A love for literary minimalism is a hatred for fluffy adverbs and all things purple. Well-written minimalist books are one of the best things this world has to offer.
Writers who adopt the style cut out everything that isn’t essential to the story’s heartbeat and get right to the point.
Writing a great minimalist book isn’t as easy as it often seems. To the untrained eye, the simple prose may feel elementary. But it’s not. It’s much, much harder.
The art of making a sentence sparse and stripped down is knowing everything it could be but only writing what it must. To always assume that the reader is the smartest person in the room and can figure things out for themselves.
Below are my (current) five favorite minimalist books of all-time.
1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The American Dream summed up, turned on its head, and satirized down to its brutal reality. Gatsby is the Great American Novel in every sense of the word. It just doesn’t get better than this.
Fitzgerald leaves you handing on every word of his lyrical prose, and looking and dreaming upon the green light of your own life. Reading Gatsby as a young man is a transformative experience, and one that I’d recommend everyone do.
The one knock on Gatsby (for this list’s purposes) is that it’s the least minimalistic of the lot. Fitzgerald’s prose sings round and round like the jazz of its time. But every word matters, and he never uses two when one would work the same.
2. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
While not a novel like the other four in this list, WWTA is a must for any reader exploring minimalist prose. Carver was a master of the stripped down sentence. Every word punched you right in the heart or gut. Sometimes both at once.
Every story in the collection varies in plot, but the feelings they leave you with are largely the same. And that’s a good, beautiful thing. It’s a feeling you want and need to feel and Carver makes you feel it deeply.
And even though the man himself didn’t like to be called a minimalist, it’s undeniable that he was. It would’ve taken most writers double the words to tell half the story.
3. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
It wouldn’t be a worthwhile list of minimalist prose without the inclusion of one Ernest Hemingway. While this isn’t my favorite book by Hem (that’d be To Have and Have Not), it’s the best example of his iceberg theory. And it was his first book, so there’s that.
So much of what matters in this book lies in what isn’t said. In between every line is another story much more interesting than the main plot. He masterfully sums up the Lost Generation without saying a word about them. Perfection.
Without Hem, who knows how many of the other writers on this list would’ve become the men that they become. In a way, he’s the godfather of the minimalist. And even if he’s not really, isn’t it pretty to think so?
4. Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski
You could change this list to my top five favorite books of all time full-stop, and Ham on Rye would still find its way onto it. Dark, troubling, and deeply hilarious—this is Buks at his best. The undisputed king of the LA’s literary underbelly.
It doesn’t take many words for the dirty old man to tell the tale of abuse, misfortune, and the drunken man that’s destined for a life of nothingness. He doesn’t seek out the greatness we all know’s to come. Yet it finds him anyway.
And that’s the beauty in Bukowski’s prose. It always finds a way to cut you right into the hard, even though its master couldn’t care less about you or what you think.
5. Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
At one time Bret Easton Ellis seemed to be the heir apparent to the minimalist thrown. But then came American Psycho and everything flew out the window. Despite being a masterpiece—his magnum opus, no doubt—Psycho isn’t what you’d call a piece of minimalist lit. Not at all.
Either way, leaving him off the list would be bordering on sacrilegious. Less Than Zero alone is enough for me to throw him on here. It’s easily one of the most stripped down, honest, and raw books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. And disturbing too.
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This will be a long, winding journey, but a necessary one nonetheless. And I can’t wait to share it with you.