Austere Style in Twentieth-Century Literature

Author: McDermott, James Dishon
Throughout literary history, committed writers have sought to rebuke the inauthenticity of excessively ‘full’ discourses by deploying a minimalist literary style. In their texts, these literary minimalists substitute absence for those linguistic structures that are critical to the authority and integrity of the full text. In the postmodern period specifically, writers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, and David Mamet have used this literary style of contextualized fearlessness as a means of criticizing and reforming philosophical, literary, social, or political practices perceived to be inauthentic by virtue of their wasteful foundationalism. Rather than merely diverting or reassuring the reader, each writer seeks to create edifying texts that not only raise doubts about essentialist platitudes but also alert the reader to the possibility of authentic self-transformation through a reckoning with contingency. In using an austere style to challenge a set of foundationalist discursive practices, Wittgenstein addresses metaphysical philosophy and its claims to logocentric Truth; Brautigan, the discourses of Beat writing and Abstract Expressionism and their claims to noncontingent selfhood; Carver, Reaganite propaganda and its claims to essentialist community; and Mamet, mass-media entertainment and its claims to cultural hegemony.


“In the present book, a twenty-first century literary critic has a lot of genuine interest to say about nothing—‘nothing,’ now, in the sense of that literary ‘minimalism’ that has been with us, more or less, at least over the last hundred years, and that may itself be ingredient in literature, as it is in language, as such ... For a lot can be said in a limited space, and Dr. McDermott has appropriately thinned his book by discipline and protracted hard thought, so that his ‘lot’ (and even his ‘plot’ in the sense of argument) does not overrun and so fill up as to ruin his ‘nothing.’ The paradox, rather, lies in what Dr. McDermott has brought into the clearing for our literary, and specifically stylistic, investigation ... What is in view in this lucid and careful study is how the pulling back on words by means of minimalist style is at the same time an enlarging of that negative space—not, that is, a nihilistic-tending gap, but an attention-getting guidance to the opportunity for new meanings to arise within, or if you prefer out of, Nothing. It may even be a paradox that we live only by means of such a paradox, as if only in dying to ourselves do we live, but if so that is for each of Dr. McDermott’s readers, of whom I hope he has many, to figure out on our own.” – (from the Foreword) Professor Walter Jost, University of Virginia

“This brisk study of recent American literary minimalism takes up an old quarrel between a literature of abundance and a literature of restraint – between, for instance, Theodore Dreiser and Ernest Hemingway ... The debate has been about moralities and psychologies and strategies more than about style itself, so it has remained close to the heart of the matter … This study itself is a model of economy. Each of the individual studies, chapter by chapter, could stand by itself, but each is also calculated to amplify other chapters and extend the range and implication of the larger design … All of these good things Dr. McDermott does with his own honorable (and appropriate) restraint and accuracy – and shortwindedness to boot ...” – Professor Raymond Nelson, University of Virginia

“The author is a brilliant reader of literary texts; he has rare gifts as a philosophic thinker; and without doubt, the decisive conceptual stroke in his book has been the decision to link minimalism as an aesthetic strategy with the minimalist philosophic mission of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I strongly agree with Dr. McDermott that the Wittgensteinian legacy has never achieved its due place in contemporary literary theory, and I’m entirely persuaded by the claim that Wittgenstein offers both a set of reading strategies and some central textual instances for a new history of modernism. Dr. McDermott’s prose warbles and whistles; trills and trolls, and the pleasures that it offers are not simply ornamental; the bracingly precise writing is the sign and frame of a conceptual intricacy of a remarkably high order.” – Professor Michael Levenson, University of Virginia

Table of Contents

Foreword by Walter Jost
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Minimal Style: Austerity and Anti-Foundationalism
2. Richard Brautigan’s Minimal Style: Gentleness, Emotive Function, and the Problematic of Selfhood
3. Raymond Carver’s Minimal Style: Political Commitment, Narrative Omission, and the Contingency of Community
4. David Mamet’s Minimal Style: Uninflection, Waste, and Authenticity