the ethic of minimal self-reference

I’m struggling a bit with how to write this post, as I don’t want to inadvertently endorse the dogma of minimalism. The minimalist dogma is the constantly-evoked notion that doing less in writing is always doing better. Its origins are multiple, with major players being authors like Ernest Hemingway, style guardians like Strunk and White, essayists like George Orwell and critics like James Wood. I am a fan of none of these. Restrictive rules for writing, like those for all art forms, fundamentally misidentify the meaning of aesthetics and artwork. There really are no rules. None.

Beyond that general critique is the specific fact that minimalism, and American minimalism  in particular, has had massive negative effects on generations of writers. The legacy of Hemingway (and Sherwood Andersen et al) was in many ways defined by people who thought that “the boy looked at the river” is a necessarily more beautiful and deeper sentence than one with more ornamentation. Or worse, that the sentence “the boy looked at the river” is necessarily beautiful and deep, full stop. Struggling against rigid rules that were enforced with the kind of haughty condescension only found among the entirely wrong, generations of young authors torpedoed their own writing for the benefit of being taken seriously by style conservatives whom had rarely written great prose themselves. (Orwell, for instance, had some good ideas, some terrible ones, and wrote some good essays. His fiction, to put it charitably, is beneath its reputation.) At its worst, this minimalist impulse results in people like Wood, a stomping, self-impressed scold of the worst kind.

Over the course of many years, the artistic courage of American authors like Saul Bellow, the teeming inventiveness of cultural hybrids like Salman Rushdie, and the influence of international literary stars like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jose Saramago helped contemporary novelists escape this trap, and that victory is always contingent and partial. To this day, creative writing students are implored in classes and books to improve by reducing. In the composition of nonfiction, where the particulars are different but the broad dynamics largely the same, students are still frequently told to “Strunk and White this,” pushed by those in authority to adopt a style tradition stunning in its conservatism. To me, the failure is plain; we live in a verdant and teeming world, one aching with complexity, and the ceaseless effort to ban matching complexity from the written world hamstrings writers and punishes readers.

All of this is a long and probably needless bit of throat clearing before I give you advice in how to write in a minimalist style.

*****

Sorry. I just wanted to get that out of the way because I truly do believe that one of the biggest impediments to great writing is the heaps of bad advice out there, and in particular the kind of advice that advances categoricals when it should advance conditionals. This is true despite the fact that such advice is offered with truly good intentions. In fact, much of college writing pedagogy involves undoing advice that students were given as high school writers, often advanced as rules. There’s perfectly good reasons to advise inexperienced writers, for example, to avoid beginning sentences with “And” or “Because,” or to proceed with caution when using the first person in an academic essay. The problem is that good pieces of advice tend to become bad rules, and that’s certainly the case with the vertical integration from high school to college writing.

Accordingly, advice towards restraint isn’t usually misguided. Expressed contingently and with an appropriate deference to the needs of context, advising writers to embrace concision and restraint is typically wise. This is especially true in a particular kind of essay, the nonfiction essay of personal narrative, typically assigned to give students the opportunity to explain their values and their character. The most prominent example of this kind of essay writing is the college application essay, which typically is derived from prompts that concern personal challenges and personal growth. Anyone who has ever read a bad college application essay– and the vast majority are bad– knows the danger of this kind of writing: soupy, maudlin essays that describe emotions the reader never feels and arcs of self-discovery and growth the audience never buys. “My greatest challenge was when I went away to camp for the first time, where I experience loneliness and learned the virtue of always being myself.” My instinct is to flee.

Here, I think, is where advice towards minimalism is perhaps most beneficial. But I wouldn’t even necessarily describe it as minimalist in the conventional sense. The point is not to express yourself in as few words as possible, but rather to pursue an ethic of minimal self-reference which stresses that emotional content can be more reliably shared through placing the reader in your shoes rather than describing how they feel on your feet. This can be executed more or less well, but I find that the degree of difficulty is lower when attempting the former than the latter.

I am not a creative writer, nor a teacher of creative writing. But when teaching the value and technique of minimally self-referential essay writing, I have frequently turned towards a poem, William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.”
                                                                              *****
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

 *****

I’m not interested in performing a typical close reading here, but I do want to highlight some essential facts about how this poem discusses moral and emotional content with almost no reference to thoughts, feelings, or moral convictions. There are eighteen lines in the poem; only a single line, the penultimate one, concerns anything other than descriptions of action or environment. (And in a nice touch, that line itself speaks of a brief shift in consciousness.) The central emotional and thematic concern here is the driver’s moral relationship to the dead deer and her fawn. At no point does Stafford describe for us how the driver feels. Instead, he creates the conditions under which we can arrive at such knowledge ourselves.

I feel quite strongly that I know how the driver feels, and I imagine that you do, as well: the driver is deeply morally troubled by the still-living fawn, in a situation in which his or her duty is clear but still disturbing. Stafford tells us only that the driver “thinks hard for us all,” suggesting both that the driver was invested in the thinking and that the thoughts were unhappy. But we are clued into believing in a moral equivalence among the driver, the deer, and the fawn. The poem’s speaker cautions that “to swerve might make more dead,” which refuses to draw a distinction between the death of deer and of the motorists who swerve to avoid their corpses. Later, the driver refers to “our group,” which includes the human, the deer, and the fawn– two living, one dead; two animal, one human; two adult, one in infancy. The poem achieves an understanding of the comparable moral value of different living creatures without a single direct statement about such values.

This moral information would be of little use if we weren’t inclined to be moved by it. But Stafford builds such an inclination through the use of concrete, sensorial details that place the reader into the scene and in so doing provoke empathy. The lights, the exhaust, the sound of the engine, the warmth inside the cold figure– these are sensations which can be construed far more easily than grand statements about philosophical abstractions. Not always more effectively; there are some great writers who make stark declarations about the nature of the moral universe in their work, whether in narration or in the mouths of characters. But these writers earn it, paying for such moments with the valuable currency of their craft, their grace, and their precision. Most of us simply don’t possess such gifts, or the self-knowledge necessary to know when to leave this advice behind.

When I teach narrative essays, I try to remind myself that the attraction to the form is often precisely because people are hungry to share their ethical commitments. Teenagers, in particular, are typically starved for an audience that recognizes them as thoughtful agents whose discrimination about right and wrong is important and worthy of consideration. It’s precisely for this reason that they often need to hear compassionate critics who can help them modulate their tone and reach deeper, beyond the short-term satisfaction of sharing the muscular power of their emotional hearts and towards the quieter grace of bringing a reader into the folds of their moral imagination.

10 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading even though I started out disagreeing heavily. I suppose I still do. A few disjointed thoughts:

    1. Another reason pushing students towards minimalism seems like a good idea is that virtually all seem to start at the other end of the pendulum swing. When I was a college writing tutor, dozens and dozens of students came in with padded, overwritten essays. Very few were overly stripped down. Of course, a padded essay doesn’t necessarily mean a stylistic failing, oftentimes they hadn’t done enough research, or didn’t understand the assignment, etc. etc. But I do think, even stylistically, almost all writers start on the other side.

    2. The intent behind your advice seems very similar to the reasoning behind the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule that you argued against in your last post. The showing that Stafford does is much more effective than if he wrote “I felt troubled and alone,” or whatever. I’m not actually accusing you of hypocrisy — these rules are all fluid and I think you’re probably right that this one is overused and overcommanded — but it is an illustration of just how hard the teaching of writing is because of the changing demands of author’s intent, audience, and type of writing.

    3. Finally, fuck you for the Orwell line. Took me some serious self-will to get past a knock on my favorite writer’s prose. But all the same, good post.

    1. Like your affection for Orwell, there is hardly any other writer so near or so dear to me for his writing and for the influence it has had on me. I will never finish reading Orwell.

      Still, I had to laugh upon reading FdB’s remark, “(Orwell, for instance, had some good ideas, some terrible ones, and wrote some good essays. His fiction, to put it charitably, is beneath its reputation.) At its worst, this minimalist impulse results in people like Wood, a stomping, self-impressed scold of the worst kind.”

      and your response to it. That’s because I, too, have found that Orwell’s fiction is not his best writing. His journalism, essays and letters are for me his best writing and they are so far better than so many other reputedly great writers’ work in fiction that I don’t mind so much that, as a novelist, Orwell isn’t for me among the best. I’ve been struck, too, reading Orwell, by the fact that it isn’t very difficult to find him commiting the very faults he points out and advises writers avoid in his prescriptive essay on some basic rules for good writing. His faults are part of what endear him to me.

  2. His “scolding” committment to “minimalism” must be why Wood hates Bellow, Marquez and Saramago so much.

  3. His “scolding” commitment to “minimalism” must be why Wood hates Bellow, Marquez and Saramago so much.

  4. I just meant I’ve read very positive, perceptive appreciations of those authors’ writing by him, which suggests that he has no commitment to minimalism, and maybe that he isn’t such a scold.

  5. I just wanted to pop in to say, first, that I’m thrilled that Dean Muth has been so gracious in letting me host his essay here.

    Second, I wanted to apologize for not weighing in on the conversation. There are indeed many deep issues to be explored in the current college admissions process. I don’t want to discuss them haphazardly, and I’m currently deep in summer tutoring and preparing for the fall semester, so I won’t comment for now. At some point, I hope to write at length about these issues. Thanks for your engagement.

  6. As a pacifist, I of course have great objections to some of Orwell’s politics; the “objectively pro-Fascist” line has been repeated to me for my entire adult life, and I’m sensitive to it. But he was a remarkably clear thinker, and a great prose stylist in expository and argumentative forms. When it comes to 1984 and Animal Farm, I think it’s important to separate my thoughts on their importance and necessity from my thoughts on their critical quality as novels. I always contrast Orwell to Graham Greene, who I think was better at folding his politics into a moving and well-expressed story. But then, that’s personal preference.

  7. The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice.^.

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