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  • Introduction to Focus:Minimalisms
  • Jeffrey A. Sartain, Focus Editor (bio)

Minimalism is dead. Long live the minimalisms!

Despite sustained negative reactions from critics, more authors than ever before are writing fiction that could be termed "minimalist." So while the death of minimalism has been proclaimed by many, a vast number of literary minimalisms under a variety of names are reaching more readers, markets, and forms than ever before. The popularity of journals that feature minimalist work attest to the importance of the aesthetic, which gets prominent placement in publications like the Mississippi Review, New Orleans Review, BLIP, NANO Fiction, American Short Fiction, Flash Fiction, Double Room, Smokelong Quarterly, Quick Fiction, Vestal Review, Monkeybicycle, Brevity, deomP, PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, Wigleaf, and many more.

Never unified enough in subject or approach to be called a stable genre, minimalist writing is primarily an aesthetic impulse towards reduction. It is knowing exactly what to say, as well as knowing precisely what to leave out. Arguably, minimalisms do their most creative work in their suggestions and their omissions, and it is this paradox more than any that seems to cause critical difficulty and epistemological anxiety around minimalist literature.

In "A Few Words about Minimalism," John Barth characterizes minimalism as a "radical economy of artistic means" available in all artistic forms. Unlike the silences and white spaces of minimalism in other media, though, minimalist writing seems to be something of an oxymoron. One must write, even if minimally, to give shape to a text. When discussing minimalism, the common referent that connects widely disparate texts often seems elusive. The impulse towards a minimalist aesthetic takes innumerable shapes and can be applied to any of the mechanisms of storytelling. As critic Roland Sodowsky details in "The Minimalist Short Story" (1996), literature can be minimalist in form or content, or any combination of both, making an almost infinite plurality of minimalist literary expression possible.

Despite the apparent discontinuity between minimalist texts, a few generalities about the aesthetic can be made. As Kim Herzinger argues in "Minimalism as a Postmodernism" (1989), minimalist fictions tend to be "suspicious of 'depth,' seeing that the (by now) traditional models of depth are unsupportable; instead, they present a play of surfaces." This does not mean that the world portrayed by minimalist stories is without meaning, but rather that meaning depends exclusively on the timely exchange between signifiers. Meaning in a minimalist text, more than in other forms of literature, is contingent upon the reader's contributions to the meaning-making process. Because of this dependence, minimalist texts are inherently of the moment. To read a minimalist text is to read into the singular; to imbue the simple action with larger meaning. The universal signified eludes the minimalist, but only because it doesn't seem to exist in the physical world at all.

While not inherently didactic or pedagogical, minimalist fiction rewards its readers with a deeper understanding of the world around them. Minimalist fiction teaches readers how to interpret and navigate the infinite interplay of surfaces in the contemporary world. Indeed, minimalist texts may be the most appropriate reaction to the postmodern landscape—its surfaces extending indefinitely, peopled by brand names, corporate marketing discourse, and the prattling of 24-hour television news cycles. Minimalism in its various forms caters to the modern lust for story in bite-sized chunks and would seem to reinforce the contemporary drive for efficiency over meaning. By leaving much of the story implied, though, minimalism transcends the charge of meaninglessness by allowing space for the reader to fill in meaning, to continue to invest meaning into the text long after the initial encounter. By this rubric, it comes as no surprise that the earliest beginnings of contemporary minimalism arose, in part, as a modernist phenomenon in reaction to the baroque and over-determined sensibilities of the Victorian era.

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"Silver Range." Mixed media on canvas.

© Kurt Larsen, 2011.

Major modernist authors like Stein, Beckett, and most famously Hemingway, were proponents of minimalist aesthetics in literature. Stein saw an inherent linkage between minimalist aesthetics and class, impressed as she was by the humble, sparse, direct prose of Ulysses S. Grant's Memoirs (1885...


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