The New Minimalism and the Tao Lin Problem

This is really more of a casual riff on something I’ve noticed emerging among small press books than an actual premeditated essay, so expect the circuity and half-reasoned out ideas that will hopefully coalesce into something more formal down the road. However, it is a genuine response to a type of writing that seems particularly resonant with younger writers (and by young, I mean really young, cresting at just a digit or two past 30). 

A kind of offhand definition of this new minimalism (and yes I recognize the absurd insufficiency of this term) is fiction that uses tonal repetition and non-descriptive language to capture a neutrality of sentiment ostensibly resulting from an overexposure to media and perhaps information in general. It seems to be a kind of carapacing of any articulated emotional experience, a very self-conscious decision to become a sort of artistic Bartleby. Although this is a growing approach to writing fiction, my limited exposure to this writing is people like Tao Lin, Zachary German and to a somewhat lesser extent, Scott McClanahan.

What puzzles me most about these writers is that their books seem to gain nearly universal acclaim from their contemporaries (with the notable exception of the brilliant, acerbate Joshua Cohen). And yet, I feel utterly unmoved, disconnected, and not in any plausibly desirable way. But I can live with this. I even included one of McClanahan’s stories in the anthology of Appalachian writers I co-edited because I believed his voice needed to be represented as part of the region, and his voice is a striking departure from most stories of the area.

What I don’t understand is the weird mimicry this type of fiction inspires in many of its apologists. Consistently, whenever this aesthetic is challenged in open forum, the defenders of this aesthetic faith ventriloquize this style, playing pastiche instead of honestly engaging the very real concern of reductionism of form and character in the contemporary novel. Tone is lauded above all, is either something you “get” or something you don’t, and be damned any kind of fecundating discourse. I worry about fanboy behavior when it begins to tread on serious literary discussions.

8 thoughts on “The New Minimalism and the Tao Lin Problem

  1. Pingback: On Pod Groups « Jon Sealy 2.0

  2. Charles –
    Interesting post. I’m not sure “new minimalism” quite covers it for me, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I haven’t read any of the writers you mention, but I’ve seen some of the same sorts of things going on with my colleagues, especially (almost exclusively) the young ones. Particularly the bit about how their work is a kind of “carapacing of any articulated emotional experience, a very self-conscious decision to become a sort of artistic Bartleby.” I, too, am left unmoved and disconnected by their work, even as admire the talent it takes to pull it off.

    I think you’re right on about the strange way the attitude of the fiction bleeds into the attitude of the writer. It becomes a kind of game when discussing their work, which doesn’t bother me too much (after all, it is their work). But when they play games when discussing literature or the craft, that’s when I take offense.


  3. Would you guys make a distinction between stuff that’s going on in literature today and what went on in the ’70s with guys like Barth and Barthelme? It seems like those old meta-fiction writers were responding to a kind of fashionable theory, post-structuralism or something (I’m out of my element there). Are these new minimalists extensions of that project, or is this something new, perhaps inspired by the rise of the internet (Twitter poetry, for instance)?

    The reason I ask is because I do think it’s possible to make art out of that sort of pastiche, though maybe it’s a kind of art that looks much easier than it actually is. I’m currently reading Sklenicka’s biography of Carver and rereading his early stories, and some of those arguably suffer from the same flaw. Granted, Gordon Lish might have been responsible for taking the heart out of those stories, but it also seems like, from the biography, that Carver learned a lot from Lish’s early edits (how to maintain a consistent tone, for instance), which maybe allowed him to get where he got in his later (better) work.

  4. Jon,

    I definitely see this minimalistic mode or approach or whatever we should call it as something entirely distinct from either the post-structural work of Barthelme (whom I think is an effing genius) or the ’80s realism of Carver via Lish. I mean Lish edited Barry Hannah too, who is about as maximalist as you can get.

    I do see this to be a generational thing, and I think it is more media influenced, a kind of deadpanning that is supposed to testify to some kind of emotional byproduct of overproduction and information saturation. The problem to me is that it plays at a kind of sincerity of tone as an end all aesthetic that is dangerously limiting. I also believe it caters to a kind of in-crowd mentality that limits its genuine engagement with broader literary discourses.

  5. that happened in early issues of mcsweeney’s too. EVERYBODY who wrote in sounded EXACTLY like the ironic eggers house style. it’s just another infectious voice that’s easy to emulate because when used generically and casually it doesn’t require a self. donald barthelme may have started that shit.

    there’re reviews of 1870’s bruckner concerts written in the vienna papers by the very famous and powerful critic eduard hanslick who said “whom i wish to destroy, i destroy!” he wanted to destroy bruckner’s music, but tended to only attack him for his audience, the applause, the fanboys. i know you’re not trying to attack or destroy, sorry, i’m just saying i think the blogposting around tao isn’t relevant to his work, though it’s an easy target since annoying as fuck. not fair to judge him by his audience really. meanwhile anybody writing whole books of taopastiche has got his own problems, since he’s gonna end up in the mirrorless circle of hell devoted to timewasters.

    carapacing isn’t self-evidently a flaw, any more than it is in the sun also rises which seems to’ve influenced richard yates a lot. both’re intensely emotional books about guys who can’t express emotion. i thought tao’s was a good sign for him, since instead of just skating along on a blankoid manner he’s now analyzing and exposing the emotional meaning and limitations of that manner. in other words, he’s agreeing with you.

    about josh, i think acerbate is the verb actually. but i agree, esp with the brilliant part. i love him for caring so much about these things.

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for reading and your great comments. Really, you and I are on the same page. I’m not faulting the aesthetic that Lin practices per se, but I do fear the wider emulation without any kind of rational underpinning, as you point out. Cohen essays an intelligent and intelligible discourse on these issues. Even if he held a different position, I’d read it because I respect his arguments. I’ve read SHOPLIFTING but not RICHARD YATES. Based on your words, I’ll give it a try.

    • Also, I couldn’t remember what the Hanslick reference reminded me of til just now. Exactly the behavior of Paul Wittgenstein in Bernhard’s WITTGENSTEIN’S NEPHEW. Ha!

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