Notes on writing

Minimalist fiction

Dry Garden in Ryoanji

Blake Crouch’s 2016 novel Dark Matter is a page-turner, no doubt about it. It’s the first novel I’ve read that uses the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as a plot device. This is a tricky matter to handle in fiction. Taking the theory seriously might lead the writer into such a tangle of parallel worlds that the story’s coherence dissolves and the narrative drive derails. Crouch manages these pitfalls, I think, by marshalling the theory in the service of his story, and not the other way around.

Aside from its subject matter, what struck me most about the book is its use of short sentences and paragraphs. I’ve never read a book with so many of both. Here’s an example:

This my favourite section of the walk home, because it’s the darkest and quietest.
At the moment…
No trains inbound.
No headlights in either direction.
No audible pub noise.
Nothing but the distant roar of a jet overhead, on final approach into O’Hare.
Wait…
There’s something coming — footfalls on the sidewalk.
I glance back.

There’s nothing wrong with building tension like that. It makes you want to read on to find out what happens next. Crouch knows what he’s doing here. But at other times, this kind of writing can seem like list-making:

By midafternoon, we’re cruising through Wisconsin.
Rolling pasture.
Minor hills.
Red barns.
Silos form a rustic skyline.
Smoke trickles out of farmhouse chimneys.

This is minimalist fiction. Still, like I said, Crouch knows what he’s doing. And, like I also said, it’s a page-turner. Though contemporary fiction is a small part of my overall reading, I read enough to make me think that this is a trend. I have no statistics to back that up, but my sense is that paragraphs and sentences in commercial fiction are getting shorter. Of course, this trend started decades ago: compare Dickens with Hemingway. Still, it seems to me to be accelerating.

Is Crouch’s style simply, like Hemingway’s, a matter of his own intention and deliberation? No doubt about that. But I think there are other factors. It’s a commonplace claim nowadays that attention spans are shorter. This is no surprise when a thousand distractions are easily accessible via our smartphones. When I read a book or watch a film I constantly catch myself checking the football scores or the news headlines. More usefully, I also look up obscure words or allusions on my phone while I’m reading. The point is that the experience of immersive reading can be elusive.

Another, though less obvious, effect may be the rise of the e-reader. There’s less text space on an e-reader screen than there is on a printed page. Shorter sentences and paragraphs make the on-screen reading experience much pleasanter. I wonder whether writers, consciously or not, are adapting their style to this constraint. As an aside, another interesting aspect of the e-reader is that the page is no longer a fixed unit, as it is in a printed book. I wonder what effect this page fluidity is having or may have in the future.

The danger with fictional minimalism is that it becomes a kind of shorthand, the novel reduced to some dialogue and a set of stage directions. I get the sense with many contemporary fiction writers that their books are written with one eye on the movie rights. There’s nothing wrong with that: every writer has to switched-on to commercial possibilities, given the competition that’s out there. The problem with writing a novel as a kind of film treatment is that what makes the form distinctive — psychological acuity, richness of setting, digression — can be lost.

To repeat, I’m not knocking Crouch or any other writer who uses this mode. In fact, I could learn a thing or two from him and others. My sentences tend to be longer than is normal in contemporary fiction and if I’m going to sell more books, I probably need to work on that. So I have seen the future of commercial fiction. And it’s short. Very.

[The photograph at the top of the post is ‘Dry Garden in Ryoanji’  by Stephane D’Alu, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]