Wednesday, December 16, 2009

So what IS minimalism/maximalism?

Did you read yesterday's More/Less post and not know which camp you fell into... if any? You are not alone.

Minimalism and maximalism are fluid and overlapping. Take the above photo as an example: is the desert a minimalist image or maximalist? It's minimalist because, well, there's nothing but sand. And it's maximalist because of the great expanses of that sand, the sheer enormity of it, and the way the wind can make that sand into waves, the constant motion of the surface...

Sometimes it's easy to figure out. Let's take a look at why instructor Tim Horvath chose Raymond Carver as the captain of "Team Minimalist" and David Foster Wallace as the captain of "Team Maximalist":

I am sitting over coffee and cigarette's at my friend Rita's and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.
-from Carver's Fat (short story)
If it's odd that Mario Incandenza's first halfway-coherent film cartridge -- a 48-minute job shot three summers back in the carfeully decorated janitor-closet of Subdorm B with his head-mount Bolex H64 and foot-treadle -- if it's odd that Mario's first finished entertainment consists of a film of a puppet show -- like a kids' puppet show -- then it probably seem ever odder that the film's proven to be way more popular with the E.T.A.'s adults and adolescents than it is with the woefully historically underinformed children it had first been made for.
-from Wallace's Infinite Jest (novel)

Most of the differences will probably leap out at you immediately, but let's compare and contrast a few points:
  • Sentence length. Duh.
  • Paragraph length. In this section, Carver's paragraphs are only a few words long. The Wallace paragraph (that's just the first sentence of it) ends up taking most of a page.
  • Descriptive language. Carver tells us "coffee and cigarettes." If Wallace wrote his own version of the first story, he would likely tell us which brand and flavor, and possibly the historical origins of the coffee and cigarettes in question.
  • Vocabulary. "I am telling her about it" vs. "...woefully historically underinformed children..." And it's not just the length of the words, it's the combinations: if Carver wrote his own version of the second story, there is no way he would put two adverbs and an adjective in front of the word "children."
  • Punctuation. You'll tend to see a lot more semi-colons; em dashes -- ellipses ... and (parentheticals) in maximalist prose.
There are pros and cons to each method:

There's sometimes an air of mystery in minimalist prose. By choosing not to describe every single thing in a story, it leaves more room for the reader to bring his own experiences to the table (I know what coffee is, but "Bolex H64" gives me no useful information at all, it's just a label). And authors can use ambiguity to their advantage to tell a story that leaves the readers thinking. Of course, if they get it wrong, the reader just ends up confused from too little information.

The language of maximalist prose has the potential for cinematic clarity and vividness. There's more flexibility to create different rhythms when you're not limited to short words and short sentences. But if the author gets it wrong, the reader may end up exhausted, or worse, bored.

Please note that these are extremes. Like our desert, certain pieces of writing can be both min. and max. And I think the ability to play with both in the same story gives a writer a lot of power. If Carver suddenly described some item in extravagant detail, you would bloody well notice. And if Wallace dropped in a sentence with only 6 words, you'd stop dead exactly where he wanted you to.

Who are your favorite min. and max. authors? Who did you hate? Can you identify where they went wrong for you, or are you still at a loss?

And, for extra credit, here's a contest entry in BoingBoing's genre mash-up competition that highlights some of these issues: David Foster Wallace does Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants. Enjoy!


  1. I love Carver and also "Hills Like White Elephants." I remember thinking this story was genius when I was in high school and all of my peers were like, huh?

    By the way, I LOVE the wonderful pictures you pick out for each post.

  2. Cool post. Mixing it up is hard, but worth it I think. I am still trying. :)

  3. I too, admire "Hills Like White Elephants", and Hemingway's style in general.

    It's funny you write about this, because sometimes, when I read author's that are way more descriptive than I tend to be, I get a little insecure. But then, I am somewhat minimalist by nature, and that's that.

  4. I am a big fan of the 1980s minimalists--Carver, Hempel, Beattie, Moore. Self-Help by Moore is one of my favorites.

    Like you, I don't have the patience for David Foster Wallace. I can't imagine reading Infinite Jest. Did you read the New Yorker article about him that came out last June (or somewhere around there)? That helped me understand his appeal and made me appreciate maximalism as a writing philosophy. He was openly rejecting the minimalist writing that was so popular in the '80s; he found it false, unlike the way we really think. The fractured narratives and footnotes and all those stylistic flourishes were "his way of reclaiming language from banality, while at the same time representing all the caveats, micro-thoughts, meta-moments, and other flickers of his hyper-active mind." I still don't want to read his books--but at least now I get where he's coming from.

  5. Do you prefer figgy pudding or bok choy?

  6. How do I turn this sentence into a Maximalist sentence. "Beebo Appleby walked into the room, looked out the window and patted his jacket pocket. He heard his mother's footsteps approaching and turned to the door to greet her."

    1. Beebo Appleby gaited steadily towards the door, through the treeshold - where he noted the paint that was peeling off the frame, - and into the cozy, dusty euclidean space for a room. He rose her eyes to the window, - the light came through in waves, reflecting and bouncing in the marbled-floor, - as he firsked all over his pea coat, searching for the pocket...
      (and yada, yada, - you can continue it if you want. This is how I think a Maximalist sentence would work. I don't know whether this was helpful at all or not but good luck.)

    2. I meant, ''searching over the swell of his pockets for...'' not searching for his pocket, - well, perhaps he was. Who knows!