An Introduction to literary minimalism in the American short story

This is the introduction to my successful 2005 PhD thesis, which is entitled: ‘Less is More: Literary Minimalism in American Short Story – Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme’. This is posted here in identical form to the submitted thesis, for which I was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 2006. There are copies of the entire thesis in the British Library and The Open University library in the United Kingdom. I intend to publish the rest of the thesis as a book, available in the coming months.

The introduction serves to contextualise minimalism in general and literary minimalism in particular, providing a brief history of the use of the term and suggest ways in which it might be defined. Since it is a PhD thesis, it also introduces what is to follow (which is not published here).

I hope you enjoy reading it and find it useful. If you wish to discuss the introduction, please use the comments below. You can also contact me at pjgreaney [@]

How ‘Less’ Becomes ‘More’ in Minimalist Writing

Minimalism has been subjected to hostile criticism by major US critics, from its reception in the late 1970s, until the present day. John Aldridge’s Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, for example, is a sustained attack on what he calls pejoratively ‘assembly-line’ fiction, where minimalism is variously criticised for being unoriginal, homogenised and ultimately of little value.[1] His work 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’.[2]

Elsewhere, Madison Smartt Bell inverted the notion that less means more when applied to Minimalism, by suggesting instead that ‘less means less’. [3] 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’.[4]One result of this sustained criticism is that, despite its prevalence in American short fiction over the last thirty years, critical appraisals of minimalism are disproportionately few, and when they do appear, they are largely antagonistic. Consequently, it appears – with the odd exception, as noted below – that minimalism has not been given the critical reading it deserves. Questions remain as to the origins of literary minimalism, the extent to which it might be valued, and its influence upon future literatures. It is the intention of this thesis to address such questions and in so doing, addresses this critical neglect. This will be done through an analysis of three American short story writers who appear at strategic points along minimalism’s timeline (loosely, at the beginning, middle and now): Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme. The notion that minimalism’s pared-down, elliptical and inexplicit aesthetic necessarily inculcates an equally underwhelming, impoverished and ultimately valueless effect upon its reader is in need of reconsideration.

I refute the equation that ‘less’ does indeed mean ‘less’ by suggesting ways in which less becomes more in the collections of minimalist short stories of these three writers. It is my contention that ‘more’ means a richness of effect, an interpretative polyvalency, an interactive vitality which exists because, not despite of, the ‘less’ which is minimalism’s restraint, its tendency towards reduction, its dependence upon absence for effect. My central argument is that minimalist narrative techniques create an interpretative indeterminacy which asks that the reader make a growing contribution to its meaning, culminating in an awareness of what is revealed, rather than resolved, at the short story’s ending. All literature makes demands upon the reader, but this thesis attempts to determine how minimalism makes specific demands in-line with its specific narrative techniques: reading ‘less’ demands that the reader do more, because the minimalist short story refuses to provide easy answers to the many questions it raises.

A renewed understanding of the potential effect upon an implied reader of this literature might go some way towards developing a renewed critical re-evaluation, and in so doing, extend a concomitant sympathy towards it. It has become the task of the supporter of minimalism to defend, rather than praise, its literature. It is not my intention to sustain this defensive position. Rather, I ask that readers re-negotiate their reading strategy to encompass this way of writing and all its techniques, principles and effects; and in doing so re-think the place of the minimalist short story within American literary history.
Minimalism and Existing Criticism
When Raymond Carver told an interviewer of Paris Review that he disliked the term ‘minimalist’ applied to his work, this represented deep misgivings about the value of minimalist writing: In a review of my last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it. There’s something about ‘minimalist’ that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.[5] The ‘smallness of vision and execution’ are more than problems with the term itself, but point to a distrust of its methods, aims and effects. Frederick Barthelme also appears uncomfortable with the term. In his apologetic article, ‘On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans’, he seems happy to defend minimalism in all but name, and elsewhere seems resistant to the term: I don’t like being called a minimalist, which I am called I thinkbecause my characters don’t get up on boxes and shout out their views of the world. This is not because they don’t have views on the world but […] they recognise […] we produce a great many, but they’re not very reliable. So the characters shut up. This pleases me.[6]

These misgivings have been translated into an indifference, a hostility towards or even a rejection of minimalism among some readers and critics. The result is that the minimalist short story of the United States has been either undervalued or even ignored by critics. Consequently, there are very few full-length studies that focus upon minimalism, and only one at the time of writing that focuses solely upon the American short story. This work, Minimalism and the Short Story: Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel and Mary Robison by Cynthia W. Hallett, argues that minimalism develops and extends the tendency in short fiction towards reduction, omission and suggestion. For Hallett, minimalism is merely an expansion of traits already found in the short story tradition: there is little to suggest how minimalism contributes something new and how it undermines or even rejects some of those tenets which are the foundation of the modern short story.

Despite its illumination of the work of its three writers and its promotion of minimalism more generally, Hallet’s argument is limited. Moreover, alone, it cannot hope to address its complexity and so American short story minimalism remains largely misunderstood, unexplored or unjustly evaluated. As a result, fundamental questions about minimalism remain unanswered. Aldridge’s Talents and Technicians is the most sustained attack upon what he terms the ‘new fiction’, within which he includes minimalism. His work contains the most fierce, unbending and provocative critique of minimalism to be found anywhere, but its themes, criticisms and readings are not unique: they represent the influential viewpoint that the American minimalist short story is not valuable. For example, one of his most vicious condemnations is reserved for what he calls ‘assembly line’ fiction writers. Here, he criticises the burgeoning writing programmes, graduate writing classes and generally writing-through-pedagogy as producing uninspired, unoriginal and homogenised short stories. He attacks minimalism for eschewing social concerns, for its apathy, and for the way in which its impoverished method inevitably inculcates an impoverished effect upon the reader.

Several critics have recognised the degree to which minimalism has been the subject of negative criticism of the kind typically found in Aldridge, or its apparent neglect as a result of such hostility, and have attempted to restore some balance. One such critic, Kim Herzinger, the then editor of The Mississippi Review, wrote to several writers, critics and scholars with an interest in literary minimalism, with a view to devoting an edition of his journalism entirely to a discussion of literary minimalism. Published in winter 1985, its aim was to inspire a discussion which might shed some light of what was then a relatively unexamined and undervalued ‘new’ fiction: There are many questions about this work, first among which is, are these writers groupable? […] Individually or collectively, what links these writers with, or separates them from, the irony, the foregrounded language, and reflexiveness of the “postmodernists” of the sixties and early seventies? Are we witnessing a realist revival, or is this “minimalist” fiction something previously unseen? And what makes the work “minimalist” in the first place?[7] Herzinger establishes a broadly agreed definition of minimalism.

Where critics tend to disagree, however, is in their appraisal of what Herzinger calls the implications, or effects, of minimalist narrative techniques. He suggests that criticism should be developing beyond its definition and instead move towards an analysis of effects: to what end is the minimalist aesthetic? He asks: the implications of these characteristics, discussions of why, where from, and to what end, is “minimalist” fiction.[8] In the introduction to the ‘minimalist’ edition, Herzinger variously offers some tentative suggestions as to how these, and several other, questions might be answered. Yet what becomes clear in reading this collection of short essays and thought-pieces, along with the seminal introduction, is that minimalism as a literary phenomenon demands further detailed study. These pieces (sometimes only a page in length) somewhat deliberately act as a taster to a more concerted, thoroughgoing and in-depth study of minimalism, the need for which is plainly implied in his conclusion. Any attempt to discuss what Herzinger calls the ‘implications’ of minimalism demands a smaller, but more penetrating, area of focus. A precise, focused analysis will inevitably shed light upon more general areas, and suggest answers to many of the questions raised by Herzinger et al, including a discussion of minimalism’s relationship with post-modernism, its affinity to realism, and why it might be revalued. I am responding to Herzinger’s call.
Defining Literary Minimalism
Herzinger’s interest in effect is predicated upon an agreed definition of literary minimalism, and, as Herzinger makes clear, there is a stable critical consensus in how minimalism in the American short story is defined.[9] In the introduction to the ‘minimalist’ edition, he outlines a brief but decisive definition of literary minimalism in which he makes that consensus clear: Still, most critics, here and elsewhere, can generally agree as to the salient characteristics of “minimalist” fiction […] “equanimity of surface, ‘ordinary’ subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don’t think out loud.”[10] 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.

It is the purpose of my thesis to expand this definition in terms of the effects minimalist writing makes upon its implied reader. It is common to define minimalism in relation to its genre, as does Chris Baldick, in its appearance in a variety of poetic sub-genres, such as the Haiku, epigram, short sketch or monologue.[11] Here, minimalism is defined as a function of its scale. Yet, Hemingway’s long novel Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, is an example of minimalist writing, but minimalist in a way that differs from that found in the short story. The poetics of short-story minimalism are fundamentally different from those in the novel and my focus is the modern and contemporary American short story.

I look at some of the ways in which short story structure and short story cycles are affected by the minimalist enterprise, and how the conventional short story structure, culminating in an explanatory denouement provides the opportunity for minimalists to thwart expectations by eschewing resolution. Whilst it is vital that these defining elements are variously present in the work of each writer in order that they are classified as ‘minimalist’, they are merely the foundation from which to develop a discussion of their effects. This series of defining criteria connects disparate works, and is an important part of the underpinning of my work; it might be rephrased in Herzinger’s words as how far these writers are ‘groupable’, if at all. This is especially important in the case of Ernest Hemingway, who does not appear as part of the Minimalist phenomenon per se, but whose writing shares a definite similarity with their work.

The Cultural Uses of the Term ‘minimalism’
The term ‘minimalism’ in its wider cultural use makes it own unique demands upon the critic attempting to define it. It has experienced a controversial past, from its beginnings as a cultural-political term, to its contemporary, more diffuse usage as representative of anything ‘sparse’ or ‘uncomplicated’. The history of minimalism as a cultural term helps inform its definition as a literary term. ‘Minimalism’ and ‘minimalist’ were first used in the modern world in politics at the beginning the 20th century. It specifically referred to a member of the more moderate section of the Russian Social Revolutionary Party which opposed the extremist tactics of the Maximalists during the 1905 Revolution. The Times records one of its first uses, on 18 October 1906: ‘The Bolsheviki, now a minority, are almost indistinguishable from the Minimalists of the Social Revolutionary party’.[12]

Such use is now rare, although it did retain some currency in the early to middle 20th century as a political term. Its first application to an artistic discipline was made over twenty years later, and just four years after Hemingway had published the second edition of In Our Time in 1925 (although the term was not applied to this edition at the time). The earliest use of the term was made by D. Burliuk in 1929 when he wrote of the paintings of the Russian-American painter John Graham (1881-1961) in M. Allentuck’s John Graham’s System and Dialectics in Art (1971). Despite its infrequent use in the art world in subsequent years, it re-emerged during the 1960s when its use became increasingly widespread. In a 1967 edition of the New Yorker, Harold Rosenberg noted that: ‘The novelty of the new minimalism lies not in its reductionist techniques but in its principled determination to purge painting and sculpture of any but formal experiences’.[13] Minimalism in the plastic arts caused a shockwave of opinion and remains controversial. A 2004 exhibition by Donald Judd at Tate Modern reflected some the key defining criteria of artistic minimalism, namely, an emphasis placed upon purity of colour, form, space and materials.[14] He is famous for his ‘stacks’, a series of works of columns of coloured Plexiglas blocks.[15]

His ambition here was to analyse the interior of spaces and the ways in which light played a part in the development of this, and other, artworks. They have been defined as minimalist although he was resistant to the term. Its use expanded in the arts beyond painting to apply variously to sculpture in particular, and also to other artistic disciplines, including music, interior design and literature. At the beginning of the 1980s it was applied to the musical works of several composers, including Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Such music is characterised by being composed of an often very simple chordal patterns reiterated during an extended period and with a deliberate reduction of complexity of rhythm, melody and harmony. The term is variously used in architecture and linguistics and its use has become more generalised, to refer to anything which bears evidence of simplicity, starkness or brevity. One of the first applications of the term minimalism to literature was to the work of Samuel Beckett.

The critic Robert Walser said of his work: ‘The spectral ‘minimalism’ of Samuel Beckett, whose writings surely expose the very core of the modern predicament’.[16]Beckett falls outside of my focus upon the American short story, but works such as ‘The Expelled’ and his sometimes minimalist approach to theatre could usefully be compared to my work in order to help widen the scope to encompass minimalism in the Western tradition. This is indicative of how I hope my work might inform the work of other critics interested in literary minimalism, and in the final stages of the conclusion, I suggest ways in which some of the areas necessarily omitted might form the basis of future work. It did not take long before critics began referring to the work of Raymond Carver as minimalist, the earliest writer within the Minimalist phenomenon. In the first edition of Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1985), Carver notes that the term minimalist has been applied to him. Since then, it has been used to describe a method, a principle or style of literary writing, as well as those writers who exhibit such characteristics, beginning with the publication of Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? in 1976 until the present, including Barthelme. The term ‘minimalism’ is problematic for several reasons when applied to writing.

The first is that it there appears to be several other terms for which it is synonymous. In the United Kingdom, following the issue of Granta of the same name, it is variously known by the term ‘Dirty Realism’.[17] Indeed, as John Barth implies in his article ‘A Few Words About Minimalism’ that there are as many definitions of minimalism as there are critics: [Minimalist writers] are 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.’[18] One might add, following Herzinger’s introduction to a symposium on the ‘New Literature’ in Mississippi Review, the following terms have been used synonymously for minimalism: Pop Realism, New Realism, TV Fiction, Neo-Domestic Neo-Realism and even Post-Post-Modernism.[19] There are many more but the point remains the same: minimalism as a literary term is problematic because of the multiplicity of methods, aims and literatures which it may describe. Minimalism has no manifesto, nor have the ‘members’ organised themselves consciously into a group.

The work of Donald Judd, Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Glass (in the plastic arts, architecture and music, respectively) has been described as ‘minimalist’, yet there exists no deliberately organised defining principle or ambition which connects each discipline or minimalist writer. It appears that ‘minimalism’ is a cross-cultural term which stretches to encompass sometimes very different enterprises and this can obfuscate the definition of the term. Although ostensibly linked, for example, by a tendency towards paring down of means, a reductive method and an aspiration towards complexity through simplicity, there is confusion between how minimalism is characterised in each discipline. For example, music and literary minimalism make great use of repetition. Yet, music’s nuanced, subtle changes amongst prolonged repeated phrases is quite different in effect from, say, Hemingway’s quasi-poetic emphasis through repetition, as I will show. This is not to say that a comparison between minimalism in different fields yields little of interest: a cross-cultural study of minimalism would be an extremely valuable and fruitful enterprise. It is another lamentable result of the neglect minimalism has faced from critics – and writers themselves, who neither assembled as a group with a manifesto, nor welcomed the term when applied to their work – that the term has not yet obtained widespread cultural currency.

Here, a distinction should be made between minimalism as an approach, a ‘style’ of writing that is not pinned to a single period; and Minimalism as a historical literary phenomenon that began in the mid-1970s until the present. I call Minimalism a phenomenon (noting its initial capital letter to show it as a proper noun) because it does not imply the collective agreement of principles and aims a term such as ‘movement’ might. Its counterpart, minimalism (without an initial capital letter) is more generally applied to writing that is not fixed to a phenomenon or trend. This makes my contention that Hemingway is a minimalist in that his work adheres to the defining criteria of minimalism, less contentious. I do not shoe-horn him into the Minimalist group, but merely suggest that his work shares fundamental and un-coincidental principles, methods and defining criteria with them. Minimalism and minimalism are crucial terms because they, respectively, summarise the difference between the phenomenon as it appears at specific time in literary history and as an approach to writing which transcends a particular era.

Richard Ford, another writer and critic of minimalism to whom the appellation ‘minimalist’ has been applied, focuses upon its use in literary criticism, which he rejects as ‘[…] a critical term foreign to the work […] It’s at best a convenience for a reviewer too lazy to deal with the good work on its own terms’.[20] If the term minimalism is so problematic in application, why use it? Herzinger tentatively claims it is: ‘what we have’ but I think it is more than that.[21] It is certainly with its problems, but there is an agreement – at least in principle – about how minimalism is defined, and so it is a useful term to employ, even if it is descriptive worth is only partially accurate.

Choosing Minimalist Writers: Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme
My focus is upon a single collection of short stories from each of three writers: Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Raymond Carver (1938-1988) and Frederick Barthelme (1943-present). I consider the following work of these writers: Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925);[22] Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? (1976); and Barthelme’sMoon Deluxe (1983). I have chosen each writer because they represent a pivotal moment within the history of American short story minimalism. Hemingway appears at its origins, whilst Carver appears at its zenith during the 1970s and 80s, a time when Barthelme was publishing his version of minimalism, a version that persists until today and so represents some of the most current trends in minimalism. I have chosen the early work of each writer because I am interested in a more restrained, extreme and even ‘purer’ form of minimalism, which is found in their emergent work. Minimalism does not remain stable throughout a writer’s output, and the tendency for each writer to become more expansive as their career progresses means that their early work is more representatively minimalist.

As a result I have chosen the earliest short story collections from each writer. Carver, too, published several short stories and poems before the publication of Will You Please be Quiet, Please? But this was his first full-length collection of short fiction. Barthelme published two collections, Rangoonand War and War. But as he makes clear in his introduction to the selected stories, The Law of Averages, these were subsequently dismissed as largely irrelevant to his mature artistic project: they certainly do not represent the minimalist narrative technique of Moon Deluxe or the later Chroma, and are more aligned to post-modernism than minimalism. In each case, I provide a more detailed discussion of the publishing contexts of the work under consideration in their relative chapters. This thesis attempts to illuminate literary minimalism by an analysis of the work of three writers carefully selected as representative of historical moments in the development of minimalism. I attempt to provide an outline of the origins and development of minimalism in the 20th century.[23] Hemingway, therefore, dominates its origins and I contend that his work is minimalist, a narrative technique that later Minimalist writers will at least partially adopt. Carver might be said to represent its re-emergence into American letters, a significant ‘high-point’ in minimalism’s development. Finally, Barthelme in some ways represents the logical development of many of minimalism’s more salient characteristics, whilst simultaneously providing a glimpse of where minimalism might be going in the future.

The Structure of the Thesis
The thesis is divided between comparisons of the three writers under consideration, who appear chronologically: Hemingway, Carver and Barthelme. My method is to contrast and compare the work of each writer. In order to make such comparisons as tangible and explicit as possible, I have introduced three areas of interest which are applied to each writer. These areas of focus and their concomitant sections are: the role of the narrator, the uses of figurative language, the function of omission; and the relationship to literary realism. Each section focuses upon the relevant manifestation of the narrator/figurative language/omission/realism in each writer. So, in the case of my analysis of the narrator, for example, I focus upon the ‘absent’ narrator in Hemingway, the ‘narrator-as-voyeur’ in Carver and the use of the second-person narrator in Barthelme. I provide a contextual introduction for each writer at the beginning of sustained discussion, in order to give an idea of the literary or historical concepts they were reacting to, and by doing so, intend that this helps to develop an understanding of minimalism’s place within American letters. The first chapter is devoted to Hemingway and is divided into two parts. In the first part, it outlines the ways in which his apprenticeship influenced Hemingway’s minimalist approach. Because I see Hemingway at the origin of minimalism in the American modern short story, this also goes a long way in outlining the origins and development of minimalist writing. In the second part of this chapter, I examine the application of this approach to his collection In Our Time. Chapter two is devoted to a study of In Our Time in relation to literary history, as a product of modernism and tradition, and through an examination of its realist credentials. It is hoped that, at least for Hemingway’s pivotal work, it will demonstrate how minimalism developed, suggesting several reasons for why it might have developed the methods, interests and principles it has. I address the period between In Our Time and Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? by suggesting some ways it might have become less useful as an idiom for capturing modern reality, and introduce Carver as a writer who resurrected the minimalist form. Chapter three then takes Carver as its focus, and details the ways in which he develops the role of the reader within his work. His most salient contributions of the renegotiation of relationship between reader and text as a fundamentally voyeuristic one; his use of the everyday object as a corollary for the emotional life of his characters; and finally, his use of an incomplete epiphany, which suggests change without realising it. The fourth chapter deals with Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe, a work which, once again, develops the idea of the reader as centred within the text. Barthelme achieves this through the use of the second-person narrator, where the reader is a ‘you’ in the story; through the expansion of suggestive language to include branded objects; and through the wilful sense with which he is content to offer little or no motives for the behaviour of his characters, as a means of exploring the ‘nothing’ which is both the best and worst aspect of contemporary society. One of the most important elements in the development of minimalism is its relationship to post-modern writing. This chapter, therefore, addresses this area by comparing the work of Barthelme to that of his older brother, Donald Barthelme, a central figure in the post-modernist literary group.

In the conclusion, I look at a text which provides a useful counterpoint in terms of time and place. All Hail the New Puritans, a collection of short stories by various writers, represents one direction that minimalism might take and as a publication from the United Kingdom, offers some consideration to minimalism as a wider literary phenomenon. A theme running through the thesis is the relationship between minimalism and realism. Does it represent a re-emergence of a faith in realist discourse, and if so, is such a discourse in any way transformed by the minimalist idiom? Conversely, does minimalism represent a form of realism so far removed from its origins that it might be fairly called a new-realism? My discussion of minimalism’s relationship with realism is informed by George Levine’s conceptualisation of the realist ambition as one based upon struggle: […] the struggle inherent in any ‘realist’ effort – [is the] struggle to avoid the inevitable conventionality of language in pursuit of the unattainable unmediated reality. Realism, as a literary method, can in these terms be defined as a self-conscious effort, usually in the name of some moral enterprise of truth telling and extending the limits ofhuman sympathy, to make literature appear to be describing directly not some other language but reality itself.[24]

In Hemingway’s fiction, the realist ambition is intimately tied to what Levine calls the ‘moral enterprise of truth telling’. For Hemingway, the truth was the ‘sensation’ or emotion created by the primary experience upon the writer. By attempting to accurately recreate those sensations in the reader, he would provide an authentic account of the ‘reality’ of that situation, even if the facts of the primary experience were changed. Moreover, he thought that the traditional models of storytelling and the language they used were no longer suitable for the expression of the modern experience, and especially war, which he experienced first-hand. Rather, he introduced a ‘new style’ based upon subtlety, restraint and omission, in order to capture and transmit those emotions, with the necessary understatement to make them appear less sentimentalised, or merely sensational. This new style was minimalism, yet it introduced a high degree of complexity, in its manner of writing and for the reader. As such, it represents the notion made explicit by T. S. Eliot that literature should become more difficult in order to more accurately represent the complexity of the modern world: We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.[25] Eliot wrote this in 1921, just four years before the publication of Hemingway’s second edition of In Our Time, and is indicative of the kind of ideas that were influencing Hemingway during its writing.

Here, the ‘complexity of the modern world’ is represented throughout the thesis by my analysis of the dynamic between realism and minimalism, found in Hemingway’s ambition to fictionalise historical events in order to create the ‘truth’, as I demonstrate in my comparative readings of his non-fiction and fictional treatments of the same passage. Later, I consider the re-emergence of minimalism, through the work of Carver and Barthelme, in the context of post-modern writing. I contend minimalism was a reaction to the exuberant playfulness, the radical experimentalism and defiant anti-realism of post-modern short fiction. In contrast to Hemingway’s complexity, the work of Carver and Barthelme appears to desire a sense of simplicity, even purity, in American literature, evident in a desire for ‘quietening’ the short story of that time.[26]Minimalism more precisely develops a mode of discourse based upon an intense focus upon the everyday, even banal, aspects of reality: a shoe, a typewriter, a toy. It remains highly aware of the new relationships forged between objects and people in an increasingly consumer-led society, culminating in the influence of branding and commoditisation in Barthelme’s work.

Because minimalism asks the reader to create meaning, it might be concluded that what is made – or interpreted, in the case of literature – more accurately reflects the subjective reality of those who make it. The notion that what the reader ‘makes’ in his or her interpretation is necessarily more realistic, as is it tailored to his or her unique experience, beliefs and understandings. Minimalists reduce the amount of significant realistic detail but make great use of what they do include. The comparison with other realists is telling, for it reveals the extent to which small details in minimalism accumulate to suggest more than the sum of their parts. I compare the work of Hemingway in particular to the work of such writers as Emile Zola or Gustave Flaubert. Their aspiration was to write a fiction so detailed, so minutely focussed, that it attempts to create an exact duplication of the real world. Their realist discourse, then, might be considered a ‘maximalist realism’. Conversely, minimalist writers reduce the amount of detail in their expression of reality, so that certain, significant descriptive elements do not merely become part of the totality of accurate representation, but become representative, and aspire to a form of figurative language loosely based upon the symbolic. This comparison might be considered historically, as a contrast between 19th century realism and 20th century minimalist realism which has, in turn, been affected by modernism. All minimalist writers here struggle to develop a mode of discourse that more accurately captures their everyday reality than that which has come before. As such, Barthelme’s and Carver’s work is no less interested than Hemingway’s in portraying what it means to live ‘in our time’.

Reader Response Theory
This work does not establish a new ‘theory’ of literary minimalism. Rather, it adopts and transforms an existing theory of reader response, applying it to a series of particular works in order to show something as yet undiscovered. In this way, my work might be considered a new approach to understanding minimalist writing. I use the work of Wolfgang Iser as the reader response component of my approach. His work is especially useful because it makes the implied reader the basis for an interrogation of interpretation; secondly, he has done much work on the role of indeterminacy as the foundation for the interpretative act.

The Implied Reader
My reader is conceptualised, or ideal, and not based upon an empirical study of how a control group of readers react to specific texts. Nor does it allude to what might be referred to as ‘reception theory’, in which the reactions of critics become the basis for an analysis. Rather, I use the term ‘implied reader’ following Wolfgang Iser’s definition of the term in such books as The Implied Reader (1974) and The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (1978). In Iser’s model, such a reader is active as well as passive, a status informing the relationship between text and reader. Such a relationship is ambivalent. On the one hand, the text shapes the reader’s interpretation but on the other it is shaped by the reader. A corollary lies in Umberto Eco’s definition of the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts (and more distantly, between Roland Barthes distinction between the ‘writerly’ and ‘readerly’ text).[27] Minimalist short stories are ‘open’ texts because they are based upon omission, which includes the excision of narrative acts of resolution. As such, the implied reader which an open text creates is necessarily an active one.

My work is interested in the ways in which the minimalist aesthetic affects the reader’s interpretation, and in doing so, I take an imaginative leap into the role of the implied reader, suggesting ways in which the story might potentially be interpreted. I recognise that the potential for interpretation is not the same as actualised interpretation, and that the implied reader – one perfectly capable of discerning even the most subtle textual nuance – is a theoretical model. To this end, my readings remain illustrative and ultimately subjective, but are aimed towards the possibility that they are in some ways representative of how a reader might respond to the text before them. Iser’s definition of the implied reader requires some attention: If, then, we are to try and understand the effects caused and the responses elicited by literary works, we must allow for the reader’s presence without in any way predetermining his character or his historical situation. We may call him, for want of a better term, the implied reader. He embodies all those predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. Consequently, the implied reader as a concept has his roots firmly planted in the structure of the text; he is a construct and in no way to be identified with any real reader.[28]

Initially, it seems that the implied reader/text relationship creates an ideal system that is not duplicated in any actual act of reading. This certainly is a problem for Iser’s theory, but it is only a problem insofar as any act of interpretation. Speculation must be made and without a definitive survey of reception, no generalisations of textual ‘effect’ could be made. The implied reader is created by the text and so is therefore able to understand all the stylistic devices that the author uses and the text contains. But if this were the case then there would be no interpretative ‘gaps’: the perfect convergence between implied reader and text would leave no room for such slippages. Or would it? In the case of minimalism, the gaps left are deliberate attempts at revealing more than they resolve. So, a literature that seeks to create interpretative equivocation (such as minimalism) would be understood as such by the implied reader. An implied reader can only understand that there is something missing from the text that it must provide: it cannot fill the gap with an interpretation if the text does not in some way suggest the possibility of a gap. The implied reader is a theoretical concept, devoid of autonomy, which slavishly follows the text. The implied reading is more successful, then, in the case of Hemingway, as he directs the reader towards narrative ‘clues’, in order that they might fill the gaps. However, in the case of Carver and – more explicitly, Barthelme – there is no clue within the text as to how the implied reader might fulfil its meaning. Literature, for Carver and Barthelme, does not require an explanatory function; it is part of life’s quality that there are certain mysteries that should remain unsolved, or at least with no easy answers other than those the reader invests in their interpretation.

Iser and Reader Response
Wolfgang Iser is primarily interested in the creation of meaning as a result of the relationship between reader, writer and text, the basis of which lies in what he calls the ‘phenomenological’ theory: [29] The phenomenological theory of art lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text but also, and in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text.[30] More specifically, his work demonstrates a particular interest in the effect of creating indeterminacy in the fictional text.[31] This he sees as inherent in all fiction but, through the use of specific strategies which he discusses, is more applicable to some texts than others. In his seminal essay ‘Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction’ Iser states: ‘[…] it can be said that indeterminacy is the fundamental precondition for reader participation’.[32] If this is the case, then an increase in interpretative indeterminacy will see a consequent rise in reader participation. Iser makes the distinction between: ‘[…] a text that lays things out before the reader in such a way that he can either accept or reject them […]’[33] and a text that one that remains indeterminate. Minimalism, with its fundamental principles of restraint, omission and reduction, does just that. In this model, it would necessarily demand some response from the reader that would need to overcome the indeterminacy in order to make sense of the narrative. How does minimalism remain indeterminate?

To answer this question, I focus upon one of the central ways in which interpretative indeterminacy is created through what Iser calls Leerstellen, or ‘gaps’ or ‘blanks’. These ‘gaps’ need to be filled by the reader during his or her act of interpretation in order to make sense of the text: [Gaps] give the reader a chance to build his own bridges,relating the different aspect of the object which have thus far been revealed to him. [The reader] fills in the remaining gaps. He removes them by a free play of meaning-projection and thus himself provides the unformulated connections between the particular views.[34] Iser is a useful theoretician for my work because I contend that the textual ‘gaps’ he considers are precisely related to the deliberate omissions made by minimalist writers. Moreover, incomplete and unresolved narratives are not peculiar to minimalist fiction. My interest lies where they are the product of minimalist fiction, a literature which has at its core an emphasis upon reduction, including the reduction of the narrative function to explain.

Defining Absence: Narrative Kernels and Omission
Amy Hempel, a writer to whom the term ‘Minimalist’ has been applied (although, like Carver, she is uneasy to accept), reflects the ways in which absence informs the narrative technique of minimalism: A lot of times what’s not reported in your work is more important than what actually appears on the page. Frequently the emotional focus of the story is some underlying event that may not be described or even referred to in the story.[35] For the critic, this practice poses a potentially difficult question: how does one decide that a narrative event as missing, especially if it is not referred to in the narrative? This is a more difficult phenomenon to explain, because it invites a certain level of speculation on behalf of the critic. I propose the following condition. An absent narrative event is one whose omission is felt by the reader, so that when a story is read, the reader understands something might well be missing. These are significant narrative events are absent from the narrative. Following the outline of narrative and story employed by Seymour Chatman, these significant narrative events might be expressed as ‘kernels’.[36]

For Chatman, there exists a difference between the ‘story’ (the overall series of events, described in no particular manner) and the ‘narrative’, which is the expression of the story in a specific way. A narrative ‘kernel’ is an irreducible element of the narrative and is an essential part of the story. Consequently, its removal from the narrative would transform the story into something quite different (the opposite of which he calls a ‘satellite’, which provide description, colouring, etc. but without which the narrative would be different but the story might still be the same). In my approach, narrative kernels are absent, omitted deliberately as a result of the tendency to pare down, with the effect that the reader must fill the interpretative gap left by their absence. These kernels might, for example, be as varied as missing background information, actual conversations or action, or a general absence of the expression of explanatory thoughts and feelings, including character motive.

Whatever form the kernel takes, its absence undermines the ability of the narrative to explain itself, to render itself open to a resolved interpretation. The effect for the implied reader is that removing pivotal narrative events introduces interpretative ambiguity into the story. The reader is presented with a narrative which is incomplete and therefore unresolved. This notion is not confined to literary interpretation: communication per se is dependent upon a satisfactory level of completeness. When the reader is confronted with a narrative that could be resolved with the inclusion of such pivotal events, their removal creates an ambiguity which the reader must overcome in order to make (more) sense of the story. Yet, the receptor might not know exactly what is missing, only that something is absent, something that would make complete or partial sense to the narrative. This is my approach.

One immediate objection to this is that for Iser, all texts are in some ways indeterminate. However, this is not insurmountable. Although all texts are, to some degree, indeterminate, some texts lend themselves to indeterminacy more readily than others, and some methods are equally more effective. The deliberate tendency to undermine interpretative stability and so create indeterminacy is what is meant by ‘equivocation’. Equivocation does not represent the state of all texts as being ultimately subject to interpretation – this might be termed indeterminacy. Because minimalism is different from other literatures, it has different affects upon its readers: it is the particular effects of a specific literature that I am interested in. A drawback with Iser’s work is that both open and closed texts contain ‘gaps’ which are necessarily present in fiction, as literature can be neither definitive nor entirely complete. There is no way to distinguish between the deliberate attempt by the writer of the text to create ambiguity (such is the case with minimalist writers) and by a text which does not deliberately attempt to be ambiguous.

The theory of gaps, therefore, does not point to an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ text, but merely suggests all texts are the same in that they leave interpretative gaps to be filled. As a result, I use the term ‘equivocation’ to refer to ‘ambiguity’ or ‘interpretative indeterminacy’, and in doing so suggest that it is a deliberate strategy by the writer who understands their omission has the potential to affect the reader. This avoids including reference to coincidental omissions, which are inevitable given that literature will be necessarily incomplete. Rather, I am interested in those elements which appear to have been wilfully omitted and if included, would resolve some or all of the text’s ambiguities. So far, I have used the terms textual ‘ambiguity’ or ‘indeterminacy’ synonymously. Ambiguity is introduced deliberately as a product of the carefully considered omission whereas indeterminacy is a term often associated specifically with deconstructionist criticism, which is not pursued here. So, in order to avoid confusion I have decided to avoid it altogether. ‘Equivocation’ is more fitting as it suggests the process of ‘ambiguity through deliberate means’, the means being omission. Iser’s emphasis upon indeterminacy is therefore useful only so far, and does not address those texts which make interpretative instability part of their method. As such, Iser’s approach is first modified, then gradually replaced as the thesis develops with the notion of equivocation, which more precisely defines the process by which minimalism comes to demand the response of the reader.

Conclusion: A New Approach
Minimalism is a literature dependent upon omission, absence and suggestion to fulfil its aesthetic promise: to reduce, to pare down, and to condense. This is present in many forms, as I have made clear in my definition above, including an absent narrator, a suggestive use of figurative language, and the omission of vital narrative elements, or kernels. The interpretative process benefits from identifying, absorbing and understanding these narrative kernels if it is to provide a reasonably complete meaning. Because such kernels are missing or ambiguous in the minimalist short story, either as a result of one, or more commonly, several elements in collaboration, a closed, decisive and resolved interpretation is made extremely difficult. The theories of Wolfgang Iser are employed to help re-negotiate the relationship between reader, text and interpretation.

Therefore, minimalism has the effect of introducing interpretative indeterminacy. In keeping with the examples used above, I argue that the absent narrator makes it more difficult for the implied reader to find a source of reliable information about how the narrative might be interpreted; the suggestive figurative language only implies connections between disparate elements, employing unconventional objects and actions with great significance; and the act of omission might, especially in the case of the story ending, remove the potential for interpretative closure, ultimately leaving the story unresolved, and its import sometimes highly ambiguous. A series of highly detailed readings of Hemingway, Carver and Barthelme are used to apply the theoretical approach to the work of writers who hold representative positions in minimalism’s literary history. Having established minimalism’s tendency to create interpretative indeterminacy – or ‘equivocation’ as I call it, following its specific intention towards ambiguity – the reader must themselves fill the gaps left by the omission of narrative kernels through their active, sustained and imaginative interplay with the text. The result is that the ‘less’ of minimalism’s tendency to reduce creates ‘more’ in terms of the richness of a reading experience predicated upon a thoroughgoing engagement with minimalism’s particular aesthetic.

By doing this, I might hope to readdress the imbalance in critical hostility and neglect which I referred to at the beginning of this introduction.


[1] J. W. Aldridge Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1992)

[2] J. Klinkowitz, ‘The New Fiction.’ in M. Cunliffe (ed) The Penguin History of Literature: American Literature since 1900 (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 364.

[3] M. Smart Bell ‘Less is Less: The Dwindling American Short Story’ Harper’s 272 April 1986: pp. 64-69.

[4] S. Koch, et al. ‘Throwing Dirt on the Grave of Minimalism.’ Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Prose 14 (1989): pp. 42-61.

[5] K. Herzinger ‘Introduction: On the New Fiction’ Mississippi Review 1985 Vol. 40, Winter, p. 8.

[6] Herzinger, p. 9.

[7] Herzinger, pp. 7-8.

[8] Herzinger, p. 11.

[9] Indeed, minimalism outside of the short story and the United States adopts a similar position but not without exceptions. For example, Russian minimalism has been largely influenced by its origins in traditional folk tales.

[10] Herzinger, p. 11.

[11] C. Baldick The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[12] “minimalism, n.” (2) The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 25 July 2005.

[13] H. Rosenberg ‘Defining Art’ New Yorker 25 Feb, 1967, p. 106.

[14] The Donald Judd exhibition at Tate Modern ran from 5 February – 25 April 2004. Details of the exhibition can be found at:

[15] One particular example of the ‘stack’s is Untitled,1990 and is on permanent exhibition at Tate Modern.

[16] R. Walser (tr. C. Middleton) The Walk: Extraordinary Classics (London: The Serpent’s Tail, 1992), p. 10.

[17] B. Buford Granta 8: Dirty Realism (London: Granta, 1983)

[18] J. Barth ‘A Few Words About Minimalism’ The New York Times New York 1986, December 28, p.1

[19] Herzinger, p. 11.

[20] Herzinger, pp. 8-9.

[21] Herzinger, p. 8.

[22] In each case these collections are the first to be published by each writer. In the case of Hemingway’s In Our Time, there was a previous 1924 edition entitled in our time but it merely contained the vignettes now found in the subsequent 1925 edition, which were largely unchanged and numbered chapters 1-15. These vignettes are vital to our understanding of Hemingway and to the In Our Time of 1925 but they do not in themselves represent a collection of short stories.

[23] My work goes some way in suggesting the contribution made by Hemingway’s ‘apprenticeship’ to the origins and development of literary minimalism. However, this work cannot hope to be an exhaustive survey of this area, given its focus elsewhere but it would certainly prove a valuable and enlightening enterprise for further study.

[24] G. Levine ‘The Realist Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley’ in D. Walder (ed.) The Realist Novel (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1995), p. 240.

[25] F. Kermode (ed.) Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1975), p. 65.

[26] As such the title of Carver’s collection under analysis, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? acts as an admonishment to his contemporaries, and continues Hemingway’s ambition to develop an aesthetic which more accurately captures reality.

[27] See: U. Eco The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1984): and R. Barthes (trans. R. Miller) The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980).

[28] W. Iser The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979), p. 242.

[29] For an excellent introduction to the works of Iser and his place within reception theory, see R.Holub, Reception Theory: A Critical Introduction (London: Methuen, 1984), pp. 82-107 and passim

[30] Iser, W. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1974), 274.

[31] This subject occupies his essay ‘Indeterminacy and the Reader’s Response in Prose Fiction’ in W.Iser Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989).

[32] Iser (1989), p. 10.

[33] Iser (1989), p. 10.

[34] Iser (1989), p. 9.

[35] J. Sapp “Interview with Amy Hempel.” Missouri Review 16 (1993): 82-83 in Hallett, p. 6.

[36] For a full discussion of the terms ‘kernels’ and associated ‘satellites’ see: S. Chatman Story and Discourse: Narrative Structures in Fiction and Film (Ithaca: Cornell Uniersity Press, 1980)


24 thoughts on “An Introduction to literary minimalism in the American short story

  1. A great topic for a PhD. Some of the arguments remind me of the Plain English campaign, which cites the prose of George Orwell and also Winston Churchill as an example of clear, powerful communication. The issue is often that concision is confused with simplicity when it is really about choosing precisely the right word for the idea and no more. Good luck with your work.

    • Yes, I can see your point. Clarity of writing and the ‘truth’ of his subject matter was one of Hemingway’s ‘moral’ aims: he went as far as saying that, given the scale of horror of some of his violent fiction, the only suitable subject was the names of streets, places, the names of people. That said, I argue here that there’s a necessary ambiguity to minimalist work – that is, the language means more than it appears to say. This tension – between the stark declarative prose and multiplicity of meanings that this helps create in the reading – is one of the ‘paradoxes’ of minimalism as I see it. (I haven’t made it clear here – and I will, by way of editing the post – that the thesis was successful.) Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  4. Phil, this makes for a very interesting read. I’m currently working on an MA dissertation which traces various iterations and forms of ‘minimalism’ from pre-Hemingway, through Carver et al, and up to writers like Hempel, Nicholson Baker and the ‘K-Mart Realists’. Can you tell me whether the full text of your PhD has ever been made publicly available other than at the libraries you mention?

    Thanks, and congratulations on a really interesting piece.

    • Adam, thanks for you comment and for the interest in my work. If you send me your email then I’ll send you a full copy of the thesis.
      Your work sounds interesting – perhaps you would be willing to share it by email return (if this abides by your institution’s rules and so on), perhaps when you’ve finished it? All the best, Phil

      • That’s very generous of you Phil, and I’d be happy to send you the completed version of my own work once it’s submitted at the end of August. I’ve just started following you on Twitter, so if you reciprocate I will send you my email address by DM.

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  6. Hello! I tried to look for you thesis in the data base of the British Library, but I couldn’t find anything, I am afraid. I am currently a student at University of London and I am writing my MA thesis on American short stories. I would really like to have a look at your paper. Can you please tell me where can I find it? It would be very useful. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your message. If you can’t find it in the British Library, you can request it – I think – through the Open University. They definitely have a copy. Best of luck, let me know if you can’t find it.

      • To be honest, I don’t know how to request via Open Uni. I tried at various libraries but to no avail.

  7. An intriguing read. I’m currently finishing an MA creative writing thesis in minimalism at the U of Regina, in Canada. Unfortunately, I’ve run into the same problems as you have, with lack of theory on literary minimalism. I was wondering if you’d mind being mentioned in the intro to my manuscript for that particular reason?

  8. Dr. Greaney,
    I greatly enjoyed reading the introduction to your successful thesis. I wish I had known about it sooner.
    A relatively new writer(although long time teacher) I’ve been told I’ve been uncommonly fortunate to have been published as widely as I have. Still, I’m surprised how often my stories are rejected. While I’m aware of the subjective nature of judging a story for publication as well as the difficulty of a relative newcomer gaining entre into some of the better literary magazines. . . nepotism, age discrimination, the dark side of the cottage industry masquerading as the MFA in Creative Writing,and other problems over which an author has little control. . . I suspect a most unique one is that minimalist fiction has gone out of favor.
    Is it possible you could mention a few literary magazines that still are willing to give a minimalist story a chance?
    I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • Dear Joseph

      Thanks for your message. Alas I doubt I can add to your resource of literary magazines – it’s not really my area. But I’m glad you enjoyed reading the piece and wish you success with your work.

      Best, Phil Greaney

  9. Good morning, I am very interested in having access to your doctoral thesis because at the moment I am writing my own about dirty realism. Where could I consult your thesis? very grateful in advance

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