English Literature – Introduction
Minimalism — John Barth’s Description
Minimalism certainly means using fewer words to express thoughts, plots, ideas, quotes and action, but there is more to it than that, according to John Barth. By using Henry James’ mantra of “show, don’t tell,” Barth covers the subject very well. Barth also quotes Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote that “…undue length is…to be avoided.” The short story itself is an example of minimalism, simply because it condenses the components of a novel into a much shorter space. There are writers who specialize in what Barth calls “luxuriant abundance” and in “extended analysis,” which clearly is the opposite of minimalism; he mentions Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekov as “masters of terseness” (Barth, 1986).
And because Barth uses examples of well-known writers, he certainly couldn’t omit Ernest Hemingway, whose short stories were very tight and yet very expressive with fewer, well-chosen words and phrases. “You could omit anything…and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood” (Barth). Creating minimalist fiction means using “stripped-down vocabulary… And a stripped down rhetoric” that reduces figurative language, Barth writes. He extols the virtues of “super-short stories” — such as one of the stories selected for this assignment, “The Cranes.”
Thesis: Learning to write effectively without an overload of descriptive phrases or adjectives, and learning to say more with less by showing, not telling, is the crux of the matter when it comes to minimalism.
In Peter Meinke’s short story, the author lets the reader know (through minimal narrative) that the two people watching whooping cranes are not well-to-do and that they are old. The “shower curtain spread over the front seat” is a very short but clear indication that the seat is likely tattered or torn, or otherwise not suitable for sitting on without a cover. But since there are seat covers available in auto supply stories — and they’re probably not cheap — a reader can assume this was a cost-cutting move on the couple’s part. Minimalism, Barth explained,
Readers know that the couple has been in an accident and that they are stuck in some kind of health rut, which probably includes psychological problems. “I could use a few clowns” is a tell-tale admission that the man is depressed or otherwise struggling (Meinke, 1987). He can’t get up stairs and is restricted in what he can eat or drink — and smoking is off-limits; so how serious is his health, a reader naturally wonders? Less of an explanation (minimalism) allows the reader’s mind to expand the knowledge of what he is reading.
The woman stands by him and likes to hear his voice, yet there is a strong sense of sadness. The personification of the cranes (their feathers are falling out and their kids never write) leads the reader to believe that the couple’s own kids are estranged from their parents. Birds’ offspring certainly don’t write to their parents and readers can infer that the man is losing his hair — either from cancer treatments or very old age. “Never got tired of listening to you…” suggests things are at an end (Meinke). She is summing up the past, and instead of saying “never get tired…” Meinke uses “got” as a substitute because it is past tense and this couple seems to be past tense. Show, don’t tell, Barth insists, and that’s what this dialogue is doing.
Readers know the couple had good intimacy when they were younger. He says she was “terrific in ways I couldn’t tell the kids about,” and this adds to the melancholy of the situation (Meinke). All these little statements add up to the reader understanding they are very old and are simply being sentimental, using the cranes as a way to deflect their thoughts from their own failure. He wears a hearing aid but he didn’t bring it; he says he can “…hardly hear anything anyway” but he did hear smaller birds squabbling, so we understand exaggeration is part of getting old (Meinke). The juxtaposition in the last two sentences (the cranes life off towards the sun but the car is “sinister”) is a way for Meinke to add drama and misery without using a lot of words. The car may be an old VW (“beetle-like”) but its paint has been burned off by the sun because it is seen in “metallic…