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Bill curates: What do I mean by spare?

July 31, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

During this first year as a blogger (2009) Sue wrote an astonishing number of well-researched and interesting posts. Let’s say 4 per week at around 600 words per post. So I’m starting to skip posts that I might otherwise have included. Today Sue proposes a definition for ‘spare’, which I am sure you will agree with me is an important quality in good writing.
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My original post titled: “What do I mean by spare?”

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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I love that Bill chose this post, because all these years later it is still dear to my heart. Thinking more about writers, particularly women, espousing sparer writing, I would add someone like Helen Garner. She is not given to imagistic flourishes, but writes the most beautiful sentences. She’s not the only one I can think of but, rather than produce my own list I’d love to hear from you …

Do you like spare writing, and can you recommend some spare writers or, spare works?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2020 10:37 am

    My go-to example for spare writing would be George Orwell, closely followed by Joseph Conrad. They are writers I admire greatly (and as you say, are men). Yet if you asked what writing I liked most it would be the detail and slightly archaic style of the C19th.

    • July 31, 2020 2:55 pm

      Ah, so not so spare Bill!

      I do like detail too, particularly if it is provided with wit and/or intelligence. In the end, it depends on the writer, doesn’t it?

  2. July 31, 2020 3:13 pm

    The Irish, both male and female, are very good at spare writing. Spare writing is a favourite of mine, which is why i like Irish writers so much. Spare writing doesn’t need to be dull; it can be very lyrical.

    • July 31, 2020 3:31 pm

      Oh you’re right, kimbofo. I haven’t read a lot of Irish writing, but what I have read does tend to be spare. And I do like Irish writing too. Ireland is definitely not desert-like, but it can be very bleak, which, drawing a very long bow (I may as well), can, I suspect, also encourage spare writing!

  3. July 31, 2020 4:26 pm

    This is a fascinating post. The spare writing style is appealing to me. I love Hemingway as well as other examples.

    The observation about women writers is fascinating. I have not read extensively enough to have a strong opinion about it. A little googling turned up this article about Ellen La Motte who I have not read.

    https://theconversation.com/did-a-censored-female-writer-inspire-hemingways-famous-style-113722

  4. July 31, 2020 8:37 pm

    So interesting. As I read down your post I realised that I, also, am a fan of “spare” writing. I think my own writing is spare – and I’m a woman – and Irish! On the other hand, a writer like Dickens is the absolute opposite of spare, and I love him too.

    • August 1, 2020 12:13 am

      Oh thanks, Elizabeth. I think we probably just like good writing, but it’s nice to analyse what makes good writing sometimes, isn’t it?

  5. George permalink
    August 1, 2020 8:41 am

    It seems to me that there is economical, which one could consider Austen to be, and then there is spare, a style that is so economical as to draw attention to itself. I suppose that one could consider Marianne Moore’s poetry to be spare. (Randall Jarrell remarked that the English regarded Moore, W.C. Williams, and Wallace Stevens as if they were three triangles from Flatland; but Stevens didn’t run to spareness.)

    One can at times get enough of spareness. At a time in my life when leisure reading amounted to ten or fifteen minutes at night, I read and re-read J.V. Cunningham’s Collected Poems and Epigrams. I still think highly of them, but it struck me eventually that sometimes one wants something more, or at least other, than a highly-polished short poem.

    • August 1, 2020 9:07 am

      Yes, that’s a very good distinction George between economical and spare. I like it.

      I like the idea of sometimes wanting “other” rather than always wanting “more” than spare. I can imagine that reading it unrelieved could start to dry one out!

  6. August 3, 2020 8:56 am

    Many Japanese writers are spare or zen in their writing style. Sometimes so minimalist, you can be left wondering what on earth even happened!

  7. August 3, 2020 8:27 pm

    Lovely post. I think Elizabeth Strout is a spare writer. My Name is Lucy Barton uses deceptively simple language to devastating effect.

    • August 3, 2020 9:32 pm

      I really must read her Angela … I dream of having time to read for a good period of time.

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