The Minimalist Short Story: Its Definition, Writers, and (Small) Heyday

Article excerpt

A new type of short story peopled, according to many critics, with motiveless characters involved in meaningless actions, began to appear in American publications, notably the New Yorker, in the 1970s and by 1985 had, some of the same critics said, taken over the market. "... Fiction has, in the past few years, fallen into a holding pattern with what has been called minimalism ...," Robert Dunn wrote in 1985 ("After Minimalism" 53). The minimalist fad, Madison Smartt Bell said in 1989, was so dominant "that nothing else could get through into the light" (Koch et al., 61). Minimalist stories were denounced in scholarly journals, literary magazines, and the New York Times Book Review. The minimalist story, Carol Iannone said, was "a grimly logical demonstration project for the `deconstruction' of literature's pretensions to meaning and range, of its claim to speak a higher and subtler language than that available in popular culture of everyday life" (61); its narrator, according to Charles Newman, was "dragged down by his characters, adopting their limitations and defects" (25); its narrative voice, Grace Paley was quoted by Bell as saying, didn't "come from anywhere" (Koch et al. 47).

Although references to minimalism, generally negative, continue in current short fiction criticism, as in Jon Powell's 1994 article which equates minimalism with dehumanization (651), much uncertainty appears to remain as to exactly what the minimalist short story is: who--beyond Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and one of the Barthelmes--the minimalist writers are or were, and where they were published; when the minimalist short story was prevalent; and whether in fact it prevailed at all, at any time. As of this writing, for example, the most recent edition of Holman and Harmon's Handbook to Literature does not define the word, nor do two thick anthologies of short stories, The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (5th ed.) and Fiction 100 (7th ed.); the glossary in another anthology, The Story and Its Writer, at least makes the attempt, "A literary style exemplifying economy and restraint" (a definition that may not be inaccurate but is also a fairly apt description of many sonnets), and names Donald Barthelme, Carver, and Amy Hempel as practitioners (1595). Mark A. R. Facknitz in Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature divides minimalist writers into two types, formal and social, the "formal minimalist" being "a technician with a taste for clear, colloquial language and uncluttered plots," using "narrow temporal frames, present tense, and first-person narrators while eliminating editorial or authorial intrusions" (714). These traits, however, aptly describe so many stories in the "social minimalism" category (which Facknitz says is also called dirty realism and Kmart realism) that it would seem to be a subset of the former. When asked about the term, specialists in modern and contemporary American fiction often, in this writer's experience, refer colleagues or students to Shapard and Thomas's Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, obviously equating minimalism with shortness; but Sudden Fiction contains almost no minimalist short stories, not even the stories by Carver and Mary Robison, the only generally recognized minimalist writers included in the collection.

In a 1985 issue of the Mississippi Review devoted to commentary about literary minimalism, Kim Herzinger's introductory article names the stories of Carver, Beattie, Robison, and Bobbie Ann Mason among many others--the list is repeated several times, with variations--as minimalist fiction, "work loosely characterized by equanimity of surface, `ordinary' subjects, recalcitrant narrators and deadpan narratives, slightness of story, and characters who don't think out loud" ("Introduction" 7). A few pages later Herzinger adds other traits to the list: compression, "aggressive lucidity," "spareness and cleanness, above all the obvious `craftedness,'" and a "profound uneasiness with irony as a mode of presentation" (14). …