I’ve been reading quite a lot about literary minimalism as I embark on another draft of the novel. It’s been interesting to re-read early Hemingway, for example Fiesta, which is a good example. Minimalism was an art movement formed after the Second World War, mostly in the visual arts, in part as a reaction against Abstract Expressionism. It’s a style associated with two giants of American literature, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway.
What is it? It’s a style of writing most associated with an economy of words and a focus on surface description. It is said that, as a style, it encourages readers to take an active role in creating the story, by filling in the internal lives of the characters rather than being spoon fed by the author.
Fiesta, by Hemingway, is a fantastic example of this. It takes a very close reading to realise that we are being set up in the first book with the barest hints of what I take to be the central tragedy of the novel – that Jake, the narrator, has suffered such a horrific injury in the war that he can never consummate his relationship with Brett Ashley, despite both of them, at the beginning at least, being in love. But these are hints only, we are never told. Just as we are never given any real closure on one of the central themes, which is whether Jake then lives vicariously by ‘pimping’ Lady Ashley out to his various acquaintances, or whether he is so in love he is just following her every whim. Is it bitterness or love that drives him? Or both. We never really find out what Hemingway truly thinks. But perhaps that’s even better.
What it does do, and what I love, is that it does allow the characters to ‘breathe’ inside the reader’s mind. Who are the villains, the heroes. Hemingway won’t tell us. But he hints just enough for the reader to understand that there’s a choice in play, which the reader is invited to make.
The concept of leaving enough room for ideas to breathe is also absolutely part of poetry. If it’s too ‘on the nose’, to borrow a theatrical phrase, we lose interest. But too little context and we’re lost.
I’m sure Philip Larkin would have abhorred being referred to as a ‘minimalist’. He was reluctant enough to be associated with the poetic group known as The Movement, a loose grouping of post-war English poets who saw themselves as collectively trying to avoid ‘excess’ in theme and style in their poetry. But The Movement has some similarities with Minimalism, and as I read Larkin and Hemingway I’m struck by the same feeling as a reader, in particularly a desire to be understood clearly on the surface of the work, to use simple language and directness, and to focus the reader through a very concise grammar and sentence construction. With both Larkin and Hemingway, the effect is very powerful. And I like that both had an artistic worldview that made them consciously write like this. It really does pull the reader into an active engagement with the work.
What are the equivalent literary movements now? Elliptical poetry could be said to be one. I’m less sure in modern fiction. And do we need them, or is modern fiction too fragmented a landscape to have an overall aesthetic? I plan to find out, but am also planning to keep going back to minimalism as a way of letting fiction breathe, even if my own style is quite different.