When Less IS MoreUnderstanding Minimalist Fiction
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This lesson pairs Ernest Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain" with Raymond Carver's "Little Things" to guide students to an understanding of the characteristics of minimalist fiction. When asked to think about the reasons behind the popularity of minimalism, students begin to appreciate how literature develops and learn to see it as a reflection of the culture.
Students read both stories, generate a list of characteristics of each, and compare them using a Venn diagram. After reading background information about Carver and his role as an early minimalist writer, students read additional Carver stories and develop a list of the characteristics of minimalist writing. They then apply the list to Hemingway's "Cat in the Rain" and compare the plot, setting, conflict, and themes of Hemingway's story with Carver's "Little Things." Next, students explore the roots of minimalism and write in the minimalist style, an activity that encourages clear, concise prose.
Basic Qualities of Minimalist Fiction: This handout lists the basic characteristics of minimalist fiction.
Venn Diagram: Students can use this online tool to compare any two items, including short stories.
From Theory to Practice
[Raymond] Carver is widely seen as the writer who introduced the minimalist style to American fiction in the 1970s. In doing so, he, like Hemingway decades before, influenced an entire generation of young writers-a group of whom, Jay McInerney among them, became known as the literary Brat Pack. Their very contemporary and very minimalist stories filled the pages of the best magazines and journals in the United States in the early 1980s-and so began a renaissance of the short story. . . .Carver greatly admired Hemingway's writing and saw it as an influence on his own work. He called "Cat in the Rain" "one of my favorite stories by Ernest Hemingway" (Pope and McElhinny 17), so I like to offer my students the story as we begin reading Carver and other early minimalists, in order to remind them that literature develops from the writing that came before it.
(Excerpted and Adapted from Rubenstein 18-19)
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Materials and Technology
- “Cat in the Rain” in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway (Scribner’s, 1987)
- “Little Things” in Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories by Raymond Carver (Vintage Contemporaries, 1989)
- “The Bath” in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (Vintage Books, 1989) (optional)
- McInerney, Jay, 1989. "Raymond Carver: A Still, Small Voice." New York Times Book Review (August 6): 1, 24–25. (optional)
- Obtain copies of "Cat in the Rain" by Ernest Hemingway and "Little Things" by Raymond Carver.
- If you would like to use more than one Carver story in this lesson (see #11 under “Instruction and Activities - Session One”), obtain copies of another short Carver story. One excellent choice is "The Bath."
- Familiarize yourself with biographical information on Hemingway and Carver in order to talk about the different time periods in which each story was written. Some useful Websites are listed in the Resources section.
- Prepare copies of the Reflection Sheet for students’ self-assessment.
- Test the Venn Diagram on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- read fiction by Ernest Hemingway and determine the characteristics of his style.
- read fiction by Raymond Carver and determine the characteristics of his style.
- compare and contrast the work of Hemingway and Carver.
- discover the qualities of minimalist writing.
- understand the reasons for the popularity of minimalist writing.
- apply their knowledge to write their own pieces in the minimalist style.
- employ all the steps of the writing process to create a polished piece.
- Present "Little Things" by Raymond Carver to students via print copies (if available) or by reading it aloud.
- Ask students, “How is this story different from the fiction you typically read?” (Students will likely note such things as “short simple sentences,” “easy vocabulary,” “little action,” “very little detail or description,” “no names,” and most significantly “no real ending.”) Note their responses on the board.
- Present "Cat in the Rain" by Ernest Hemingway and repeat the exercise. Typically, students will note similar characteristics to "Little Things."
- Project the the Venn Diagram and arrange the characteristics that students have identified into the two circles, one for each author.
- For items that are placed in the middle, overlapping area, guide students to see that these characteristics are even more extreme/exaggerated in "Little Things."
- Ask students what they know about Hemingway and his writing. (Students with an American Literature background are apt to have some knowledge, whereas younger students may be unfamiliar with his work.) For background material, access the Websites listed in the Resources section. Point out to students that "Cat in the Rain" was written in the 1920s.
- Introduce students to Raymond Carver. For background material, access the Websites listed in the Resources section.
- Point out to students that "Little Things" was written in the 1970s and that the writing of Carver ushered in a new style called minimalism, a style that is regarded as very contemporary and is still popular today.
- Introduce students to the idea that literature develops from the writing that came before it. Explain that the activity they are about to do in small groups will help illustrate this.
- Assign students to work in small groups to compile lists of the qualities they believe characterize the work of Carver.
- If time allows, suggest that students read another short Carver story to help them determine these characteristics. An excellent choice is "The Bath."
- Students can continue this work as homework if necessary.
- Instruct each group to write their list of qualities on large poster paper and hang these lists in the classroom. Tell students to be prepared to offer specific examples from the text to illustrate the qualities they have listed.
- Give students time to determine what qualities appear on more than one list, and work as a group to draw up a composite list.
- Encourage the class to discuss the characteristics they have identified and to share their examples from the text.
- Explain that this list defines the minimalist style. See the Basic Qualities of Minimalist Fiction for a possible list of qualities.
- Present two key phrases connected to minimalism to the class: “Less is more” and “Tell it like it is.”
- Ask students to compare this list of characteristics to those evident in Hemingway’s "Cat in the Rain."
- Ask them also to compare the plot, setting, conflict, and themes of both stories, using the Venn Diagram if desired.
- Guide students to see that both stories relate an unhappy moment in the lives of the two couples and that this brief glimpse is likely indicative of a larger problem in both relationships.
- Introduce Hemingway’s well-known concept of the iceberg structure:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writing is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as styrongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
Death in the Afternoon (Scriber’s, 1932), p. 192.
- Discuss the idea that only one-eighth of the story is “above water”, and connect the concept to Carver’s writing and the minimalist style. (For further discussion of this, see Raymond Carver in the Classroom “A Small, Good Thing” by Susanne Rubenstein. Urbana: NCTE, 2005, pp. 19–20.)
- Begin class by asking students to imagine why the minimalist style might have developed in the 1970s and remained popular in contemporary times.
- Ask them to come up with reasons why writing that is short, simple, and straightforward (i.e., “minimal”) might have appealed particularly to readers in the 1970s. (See Reasons for the Development and Continued Popularity of Minimalism for some possible explanations.) Compile their responses on the board.
- Use this material to guide students to an understanding of literature as a reflection of a time and a society.
- Guide students to begin to see that writers are also influenced by the styles of their literary predecessors.
- Explain to students that the early minimalists of the 1970s (a group that includes Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, and Mary Robison) had a strong influence on another generation of writers, the “Brat Pack” of the 1980s (a name coined by the media for a group of young writers that includes Jay McInerney, Susan Minot, Lorrie Moore, Peter Cameron, and Tama Janowitz).
- See Extensions for a further activity, if desired.
- Tell students that they will now have the opportunity to experiment with the minimalist style in their own writing. Allow students to work alone or in pairs. Tell them they will all be writing about a human interaction.
- Ask students to brainstorm a list of topics involving a human interaction that they could use as the focus for a short fiction piece. Examples include a loss, a meeting and first impression, a moment of fear, and a goodbye. These examples should be general, just enough to allow a framework for the writing.
- Give students class time to work on a quick first draft of the piece.
- Tell them to employ as many characteristics of minimalist fiction as they can successfully incorporate into their piece.
- Allow time for writers to share their pieces aloud.
- Ask students in class to note examples of the minimalist style, and use their comments to reinforce the material you have been teaching.
- Ask students to discuss what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the writing style as seen in their classmates’ stories.
- Instruct students to continue working on these pieces at home, and assign a second draft as homework.
- During this session, focus students’ attention on response and revision of the second draft.
- Ask students to share their drafts with three or four other students, and ask that the responders emphasize feedback that will strengthen the use of the minimalist style.
- After response time, ask students to talk about the positive aspects of the pieces.
- Through this discussion, guide students to see that the simplicity of the writing is a strong point and that this clarity is something all writers should attempt to achieve.
- Allow students as much time as needed to continue to rework these drafts, both at home and in class.
- Tell students that you will ultimately collect a final draft of the minimalist piece, which will be graded.
- Tell students to read a short story by one of the early minimalists who were writing at the same time as Raymond Carver. Excellent choices are Ann Beattie, Mary Robison, and Grace Paley. Ask students to present the story to the class, focusing their presentations on the similarities they see between their chosen story and the work of Hemingway and Carver. This activity can be done individually or in small groups.
- Give students a list of “Brat Pack” writers, and ask them to select a short story to read and present to the class. Tell students to focus their presentation on the writer’s style and themes and to emphasize the story’s connection to the work of Carver. This activity can be done individually or in small groups.
- Assign a variation on the writing assignment above. If students have written fiction or personal narratives prior to this lesson, instruct them to take their piece of writing and rewrite it using a minimalist style. Have students share their pieces, compare and contrast the writing, and discuss which is the more effective version.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Grade each minimalist story as a complete writing assignment. When students are writing and revising their stories, they should be guided by the specific characteristics listed through class discussion and outlined in the handout Basic Qualities of Minimalist Fiction.
- Students can assess their work and learning by completing a reflection sheet to be handed in with the story. As with all reflection sheets, this should include 4–5 questions that make the reader really think about the piece and the process that led to its creation. Suggested questions include:
- What is your opinion of the minimalist style? Do you like/dislike it? Why?
- How does the minimalist style differ from your usual writing style?
- Which of the minimalist characteristics do you think you were most successful in using in your piece? Why?
- What do you think is the strongest line in the story? Why?
- What did you struggle most with in creating this story in the minimalist style? Why do you think that was difficult?
- What was the best piece of advice you got from your response group?
- What was the most significant thing you learned in this study of minimalism?
- What is your opinion of the minimalist style? Do you like/dislike it? Why?