Tuesday, December 15, 2009


A World of Opposites by *hotburrito2

Last night I took yet another fabulous seminar at Grub Street, this time taught by author Tim Horvath. This one was entitled, More AND Less: Varieties of Minimalism and Maximalism. Here is the class introduction:
... do we side with Blake, who said, "The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom," or William of Occam, who stated, "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem," translated as "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily"? What is necessary? Why do writers choose to seek out excess or simplicity as sources of wisdom? Does each of us have an innate tendency or affinity for one or the other, or can we locate our inner minimalist and maximalist? Can they get along -- can they be reconciled, divvy up the turf, work together or alternate shifts?
Tim argued, and I agree, that this is an issue at the heart of the act of writing; that all writing and editing comes down to adding or subtracting words from the story. Inhaling and exhaling.

I am a minimalist. Reading the agent blogs, I felt like the only person on earth who was struggling to add words to get to the 80-100K word count sweet spot. I love editing and dread first drafts. My all-time favorite writer is Hemingway. By contrast, the writing of David Foster Wallace makes me angry; I mean I actually physically start to feel vibrating rage. His novels are just longer versions of the kind of detailed garbage I wrote when I was in 9th grade, and hadn't done the reading for the assignment, but needed to snow the stupid teachers so I'd still get an A. It's self-indulgent, if not outright masturbatory, and I don't understand why people think it deserves acclaim. I just. don't. get it. He can take his footnotes and shove them.

Whoa. Sorry. That just came out.

Despite these obviously strong feelings on the subject of minimalism, my all-time favorite living writer is John Irving, who gets no charge whatsoever out of authors like Hemingway (yes, I realize that many people hate Ernest more than I hate DFW) and instead prefers the more luxurious Dickensian writing. I enjoy Tolkien's epic fantasies and Stephen King's 500-page oeuvres. And when I was writing my own novel, I kept wondering, "How is that that I enjoy so much reading this 'extraneous' material, the scenes that don't necessarily move the story forward but that certainly shine more light on the characters and settings... and yet when I try to write it, it feels like needless 'filler'?"

Now you know why I signed up for this seminar within minutes of reading the course description.

In class we read excerpts of work by "Team Minimalist"* and "Team Maximalist."** We talked about the elements that made each piece lean more towards one side or the other -- vocabulary, punctuation, sentence/paragraph length, use of descriptive language and imagery, even subject matter. And then we did an exercise, writing the same scene in each style.

This, my friends, was extremely cool. You need to try it.

I was amazed by how little the "voice" of each piece changed between versions. I was impressed by how each version clearly had stylistic benefits to offer.

And I think that, as an exercise, the technique has great potential for rough drafts. Write against your usual style: minimalists might be able to extract more information about the story they are trying to tell (that they may not have even realized was missing from the first version), or perhaps they will discover a single vivid and vibrant sentence that must be retained for the final draft. Maximalists may find themselves forced to focus more closely on the heart of the scene, and be able to use that knowledge to make the overall piece even more targeted and rich.

WHICH ARE YOU? Do you tend to read the same style that you write? And, if you try this "same scene, two styles" method, please report back on how it goes for you! I think this may be my new technique for getting unstuck/defeating writers' block.

* Captain: Raymond Carver; Players: Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme,
Mary Robison, Sandra Cisneros, Marguerite Duras, Cormac McCarthy of The Road; Hall of Famer: Samuel Beckett; Coach: Gordon Lish.

** Captain: David Foster Wallace; Players: Rick Moody, Salman Rushdie, Nicholson Baker of The Mezzanine, Annie Dillard, Normon Rush, Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian; Hall of Famer: James Joyce; Coach: Paul West.


  1. Very interesting I will have to try it. My first reaction is to place myself in the Maximalist camp but I see you placed Cormac McCarthy in both and thats where I think I often am.

  2. I experimented with it on my blog and feel much more comforatable and natural with the maximalist voice.

    I link back here to your post too.

  3. Minimalist, mostly. I do try to push myself to get to 80k (heck, 70k) on a first draft. In later drafts, I find things that need more explaining or scenes that need adding (and scene setting, I usually leave that out unless it's really important in the first draft).

    On the other hand, I'm still working out what scenes to keep, what to summarize, what to condense, etc., so I do lose a lot of words, too, in several subsequent draft rounds.

  4. Very interesting piece. My only problem is that i am not quite sure which type I am!

    Kate x

  5. I have to admit, I enjoy sprawling epics, mainly because I love to read and hate it when a good book ends. I also love Hemingway. For me, it's all about whether or not something is gratuitous. If it's trying to be minimalist or trying to be maximalist, just for the sake of style, I'm annoyed. It has to work with the setting, story, and characters.

  6. I'm a little of both. I think? :) Still trying to figure it out. I'm no where near 80k. I'm still in training wheels. I do enjoy reading posts like these. They're definitely a big help to little ol' me.

  7. "self-indulgent... masturbatory..." *snarf* *snort* Ha!

    I'm in the same boat with you, good lady: Hemingway, with all his faults and flaws, is one of my faves also.

    I, too, write lean. Things like setting and character descriptions often bore me. That said, I appreciate lyrical, descriptive writing too. An exercise in writing longer (a la the maximalist style) might be good for me.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  8. I think I'm a maximalist who tries to write like a minimalist. By that, I mean that I don't like long, intricate descriptions of scene - and have trouble writing them - and I try to get to the point, but I never have trouble with words...I think I end up being a maximalist when I write dialogue, and a minimalist otherwise.

  9. This might be the exercise for me. I tend to flutter on the side of maximalist! Less can be a value that I am lacking.

  10. I think I tend to lean towards the max! I have already cut 20,000 words from my memoir since I first wrote it. There are more to go.

  11. I don't necessarily like to read slow, meandering, excessively verbose work, but I find that in first draft my stuff tends that direction. Having a minimalist like Simon (who commented above) in my crit group has helped me work toward better balance. I can include the settings and descriptions, but they have to pull their weight in foreshadowing, characterization, and setting up future plot events.

  12. I typically find myself right in the middle. I can be a minimalist, but not as much as someone in my crit group. And I can write long sentences, but certainly not epics.
    I think I tend to be a maximalist when I'm describing settings etc and a minimalist during action.

  13. I think I am a minimalist as a reader and writer, with exceptions. But I like your "teams" and will read them with the comparison in mind.

  14. There can be such vibrance and power in minimalism. When you carve away the roundabout nonsense, you're left with pure strength.

  15. I think there's a misunderstanding that minimalism and maximalism are either/or choices within the realm of contemporary realism. In fact, minimalism is a modernist form, and maximalist is a post-modernist form. Hemingway's minimalism in no way resembles Carver's minimalism, as Hemingway made use of negative space whereas Carver had Gordon Lish deleting every other word Carver wrote down. There was deliberateness in Hemingway's method, wherein each word included carried multiple meaning, each object mentioned attaining greater meaning because of all the words not mentioned. With Carver, it was just a prose style. Maximalism is a whole other beast and one that belongs to the postmodernist. There is a HUGE difference between Wallace's Infinite Jest, his digressions and discordant dialog absurd moments and multiple experimental forms, or Thomas Pincheon's equally deliberate digressive styles with multiple notes, paths, etc, versus the mild Franzen who just happens to write long tomes. I'm sorry but I just don't see Franzen as a maximalist except in the sense that his prose is not minimalist, but so what? It's not either/or. And you need all the dysfunctions and absurdities of the postmodern styles to call yourself a maximalist. Please stop spreading this misunderstanding. There is enough confusion already going around with amateur writers writing at a 13 year old level and calling it minimalism. There is a lot more to it than just sentences. Let's talk about negative space, objective correlative, and all those other techniques that one must master in order to be honestly considered a minimalist.