Things We Find in the Book Section: The Case Against(?) Literary Minimalism
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
A couple of months ago I was perusing the book section of an enormous second-hand department store. In stores like that you mostly get the same rubbish: romance novels for single mothers, ghost-written sports autobiographies, and genre fiction for book clubs exclusive to 60-year-old women. There are also three or four more shelves of books than the collection merits – always. So you can understand my shock and surprise when I came across a crisp edition of Raymond Carver’s celebrated short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Price? Two dollars.
Needless to say, after reading it, I have since pondered the merits of literary minimalism. And let me assure you, it is no straightforward problem. It burrows to the very core of our collective philosophy about literature. One little book – 17 stories, 134 pages, hidden in the aisles of a second-hand megastore between E.L. James and Dan Brown – is as deeply philosophical a text as any since Being and Nothingness.
To say that Carver’s command of language and tone is extraordinary, verging on obsequious, is to really say nothing at all; read a page of “Why Don’t You Dance” or “Popular Mechanics” and you will realise that such an admission is so obvious as to border on meaningless. But it is worth lingering somewhat on the precise and unique skill of his writing, for anyone who has taken even the most basic of writing courses will know that the most difficult thing about writing is to communicate fifty words worth of tone and meaning in twenty-five. (Let this essay be considered a failed attempt to do just that; but then, for most writers who aren’t Carver, it’s always a failed attempt.)
Contrary to the prevailing tendencies of so much “classic” literature – heavy emphasis is to be attributed to those quotation marks – Carver is a stylist of little expressionism. Consider, for example, the free and boundless form of illustration found in works by James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Jonathan Franzen, Émile Zola, the Brontë sisters. In these authors we confront an attempt to make explicit on the page the inner workings of the soul; their method is to elucidate, to explore, to rationalise, to paint with words. Sometimes it results in legendary, unforgettable prose, and sometimes it is laborious and overwrought. In any case, we simply cannot say the same about Carver, who punctuates his sentences with an abbreviated finality that indelibly propels the prose forward. He is, much like the aforementioned authors, interested in prying open the human soul and exposing a certain truth, but rather than fall into ungainly expressionism, he strives for a brisk lyricism that allows the reader to observe and judge. It’s what Norman Mailer means when he says that “a work which is altogether explicit is not art; the audience cannot respond with their own creative act of the imagination.” Terse. Pellucid. This is Carver’s method. This is his style.
And I cannot bear to read it.
I think of writing in strictly aesthetic terms. In fact, I think of all art in that way. What are the aesthetic ambitions of the piece? – that is my first question, and sometimes it is the only question worth asking. Language, grammar, syntax, structure – what choices is the writer making which culminate in the style of the work? Aesthetic is style, and style is nothing if not choices.
So I should like Carver, shouldn’t I? Isn’t What We Talk About… one of the purest examples of strict stylistic adherence in modern literature? On the back of my edition is a quote from Tim O’Brien of the Chicago Tribune. “Raymond Carver uses the English language like a whittler’s knife,” he writes, “carving stark and unadorned prose-objects, paring away everything but the very core of human emotion.” Most of that is absolutely true. And yet I simply could not enjoy the book about which O’Brien is so effusive in his praise.
I have tried to reconcile this contradiction – the popular perception of Carver versus my own. I suppose it comes down to a fundamental question: what makes writing writing?
To state the obvious, the manipulation of language is something only literature can really do. Theatre is the other art form closest to achieving such manipulations, particularly with a playwright like David Mamet who emphasizes the highly scripted nature of his work; whereas cinema concerns itself with the visual; music alters an aural experience; each field uses its own instruments. But there is something very personal, malleable, individualistic, private, even (in some senses) honest about words. Perhaps it is unspeakable (quite the ironic twist), or perhaps, as is very possible, my prior sentence constitutes a very disagreeable claim. I can only speak from personal experience, and that experience has borne out the reality that the nature of words – figurative, symbolic, exclusionary, incomplete – invites the person experiencing the art to put themselves into the work in a way no other art form does, because there is literally nothing there except common symbols. Yes; now we are getting to the essence of the issue – what effect the manipulation of language has on the reader.
So when the aesthetic ambition of a piece of writing is to strip all of the “superfluous” away, what is left for the reader? Is it true that the “core of human emotion” remains intact? I am not so convinced. If we were to believe, like the minimalists would proffer, that a person’s subjective identification with a piece is usually buried somewhere deep beneath mounds and mounds of untamed word-growth – debateable enough as it stands – would we not see Carver as the architect, the landscaper, the archaeologist of the word-dump as opposed to the butcher? For me, this is where, as far as minimalism goes, the schism in conventional wisdom lies: I do not see how the essence of writing remains.
Joan Didion says that writing is a hostile act, because the writer is “trying to impose [their] idea, [their] picture… to make somebody see something the way [they] see it.” Carver’s writing argues strongly for a certain style, just as Knut Hamsun’s does, just as James Joyce’s does, just as Didion’s own does. So in the world in which minimalist writing reigns unchecked, what happens to the lyrical beauty of The Dharma Bums? What do we do with the digressive and untameable Sabbath’s Theatre? Are we allowed to read Dostoevsky? Simply put, language has a power to craft objects of immense aesthetic beauty; to deny that reality in such an obdurate manner, to pivot so immutably towards a certain taciturn dream-state, is to be the teacher explaining what a joke is while “kick me” is taped to the seat of his pants.
This is why I cannot become an acolyte, heaping adoration upon the minimalists as if they were oracles of the holy prose style. I can certainly understand the appeal; the sheer reverence in which the acolytes hold their heroes is no mystery, for minimalism makes of the written word something accessible, curious, self-controlled, comprehensible. But ultimately we ought to ask ourselves: Do we want writing that uses the tools at its disposal, or negates them? Would we heap praise upon a film shot in near total darkness, if the director had deemed the visual experience “superfluous”? (What spectacular, bold, unadorned filmmaking!)
I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about a topic along these lines, best summated as a discussion about the importance of aesthetics. As an aside, she’s the kind of girl adored – occasionally loved (on the part of her male friends) – by everyone who meets her. Many of the guys I know have had individual periods of unadorned infatuation over her; I must confess, in the spirit of catharsis, that I myself have had multiple bouts. In any case, we began talking about art and the intersection of ideology and aesthetics. And the conversation drew on, and as it unravelled and we both began to reveal our philosophies, I began to realise that she and I viewed a piece of art in such irreconcilable ways that I began to grow hopeless. Aesthetics don’t matter to her in the way that they do to me; she cares more about art’s potential to deliver a message, about art as a “useful” vehicle. Well, to that I say, at least Carver prioritises the aesthetic ambition of his stories. Minimalism is no crime; but nor is it the apotheosis of the modern literary movement. My friend and I began talking past each other, and by the end of it I felt we had essentially disagreed without knowing why. Needless to say, I am no longer in love with her. ▲
Elroy Rosenberg is a writer based in Melbourne, with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.