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What do I mean by spare?

August 14, 2009

If you asked my kids what my favourite mantras are, they would probably include “less is more” as one of them. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy flamboyance and “over-the-topness”, because I most certainly do, but it is true that I am more often drawn to what I would call “the spare”.

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

Claypan in Wurre (Rainbow Valley), south of Alice Springs

As we drove recently through Central Australian desert country, I started thinking about why it is that I love deserts, why I am drawn to them – and it suddenly occurred to me that my love of deserts can probably be equated with my love of spare writing. There are similarities: deserts and spare writing look deceptively simple and even, at times, empty on the surface but, hidden beneath this surface is a complexity that you can only find by looking and, particularly, by knowing what to look for. Conversely, in say a rainforest or a big fat nineteenth century novel, you are confronted with an embarrassment of riches. This is not to say that they, too, don’t have their complexities, but the “wow factor” is in your face!

And so what exactly is spare writing? I realised that I have often called something spare but this has been an intuitive thing – I’ve never actually sat down and defined what I mean by it. I’m going to now – for my benefit even if not for anyone else’s!

What typifies spare writing?

Of course, nothing that I write below is exclusive or absolute – there are, as they say, exceptions to every rule, but there are too, I think, some generalities we can identify:

  • preponderance of short sentences
  • minimal use of adjectives and adverbs
  • apparent focus on the concrete rather than the abstract
  • simple dialogue
  • repetition
  • strong (often more staccato like) rhythm
  • short paragraphs and more white space on the page

By excluding anything that could be seen to be superfluous to the intent, the author can cut to the chase…and the chase is often the most elemental, the most intense of experience or emotion. In this sense spare prose is reminiscent of poetry – and in fact can often feel and sound poetic. Spare writing, though, can also be its own worst enemy: it can be so pared down, so concise, that it becomes elliptical; so non-florid, so unsentimental, that it can seem cold. But then, this is no different from any other style is it? There are those who use a style effectively and those who don’t. Used well, a spare style can grip me quickly and, often, viscerally.

Some proponents of the style

While Ernest Hemingway is the writer most often cited, I think, as a spare writer, I have read little of his work – something I would like to rectify. Albert Camus, particularly in works like The outsider, is spare: the protagonist Meursault explains little leaving it to the reader to untangle who he is and what he feels and believes (or not as the case may be!). JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is another rather spare work, exemplified by its detached tone, by the refusal of the main character to explain himself, and by its matter-of-fact description of fear and horror.

A recent very obvious example is Cormac McCarthy’s The road. This book is elemental in more ways than one: everything is pared down to the minimal – the landscape, the characters, the language. It is in fact about the struggle for life – literally and spiritually. The spare style – with its rhythmic repetitions – makes sure that we see that! And guess what? Its landscape, while not originally a desert has been made so by cataclysm. This is one of the sparest books I’ve read – and also one of the most mesmerising.

An observation

Have you noticed something about the above? All the examples are male. Is a spare style more suited to the male psyche? While I can’t think of any specific examples of women writing quite like the male writers I’ve described, I’d suggest that writers like – yes, I admit it, my favourites, Jane Austen and Elizabeth Jolley – are closer to the spare end of the writing spectrum. Austen, for example, is quite out of step with her female contemporaries, most of whom were writing Gothic or so-called sentimental novels. She is more rational, witty and ironic than descriptive and emotional…which is why, really, Charlotte Bronte, child of the Romantic age, didn’t much like her!

And here, in the interests of following my own “less is more” mantra, I shall close! I would though love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. August 15, 2009 1:34 pm

    Well, I’m not sure anyone will ever accuse me of spare writing. I love the kind of details that let the reader see what you’re seeing. However, I definitely share with you a love of the Central Australian deserts. Something out there just speaks to me. However, I’ll spare you the myriad adjectives and adverbs that leap to mind when the love of those wild, empty places comes flooding back into my mind and heart. ;-)

  2. whisperinggums permalink*
    August 15, 2009 1:52 pm

    LOL waltzingaustralia – I do like wild description too you know! I can tell you are a visual person. I think I’m more verbal/textual. Still, when it’s travel or food you’re writing about “painting the picture” for the reader is the way to go! Horses for courses a bit I reckon.

  3. August 15, 2009 2:06 pm

    Yes, I suppose it would be hard to read Jane if you didn’t like details. :)

  4. whisperinggums permalink*
    August 15, 2009 2:57 pm

    Oh yes, particularly those about the spotted muslin frocks! There’s an adjective or two.

  5. August 15, 2009 5:50 pm

    ANZ LitLovers has just finished discussing Opportunity, a Montana-winning collection of short stories by Charlotte Grimshaw (NZ) that is very spare indeed. I have already disposed of my copy, but if you would like a copy I’m sure that one of us will happily pass it on.
    MJ Hyland is another contemporary writer who is ‘spare’…

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      August 16, 2009 12:11 am

      I haven’t read either of those authors – have wanted to read Hyland for a while. Will try to check them out. But, don’t worry about copies of Grimshaw – I am really overladen at present and am not, I can see, even going to get through this month’s scheduled books. Did you dispose of Grimshaw because you didn’t like her much?

  6. residentjudge permalink
    August 15, 2009 6:21 pm

    I was thinking about Disgrace, The Road and The Outsider that you mentioned here, and my perception of them is that they have bleak, spare settings- but now you’ve got me wondering which came first- does the spare writing make the setting seem spare; or is a spare setting chosen that lends itself to spare writing?
    I was thinking of “teeming” settings (which I think of as opposite to spare) and they all seem to be humid, populated places e.g. subcontinental writing (Rushdie, Mistry) or South American (e.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez). And they lend themself to magical realism and convoluted, up- close writing.

    I don’t know about Hemingway- have I even read a Hemingway??? (big confession) But is there a spare book written about a jungle, I wonder? Would you call “Heart of Darkness” spare?- from memory, it would seem to fit your criteria??

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      August 16, 2009 12:17 am

      I’m not sure that the setting comes first but I can’t help thinking that that sort of setting suits the spare style. My sense is that the writer chooses the style and the setting to suit his/her intent…so I think (idealistically perhaps) that the intent comes first. BUT in some cases, I suspect that a writer develops a certain style and that that style drives everything else. I can’t think of a spare book in a jungle setting. I don’t think I’d see Heart of darkness as spare though it’s a long time since I’ve read it. My recollection is that it is more on the descriptive and wordy rather than terse side (albeit that it is a short book). BUT I’d be interested in more thoughts on this.

      The first book I recollect reading that I thought was spare was Kent Hanuf’s Plainsong – as I recollect it was set in the US mid west. Not quite desert but certainly not lush either.

      • residentjudge permalink
        August 16, 2009 7:00 pm

        I looked at Heart of Darkness again, and it certainly doesn’t come into the ‘spare’ category.

  7. whisperinggums permalink*
    August 16, 2009 9:11 pm

    Yes, I had a quick flick through it too and felt the same.

  8. Lithe lianas permalink
    August 23, 2009 8:08 pm

    And perhaps the sparest form of poetry is the haiku.

  9. whisperinggums permalink*
    August 23, 2009 8:17 pm

    Good point, lithe lianas.

  10. Hannah permalink
    August 23, 2009 9:25 pm

    Perhaps you could next compose a post on the novels and authors related to that other favourite mantra of yours: “It’s probably just allergies”…
    :)

    • whisperinggums permalink*
      August 23, 2009 9:40 pm

      For you, I just might…

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