Degree Year

1987

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

English

Advisor(s)

Pat Day

Keywords

Minimalist, New Yorker, Minimalism, Esquire, Raymond Carver, Colloquial

Abstract

In American critical writing of the last decade, the term "minimalism", which first came into use to describe a particular aesthetic, a distinctive style of art, has begun to be used in a very different context. In literary reviews and essays it is now most frequently employed as a convenient critical label, a catchall phrase which purportedly refers to a new "reigning style" in contemporary fiction. This style in turn is generally thought to be the exclusive domain of a certain generation of writers. Roughly, the birth years of this generation could be said to span the period 1935-50; thus, a collection of its best-known "spokespeople" can include writers of as wide a range of age and background as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, and Mary Robison.

The term "minimalism" is now being used as a stylistic category in which to group these writers. Generally speaking, the hallmarks of this style are considered to be an everyday, unadorned narrative voice; a preoccupation with details of domestic life; a cast of characters united by (if nothing else) a sort of common fecklessness; and, finally, an overall mood of anomie. This last generalization is especially significant--for it refers, after all, not so much to a stylistic quality itself as to the psychological effect of certain qualities of style. A story is now termed "minimalist" when the subJective feeling it produces in the reader is one of uncertainty, frustration, lack of resolution. Thus, as a stylistic categorization the term is clearly, in much current critical writing, being very loosely and clumsily applied. As a literary category, it has in current usage lost almost all its original historical meaning, become merely a fashionable umbrella term, which is as often used to denigrate as simply to describe. It is this denigrating tendency that I find most disturbing about the way the term is presently being used, and which, through a more considered investigation of the historical meaning of the term, I hope to reverse.

On the other hand, to attempt to divest the current use of the term of all validity whatsoever, would be pointless. The fact is that there does exist a style in American fiction today which can be called minimalist. Though as a movement it may have no manifesto, no school, no statement of guiding principles as such, it does have something equally important and equally unifying--the patronage of the New Yorker. The New Yorker is not the only periodical to have given the practitioners of minimalism a home--Esquire, for example, is another equally prestigious and equally welcoming outlet--but it is the most important, by virtue of its sheer mystique if nothing else. The dominance at the New Yorker of a very specific editorial taste may be a part of the foundation of this mystique; in any case, the fact remains that in the past decade a style of short fiction identifiable as "minimalism" has emerged, and that its primary conduit has been the New Yorker.

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