Monday, January 24, 2011

Macho minimalism

From Adam Haslett's review of Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One:

Though never explicitly political, The Elements of Style is unmistakably a product of its time. Its calls for "vigour" and "toughness" in language, its analogy of sentences to smoothly functioning machines, its distrust of vernacular and foreign language phrases all conform to that disciplined, buttoned-down and most self-assured stretch of the American century from the armistice through the height of the Cold War. [....]

The terse, declarative sentence in all its masculine hardness routed the passive involutions of a higher, denser style. (James, from "The Altar of the Dead": "He had a mortal dislike, poor Stransom, to lean anniversaries, and loved them still less when they made a pretence of a figure"; Hemingway, from "A Way You'll Never Be": "These were the new dead and no one had bothered with anything but their pockets.") As a result, pared-down prose of the sort editor Gordon Lish would later encourage in Raymond Carver became our default "realism." This is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to "omit needless words" (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem. [Bold type mine.]

Speak it, brother. The imperative to cut, or pare (a more precise evocation, somehow), too often means shaving away the great weirdnesses of thought and emotion that make literary fiction what it is. Cutting as an aesthetic practice can mean hacking through the jungle rather than exploring, or even getting lost--which takes just as much fortitude, if not more. (Ask Werner Herzog, not a minimalist.)

Style and content are not separate. Style and content and process and structure are all of a piece. Some stories will bring about their own cutting, in due time; but others won't even come into being if we cling to minimalism as a principle. It feeds the dreaded editor-in-your-head, who won't let you say what you want to say in the first place, and is no doubt a product of Cold War-era psychology anyway.

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