger's catcher in the rye), minimal mises en scene, minimal action, minimal plot.

Found together in their purest forms, these several minimalisms add up to an art that—in the words of its arch-priest, Samuel Beckett, speaking of the painter Bram Van Velde—expresses "that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express—together with the obligation to express." But they are not always found together. There are very short works of great rhetorical, emotional and thematic richness, such as Borges's essential page, "Borges and I"; and there are instances of what may fairly be called long-winded minimalism, such as Samuel Beckett's stark-monumental trilogy from the early 50's: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable. Parallels abound in the other arts: the miniature, in painting, is characteristically brimful (miniaturism is not minimalism); Joseph Cornell's little boxes contain universes. The large paintings of Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman, on the other hand, are as undetailed as the Washington Monument.

The medieval Roman Catholic Church recognized two opposite roads to grace: the via negativa of the monk's cell and the hermit's cave, and the via affirmativa of immersion in human affairs, of being in the world whether or not one is of it. Critics have aptly borrowed those terms to characterize the difference between Mr. Beckett, for example, and his erstwhile master James Joyce, himself a maximalist except in his early works. Other than bone-deep disposition, which is no doubt the great determinant, what inclines a writer—sometimes almost a cultural generation of writers—to the Negational Path?

For individuals, it may be by their own acknowledgment largely a matter of past or present personal circumstances. Raymond Carver writes of a literary apprenticeship in which his short poems and stories were carved in precious quarter-hours stolen from a harrowing domestic and economic situation; though he now has professional time aplenty, the notion besets him that should he presume to attempt even a short novel, he'll wake to find himself back in those wretched circumstances. An opposite case was Borges's: his near-total blindness in his later decades obliged him to the short forms that he had elected for other, nonphysical reasons when he was sighted.

. . .

To account for a trend, literary sociologists and culture watchers point to more general historical and philosophical factors—not excluding the factor of powerful models like Borges and Beckett. The influence of early Hemingway on Raymond Carver, say, is as apparent as the influence of Mr. Carver in turn on a host of other New American Short-Story writers, and on a much more numerous host of apprentices in American college fiction-writing programs. But why this model rather than that, other than its mere and sheer artistic prowess, on which after all it has no monopoly? Doubtless because this one is felt, by the writers thus more or less influenced, to speak more strongly to their condition and that of their readers.

And what is that condition, in the case of the cool-surface realist-minimalist storytellers of the American 1970's and 80's? In my conversation with them, my reading of their critics both positive and negative and my dealings with recent and current apprentice writers, I have heard cited, among other factors, these half-dozen, ranked here in no particular order:

*Our national hangover from the Vietnam War, felt by many to be a trauma literally and figuratively unspeakable. "I don't want to talk about it" is the characteristic attitude of "Nam" veterans in the fiction of Ann Beattie, Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason—as it is among many of their real-life counterparts (and as it was among their numberless 20th-century forerunners, especially after the First World War). This is, of course, one of the two classic attitudes to trauma, the other being its opposite, and it can certainly conduce to hedged, nonintrospective, even minimalist discourse: one remembers Hemingway's early story "Soldier's Home."

*The more or less coincident energy crisis of 1973-76, and the associated reaction against American excess and wastefulness in general. The popularity of the subcompact car parallels that (in literary circles, at least) of the subcompact novel and the minifiction—though not, one observes, of the miniskirt, which had nothing to do with conserving material.

*The national decline in reading and writing skills, not only among the young (including even young apprentice writers, as a group), but among their teachers, many of whom are themselves the product of an ever-less-demanding educational system and a society whose narrative-dramatic entertainment and tastes come far more from movies and television than from literature. This is not to disparage the literacy and general education of those writers mentioned above, or to suggest that the great writers of the past were uniformly flawless spellers and grammarians, of wide personal literary culture. Some were, some weren't; some of today's are, some aren't. But at least among those of our aspiring writers promising enough to be admitted into good graduate writing programs—and surely they are not the inferior specimens of their breed—the general decline in basic language skills over the last two decades is inarguable enough to make me worry in some instances about their teaching undergraduates. Rarely in their own writing, whatever its considerable other merits, will one find a sentence of any syntactical complexity, for example, and inasmuch as a language's repertoire of other-than-basic syntactical devices permits its users to articulate other-than-basic thoughts and feelings, Dick-and-Jane prose tends to be emotionally and intellectually poorer than Henry James prose. Among the great minimalist writers, this impoverishment is elected and strategic: simplification in the interest of strength, or of some other value. Among the less great it may be faute de mieux. Among today's "common readers" it is pandemic.

*Along with this decline, an ever-dwindling readerly attention span. The long popular novel still has its devotees, especially aboard large airplanes and on beaches; but it can scarcely be doubted that many of the hours we bourgeois now spend with our televisions and video cassette recorders, and in our cars and at the movies, we used to spend reading novels and novellas and not-so-short stories, partly because those glitzy other distractions weren't there and partly because we were more generally conditioned for sustained concentration, in our pleasures as well as in our work. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil was complaining by 1930 (in his maxi-novel The Man Without Qualities) that we live in "the age of the magazine," too impatient already in the twitchy 20's to read books. Half a century later, in America at elast, even the large-circulation magazine market for fiction had dwindled to a handful of outlets; the readers weren't there. It is a touching paradox of the New American Short Story—so admirably straightforward and democratic of access, so steeped in brand names and the popular culture—that it perforce appears mainly in very small-circulation literary quarterlies instead of the likes of Collier's, Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post. But The New Yorker and Esquire can't publish everybody.

*Together with all the above, a reaction on these authors' part against the ironic, black-humoristic "fabulism" and/or the (sometimes academic) intellectuality and/or the density, here byzantine, there baroque, of some of their immediate American literary antecedents: the likes of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis and William Gass, John Hawkes, Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut (and, I shall presume, myself as well). This reaction, where it exists, would seem to pertain as much to our successors' relentless realism as to their minimalism: among the distinguished brothers Barthelme, Donald's productions are no less lean than Frederick's or the up-and-coming Steven's; but their characteristic material, angle of attack and resultant flavor are different indeed. The formal intricacy of Elder Brother's story "Sentence," for example (a single nine-page nonsentence), or the direct though satirical intellectuality of his "Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel," are as foreign to the K-Mart Realists as are the manic flights of Gravity's Rainbow. So it goes: The dialogue between fantast and realist, fabulator and quotidianist, like the dialogue between maximalist and minimalist, is as old as storytelling, and by no means always adversary. There are innumerable combinations, coalitions, line-crossings and workings of both sides of the street.

*The reaction against the all but inescapable hyperbole of American advertising, both commercial and political, with its high-tech manipulativeness and glamorous lies, as ubiquitous as and more polluted than the air we breathe. How understandable that such an ambiance, together with whatever other items in this catalogue, might inspire a fiction dedicated to homely, understated, programmatically unglamorous, even minimalistic Telling It Like It Is.

That has ever been the ground inspiration, moral-philosophical in character, of minimalism and its kissing cousin realism in their many avatars over the centuries, in the fine arts and elsewhere: the feeling that the language (or whatever) has for whatever reasons become excessive, cluttered, corrupted, fancy, false. It is the Puritans' reaction against baroque Catholicism; it is Thoreau's putting behind him even the meager comforts of the village of Concord.

To the Lost Generation of World War I survivors, says one of their famous spokesmen (Frederic Henry in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms), "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene." Wassily Kandinsky said he sought "not the shell, but the nut." The functionalism of the Bauhaus was inspired in part by admiration for machine technology, in part by revulsion against the fancy clutter of the Gilded Age, in language as well as elsewhere. The sinking of the elegant Titanic has come to symbolize the end of that age, as the sight of some workmen crushed by a falling Victorian cornice symbolized for young Frank Lloyd Wright the dead weight of functionless architectural decoration. Flaubert raged against the blague of bourgeois speech, bureaucratic speech in particular; his passion for the mot juste involved far more subtraction than addition. The baroque inspires its opposite: after the excesses of scholasticism comes Descartes's radical reductionism—let us doubt and discard everything not self-evident and see whether anything indubitable remains upon which to rebuild. And among the scholastics themselves, three centuries before Descartes, William of Ockham honed his celebrated razor: Entia non sunt multiplicanda ("Entities are not to be multiplied").

In short, less is more.

Beyond their individual and historically local impulses, then, the more or less minimalist authors of the New American Short Story are re-enacting a cyclical correction in the history (and the microhistories) of literature and of art in general: a cycle to be found as well, with longer rhythms, in the history of philosophy, the history of the culture. Renaissances beget Reformations, which then beget Counter-Reformations; the seven fat years are succeeded by seven lean, after which we, no less than the people of Genesis, may look forward to the recorrection.

For if there is much to admire in artistic austerity, its opposite is not without merits and joys as well. There are the minimalist pleasures of Emily Dickinson—"Zero at the Bone"—and the maximalist ones of Walt Whitman; the low-fat rewards of Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing and the high-calorie delights of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. There truly are more ways than one to heaven. As between minimalism and its opposite, I pity the reader—or the writer, or the age—too addicted to either to savor the other.

Copyright © 1986 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

Weber Studies does not ordinarily publish previously published material. We have made an exception in the case of this essay for two reasons. The essay was specially written for and presented at the First National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State College on l7 April l986. Secondly, the topic presented herein is important enough to warrant republication for our readers.