Robert Carver himself admitted to being heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing in which what isn’t said is perhaps even more important that what is said. Hemingway referred to this style as an “iceberg” approach because the reader is only getting a small portion of a much bigger picture. (Of course, another way to look at it is from the perspective of being too lazy or uncreative to write a whole story so you pawn responsibility off on your readers, but that’s just my take on the chore that it is reading Ernest Hemingway.)
Regardless, it is, of course, a dangerous aesthetic on which to hang understanding of your literary endeavor, assuming as it does that an audience will be capable of connecting points that are not explicitly laid out, though that danger may have been less pronounced when Hemingway and Carver were actually writing than it is today with the average reader raised on the television aesthetic of having everything carefully explained to them.
The frustration level for many readers who pick up a story by Carver or Hemingway is ironic in that the language is often far more accessible than that of other writers. The frustration therefore comes not from the heightened level of language, but from the fact that so little information seems to be given. The minimalist approach can best be characterized as a style that devoutly subscribes to the concept that less is more. That is a phrase that is casually tossed around when speaking on a variety of media, from stage productions to television commercials. But what does “less is more” really mean when applied to literature? Certainly, one can make a case that one of the appeals the great Russian novelists or Charles Dickens is that they provide such a wealth of dense information that they essentially paint a picture in the mind not unlike a movie. When most 19th century writers describe a room, the average person can probably imagine it almost as fully as any set designer in Hollywood. The image that most people have of Victorian London can be traced back to the lush descriptions of Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. One may well question, then, the point of minimalist technique.
Beyond the familiar phrase “less is more”, of course, minimalist technique can be characterized by a desire for economy in word choice where brevity is the greatest accomplishment and verbosity must be avoided at all cost. The idea is really to provide just as much information to the reader as is necessary and then to invite him to become an active partner in the comprehending what is really happening. Ernest Hemingway is typically granted the status as progenitor of this approach, and if he wasn’t the first then he was certainly the most famous. But just as form followed function for Dickens and Doyle who had to pad out their stories as a result of their being serialized in magazines over a period of time, so was Hemingway’s adoption of his iceberg technique related to his formative career as a journalist. A newspaper writer has little choice but to find a terse way of writing and Hemingway adopted and transmitted this style into his fiction. Also figuring prominently in his adoption of this technique was invention of the movie camera. With the ability to film things that most people had never seen before, there was no longer the need to describe in the great detail of the 19th century novelists. By the time Ernest Hemingway began writing, a massive shift in the aesthetic sensibilities of readers had already taken place. He could write a story that took place in Africa or Europe secure in the knowledge that readers were no longer dependent upon excessive descriptions to form a mental image.
By the time Hemingway wrote “Hills Like White Elephants” he had jettisoned any journalistic reasons for writing in a minimalist style and had fully adopted it for literary reasons. This story is the ultimate testimony to the trust that writers of minimalist fiction give to their readers; almost nothing that is truly important to the story is actually said. Hemingway’s approach to minimalist fiction is here cemented in his insistence to avoid explanations. And that technique of avoidance finds voice in the character of Jig who is as stubborn in her refusal to discuss the issue of the abortion as is Hemingway’s refusal to be more explicit. The subject of the story also lends itself to the iceberg technique as a story about an unmarried woman having an abortion probably could not have been successfully published unless it was elliptically done. That, in fact, is one of the stark differences between Hemingway and Robert Carver. Robert Carver’s minimalist technique was entirely by choice; Hemingway to a certain extent had it thrust upon him.
In addition to certain impositions of censorship to which Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist technique owes a great deal, another key element that shaped his writing were the themes inherent in the Modernist movement. The ideas of disillusionment, alienation and the confusion of a rapidly changing world are expressed in “Hills Like White Elephants” in the inability of the man and woman to effectively communicate or fully understand their predicament. The pregnancy that forever changes the relationship between the man and the woman reflects the modernity of 20th century society in which events unfold at a faster pace and disaster can always be waiting around the corner. Hemingway’s prose is stark, reflecting the inability of modern man to fully comprehend the changes taking place around him. And the devastation of the relationship based on the surprise pregnancy and the characters’ confusion over how to deal with is reflected in the terse narration that almost seems to be more an effect of not knowing how to write about it than a literary choice.
Raymond Carver did not come out of the Modernist movement and the alienation he writes about is not one of geographic expatriation in a futile attempt to connect, but instead reflects the feeling of America following a second World War. Unlike Hemingway’s characters who are mostly emigrants from America, Carver’s characters are situated in a society that has discovered itself to be suddenly the most important country in the world. Robert Carver’s characters relate to America in an entirely different way than Hemingway’s; no longer bound by censorship, their foibles and failings can be expressed on the surface. However, just because his characters may be able to talk about such things as abortions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will. If Ernest Hemingway chose not to specifically address specific issues in his stories partially out of societal conventions, when Raymond Carver’s characters dance around an issue it is wholly because he wants it that way. An excellent example of the differences between Hemingway and Carver can be found in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Although alcohol consumption certainly plays a significant part in the development of relationships between men and women in Hemingway’s stories, the specter of alcoholism never as explicitly delineated as in Carver’s tale. The story begins almost innocently, with four sober people discussing the meaning of love and ends with four alcoholics revealing an utter inability to communicate or connect in any meaningful way. However, Carver’s technique is quite similar to Hemingway’s in that avoids overwriting this conversion from sobriety to drunkenness. That Carver has the advantage of being able to write openly about issues that Hemingway couldn’t, and that he consciously withheld himself from taking that advantage, can be seen in the story “Viewfinder.” This story is an excellent example of how Carver engages the minimalist approach not out of necessity but purely for artistic reasons; it is indicative of his choice to highlight his theme through dissociative techniques that throw relief on the psychology of characters by throwing them into situations with other characters that force them to confront their own failings.
This technique provides another contrast between Hemingway and Carver; where Hemingway’s prose represents the struggle for communication that all too often ends up in miscommunication, Carver’s bare bones approach represents the difficulty that language often presents in allowing people to better understand each other. The minimalist techniques employed by Ernest Hemingway and Robert Carver share the similarity of taking the less is more approach to writing. But the manner of execution is often in stark contrast.