Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature

Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature

Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature

Small Worlds: Minimalism in Contemporary French Literature


Small Worlds examines the minimalist trend in French writing, from the early 1980s to the present. Warren Motte first considers the practice of minimalist in other media, such as the plastic arts and music, and then proposes a theoretical model of minimalist literature. Subsequent chapters are devoted to the work of a variety of contemporary French writers and a diversity of literary genres.

In his discussion of minimalism, Motte considers smallness and simplicity, a reduction of means (and the resulting amplification of effect), immediacy, directness, clarity, repetition, symmetry, and playfulness. He argues that economy of expression offers writers a way of renovating traditional literary forms and allows them to represent human experience more directly.

Motte provides close readings of novels by distinguished contemporary French writers, including Edmond Jabes, Annie Ernaux, Herve Guibert, Marie Redonnet, Jean Echenoz, Olivier Targowla, and Emmanuele Bernheim, demonstrating that however diverse their,work may otherwise be, they have all exploited the principle of formal economy in their writing.

Warren Motte is a professor of French at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature (Nebraska 1995) is his most recent book.


We designate things as "small" capriciously and according to different registers of perception. We may focus on a thing's physical size; on its duration, intensity, or range; on its import, its significance; on the quantity of the elements composing it; or on the simplicity of its structure. What seems common to all of those interpretive moves is the notion of reduction in relation to some more or less explicit norm. Art that insists upon that reduction and mobilizes it as a constructive principle can be termed minimalist.

Minimalism was first identified as a trend in the plastic arts. Centered primarily in Manhattan, the movement included such figures as Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Mel Bochner, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria. Somewhat later it occurred to critics of music that, inspired by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen's experiments, certain young composers like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass had been exploring techniques of reduction and repetition analogous to those used by plastic artists. Thus, the term minimalist music was coined.

In literature one can, of course, argue that the impulse toward economy of expression is a recurrent phenomenon from, say, Democritus to Samuel Beckett. But, more specifically, minimalism as a "school" of writing has been identified only recently, in American fiction. According to Kim Herzinger, the core group is composed of Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Tobias Wolff, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Other writers sometimes cited as minimalists include Elizabeth Tallent, David Leavitt . . .

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