Since the mid 20th Century, American writing has been broadly divided into two schools, minimalism and maximalism, each exemplified by the dueling greats, Hemingway and Faulkner. Whereas Hemingway relied on sparse prose, scrubbed of metaphor and symbolism, Faulkner was the opposite: his sentences beautifully rambled across the page, and his characters and their shameful histories served as analogies for American society.

The literary minimalism Hemingway practiced was born out of Post-war journalism and World War 1. The style emphasized that “less is more” and that content was forged from context. Readers were to interpret minimalist texts as they did news stories, then draw their own conclusions. For example, in the flash fiction, “Baby Shoes, For Sale, Never Worn,” commonly attributed to Hemingway, the story is largely determined by readers’ imagination—no one interpretation is correct. By involving readers in deciding the story, minimalism makes the writing more personal, and therefore more intimate.

Yet, where minimalism relied on brevity and readers’ imagination, the maximalism found in many of Faulkner’s novels aimed at representing each element of society through burgeoning prose and run-on sentences. Light in August symbolically investigated postbellum race relations and Absalom, Absalom! handled the South’s sin of slavery. Maximalist works submerge readers with informational deluges, utilizing a variety of subject material and literary techniques and genres to maintain attention. Many maximalist tomes are “novels of ideas,” focusing more on their messages at the perceived compromising of the story.

These distinct schools of writing have moved beyond their decades-old standard-bearers. Contemporary minimalist Cormac McCarthy uses brevity in his Blood Meridian to portray violence’s simplicity, giving horrific acts a jagged authenticity. And Maximalist successors David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon have satirized American society in the half-thousand page novels Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow, turning the ideas of American exceptionalism and hedonism onto themselves. Despite vehemence on both sides, the American literary tradition has benefited from these two schools’ dialectic.

-Will Hertel

One thought on “Minimalism vs. Maximalism

  1. Laura says:

    Wow, I disagree with everything in this post. This rigid dychotomy between these styles seems to reduce maximalism and minimalism to the style of a sentence. That show a fundamental misunderstanding of the thought and style movements that gave birth to both maximalism and minimalism, one, by the way, a postmodernist genre, and the other a modernist one – in other words, apples and oranges. Of course if we reduce the definitions of these on short sentences vs. long ones, descriptive vs. terse, then I suppose we could pretend that we have only two camps in today’s literature, between people who know how to write long, complex sentences, and people who fear them because they never quite understood the purpose of a semicolon. By that definition, however, I would argue that McCarthy is definitely not a minimalist. He’s definitely not a minimalist, by the way. The difference is more one between postmodernists, who favor absurdity, excess and blurred lines between reality and imagination, vs. modernists, who cling to realism, and narratives that hinge on social and psychological dramas. Maybe we shouldn’t try to use reductive terms and sweeping generalizations when it comes to literature, which is in its nature, fluid, adaptable, expansive, and varied beyond definition.

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