This semester I’m teaching a seminar on Minimalism, a movement in architecture exemplified by the work of John Pawson and David Chipperfield. We’re approaching it as the architectural counterpart to other movements in art, literature and elsewhere during the last fifty years–perhaps, in my view at least, farther back to the origins of Modernism itself. Never shy about taking on topics that are new and unfamiliar, we’re exploring minimalism in music (Steven Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams and the like), in art (Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, Tony Smith), and even farther afield in theater and film.
Literature is also an area where minimalist inclinations occasionally break out–which I think of today in the context of Agincourt, probably the most “maximal” exercise of my experience. Besides Concrete Poetry of the 1960s, there are many other types of wordplay where less achieves more, or at least tries to. Witness: haiku and the limerick. Extending that idea, can we consider the palindrome to be a minimalist literary form? “Able was I ere I saw Elba” says as much about Napoleon in seven words as other authors have accomplished in volumes. There are three other exemplary types that I want to share.
If you’ve not heard of the Six Word Novel, plug that phrase into your favorite search engine. Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a novel in six words. Not a huge Hemingway fan here, but his solution was both elegant and eloquent: “For sale: baby shoes. Never used.” There is such pathos in those few words, a tale of sadness and loss that even a short story might bungle. With the elimination of one word, a favorite poem by Ogden Nash also becomes the soul of concision: “Candy is dandy, [but] liquor is quicker.”
Not necessarily short, but at least restrictive, I recommend the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, run each year by Prof Scott Rice at San Jose State University. The task here is to mirror the wretched Victorianisms of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, perhaps the worst novelist of the 19th century. Lytton wrote The Last Days of Pompeii, a work whose title may be unfamiliar, but whose opening words are instantly recognizable: “It was a dark and stormy night….” Trust me, it goes way beyond that opening gambit borrowed by Snoopy, in his quest for the Great American Novel. Lytton drones on for almost two pages with one of the longest sentences on record–surpassed only by Marcel Proust and lately by Roberto Bolaño in his novel 2666. Your task, should you elect to enter this year’s contest, is “to write the opening line of the worst novel never written.” My all-time favorites, though not prize winners: “He had enough hair on his back to make a coat for a small Albanian” and “The sun rose like a hair ball.”
Then there are the Novels in Three Lines penned by French anarchist-journalist Félix Fénéon. For a period of about three years, Fénéon wrote a column of filler for a Parisian newspaper. After his death these were collected and published by his wife as Nouvelles en trois lignes, expertly translated by Luc Sante in a 2007 reissue.
For me, all these examples only higlight my own excesses as a writer. Whether by me or my avatar Howard Tabor, this writing is clumsy, quirky and burdensome; I took journalism in high school but clearly learned nothing about brevity and the clarity of news reportage. Yesterday’s blog post couldn’t possibly be a local history column in any newspaper, unless its author was somebody’s brother-in-law. Howard’s column averages about 650 words, a length that no reader would tolerate, even on a sleepy Saturday afternoon when “A few figs from thistles…” is printed.
Milton is reading over my should and suggests I apologize for this excessively long article on minimalism.