minimalism is not the cure

I disagree with Matt Yglesias on many things. (I would say “we disagree on many things,” but I’m sure he doesn’t spend any time thinking about me at all.) I’m also not a fan of his writing as writing, as craft. So I might be expected to be the natural audience for this takedown of his prose. Certainly, the passages that CJ Ciaramella identifies are very bad writing and deserve criticism. But his proposed fixes are little better, and they echo the worst thing ever to happen to American writing, which is American minimalism. I don’t want to declare a philosophy for Ciaramella, but he uses classic pieces of writing advice that slot comfortably into minimalism: cut the fat, drop the ten-cent words, be active and not passive, avoid abstraction, etc. It’s hoary, and old, and misguided advice.

Worse still is Ciaramella’s endorsement of the martial school of writing, where writing is like fighting, because men write! And men fight! And by god, are we not men, who want to write about bullfighting and gladiators and tits and such? It’s not just that I find that kind of writing almost uniformly useless, but also that we are certainly not facing a deficit of that kind of writing. Trust me: the world is not suffering from a lack of young white dudes who are eager to demonstrate their power through their writing. They crowd MFA programs and coffee houses– the cool, manly kind of coffee houses, not the queer kind. There are few cheaper commodities in American writing than men who try to write with “force,” the way Ciaramella wants them to.

The martial style, at least, tends to be confined to a particular demographic. Minimalism, on the other hand, is something universal. American minimalism is a a writing philosophy that has dominated our country’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction, more than any other. Minimalism suggests that the major problem with most writing is that there’s too much: too much length, too many words, too many ideas, too many syllables, too much fancy-pants abstraction. Minimalism has been popular in fiction and non-fiction alike. Writers like Sherwood Anderson helped to popularize the style, but it is most deeply and commonly associated with Ernest Hemingway. (Although he is occasionally lumped in, I would argue rather strenuously that F. Scott Fizgerald does not belong in the same category.) A more contemporary example is Elmore Leonard, whose recent death spurred a big push for more minimalism. In nonfiction, minimalism is the default assumption of many house styles and handbooks. The minimalist ethic is taken to an extreme in the most famous book on writing style ever, William Strunk and E.B White’s The Elements of Style, still a college campus mainstay and beloved of countless editors. (And, actually, the Unabomber.)

In fiction or nonfiction, the relentless push in minimalism is to cut, cut, cut– to cut words, to cut syllables, to cut abstraction, to cut ideas. Minimalism shuns subordination, shuns the passive voice, shuns flowery description (or sometimes just description), shuns abstraction. Minimalism’s many converts ascribe poor writing to too much abstraction, which they contrast with the concrete; to too much jargon, which they contrast with the brute simplicity of shorter words; to too much hedging, which they contrast with the manly power of unapologetic expression. Minimalist teachers and editors buy red ink by the barrel. There’s always more to cut. Ornamentation, sentiment, complication, self-doubt, metaphor, artifice, art– all to be pruned. What should be left is sentences like “the boat was small. The water was clear. The day was cold.”

Now some might argue that my take is actually a parody of minimalism, an unfair exaggeration of its traits. But that’s actually part of the trouble: the style, even when well-used, drifts uncomfortably close to self-parody, and given the way in which ideas travel, a certain exaggeration of any style’s maxims is inevitable. Hemingway was clearly a giant of a writer, and at his best, he wrote with exquisite precision. But in my estimation, he spent more of his career at his worst than at his best, and at its worst, I find his work nearly indistinguishable from parody. His style often works best in small chunks. “Indian Camp” is a great short story, in large measure because it is a short short story; I wouldn’t want to read it stretched out much further. 20 pages into The Old Man and the Sea, I’m convinced it’s a work of genius. By the end, I’ve been so bludgeoned with the monotony that I want to read just about anything else. Leonard was also a master. But he was careful to work in a limited arena, in a particular set of genres, narratives, and registers. And in both cases, really diving in to either writer’s best work will disabuse you of the notion that they followed all of the cramped rules you encounter so often on the internet.

There are differences in what makes for good writing in fiction and in nonfiction, though the conversation is largely the same. The primary difference is that American fiction eventually rejected minimalism. It took writers like Saul Bellow to rescue the American novel from an army of young writers telling us that the boat was small and the water was clear. But in nonfiction writing, minimalism never went away. The drive to cut everything, to say less rather than more, and to eliminate nasty business like ideas and emotion predominates in expository writing advice. I have skimmed through far more freshman composition textbooks than I care to admit, and I’ve read dozens of essays on writing well, and a clear majority of them replicate the tired old mandates about what not to put in and what to take out. So what good does dusting off that old copy of Strunk and White do, when we never really left Strunk and White? If minimalism was the cure, bad writing would be as rare as polio. That’s because minimalism is not some forgotten brilliance we should return to but rather the closest thing we have to a writing orthodoxy.

As someone who teaches college writing, I encounter the assumption of the superiority of the shorter sentence all the time. Most frustrating are the dudes (always dudes) who have taken the minimalist creed to such an extreme that writing with artificial brevity is almost existential. They are easy to identify. In peer review, they are always critiquing writing as “limp” or “flaccid,” in implied contrast to their own prose– which, I guess, they see as hard and throbbing and veiny and engorged. (I don’t say this to my undergrads, but I find it a good rule of thumb: avoid critiquing writing with terms that could reasonably be used to describe a penis.) Some use that style better, some do it worse, but as we move through a semester’s worth of writing purposes and contexts, its deep inadequacy becomes clear. What I tell the young men who are enamored of this approach is that what works in a hard-boiled detective novel does not always work in, say, a research paper for BIO 212. “The Krebs cycle is complex. ATP is the output. The oxidation of acetates, the key.” In large measure, this is because no human beings actually communicate that way. There’s irony in the artifice of minimalist style. Nothing in writing seems more affected than prose that is written to seem devoid of affect.

It’s hard to get them to listen. Look, simply saying “I often teach students who demonstrate particular weaknesses as writers” is just another way of saying that I teach writing, and I’m glad to do it. When I came to undergraduate education, I myself was a bad writer who thought he was a good writer, and it took a lot of work from patient and sympathetic teachers to change. The deeper issue with these students is that they are so often unteachable. Part of that is their tendency to really embrace the idea that their prose is a part of their souls and to alter it is to give in to a fallen world…. I appreciate that romantic streak, and I will certainly take it over apathy. But it can become a destructive obstinacy in a context where they are always being told to get more minimal. It’s hard, as a teacher, to suggest to a young writer that his problem can’t be solved by cutting more when he keeps reading that on the internet.

Could we run Matt Yglesias through the Strunk and White bootcamp? Sure. “The demand is too low. The rent, too high. The debt is unimportant. You make too much money. There’s dill in my salad.” But for a stylist who is as uninterested in being a stylist as Yglesias, I’m not sure it matters. Yglesias, I think, belongs to that school of people who wants his writing merely to be a conduit for his ideas. I think that’s a mistake– Ciaramella is right to suggest that ideas are inseparable from their expression– but it’s his prerogative. What Yglesias needs is not a summer in the Strunk and White reeducation camp but, well, an editor. (Seriously, bro– those typos are embarrassing.)

In the meantime, I expect a lot of bad writing to be produced thanks to bad writing advice. There are times and places for minimalism, but advice in that direction almost always mistakes what is obvious for what is the actual problem. Yes, you might have written a bad novel. And yes, you might have included a lot of adverbs. And the adverbs might have been a bad idea. But the adverbs are not why the novel was a bad novel. People identify obvious, explicit things like adverbs or the passive voice as the problem with writing because  they are easy to identify and easy to remove. But they are very rarely the actual problem. The actual problems are almost always far deeper and far less easily fixed.

This is not to question the value of teaching and advice, merely the value of a particular school of advice. I’ve personally seen many bad writers become competent ones, and I’ve seen some competent ones become good ones. I’ve read drafts of novels and stories before they’ve been workshopped and then read them after, and they’ve often been immeasurably improved. But the value of a good class or a good workshop lies in its specificity, its individual attention to the individual piece of writing. The advice towards minimalism that is so common attempts to speak to everyone, and in doing so, speaks to almost no one.

Awhile back, I wrote a piece about writers I love, in part to make an argument about the kind of writing I want to read. None of them writes in a minimalist style. On the contrary, they each give me what I want most as a reader: writing that is teeming, unpredictable, risky, alive.

11 thoughts on “minimalism is not the cure

  1. Good post, Freddie.

    It’s important to point out that minimalism is often an affectation. In my experience, it’s an affectation attractive to those perhaps a little lexically challenged who struggle with fluency and sonority and cannot gracefully manage intricate syntax. But minimalism in some ways relies even more on the ear the the high style, especially rhythmically, and people attracted to it often can’t feel the beat.

    Matt’s not a careful writer, yet I read almost everything he writes. I don’t think the errors are important.

  2. Just ran, the other day, into an old pamphlet (digitized on the internet) that offered advice on how to communicate using the telegraph. Of course, in that context, word count has a cost that we can understand, and the reader was advised to be as parsimonious as possible with text. I was wondering whether anyone had done the technological cross analysis with the telegraph and with Strunk and White’s minimalist writing creed. It’s not, of course, necessarily the case that there’s a relation between those things, but the hypothesis that there is doesn’t seem completely absurd.

    One thing we might expect with the internet is a loosening of the old guard when it comes to “style,” since we can store basically an infinite amount of text, but given the current traffic-oriented prerogatives, it almost seems as if the drive to make posts shorter (and even books shorter) has increased rather than decreased. Hopefully this is a passing phase, but who knows. The only place I know of where the trend appears to have reversed is in serialized fantasy fiction.

  3. I agree with all of this, and I had the same reaction to that piece – those are garbage sentences by Yglesias, but lack of style is at least a choice he’s making, and the advice would only make the prose more annoying. On the subject of ledes, for instance, a guy who writes as often as Yglesias would be nearly insufferable if for all of his 300 word pieces on policy he wrote lede-y ledes like the one Ciaramella suggested (“I stood on a corner and watched the vans, motorcycles and bicycles weave through an intersection in Siem Reap, Cambodia without the guide of traffic lights.”)

    I also couldn’t stand the similes (metaphors, I forget) Ciaramella used, to the point that I wasn’t sure if he was satirizing Yglesias’s style with them as he did with the “fury of rage” thing.

  4. Besides the last one, these rules

    cut the fat, drop the ten-cent words, be active and not passive, avoid abstraction

    Are the same as Orwell’s, and he was no minimalist. Context matters, I suppose.

  5. I remember way back in Art History 101 that it seemed like the dominant movements would follow a cycle of increasing ornamentation followed by a rebellion embracing simplicity which started the cycle anew. Renaissance eventually became Rococo by way of Baroque, until the perceived decadence of Rococo was replaced with the martial simplicity of neoclassicism. But not for long; compare early David’s stoic Romans to his later depictions of Napoleon the fur-clad rockstar. Later, Romanticism was rejected by the Realists. Minimalism itself was partially a reaction to Abstract expressionism.

    Anyhoo, I think my point is that minimalism is helpful as an ideal when you start finding yourself overburdened with cloying artifice divorced from the meaning it purports to serve; cleanse the palate and start over with only what’s necessary to convey your meaning before you start adding flourishes to get it across better. Minimalism at its best isn’t about doing less for its own sake, its about doing more with less. To echo the point about minimalism as an affectation (which I love), if you start treating simplicity as a goal rather than a tool, you are making the same mistake as the writer of overly ornate prose by prizing form over substance.

    But for someone just learning to write, simple is a good place to start. I think most style guides are geared towards teaching the skeleton of a functional writing style that works for everyone. Once you’ve learned how to write competently, you can start learning how to write well.

    Also in the time it took me to write this comment, Yglesias would have published five posts about parking policy. I think an editor would actually get in the way of what Yglesias does well – consistently churn out moderately provocative, albeit cursory, arguments that get people to click over to Slate periodically throughout the day. Occasionally just to gather source material for scathing articles about him that prompt people to click over to Slate a few more times.

    (As a sidenote, the pogrom against the passive voice drives me crazy. There is no good advice that can’t be ruined by turning it into a dogma. Sometimes acted upon actually is more important than the actor!)

  6. In addition, typo pedants are the worst people on the planet. (Hitler isn’t on the planet anymore.) I want to eventually peer inside the mind of the sort of person who takes the care to email a writer with the judgment that because this story (which can be edited easily, on the internet) contained one or several copy editing snafus, he knows there is nothing to learn therein. There are almost no typos in high school chemistry books! Read those.

    1. Yeah I should say I’m not a strict grammarian at all, myself. I do think that Yglesias could use editing, but more for syntax/clarity than for minor spelling or grammar mistakes.

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