Perhaps it’s generational, but the minimalist style that became such a dominant mode of literary fiction in the seventies and eighties has never been to my taste. The influence of Raymond Carver (or, to be more precise, Carver/Lish) and Ann Beattie—with their concentration on surfaces and every sentence pared to the bone—continued to be felt, if to a degree lessened with time, during my tenure in an MFA program in the early 2000’s, and the style undoubtedly maintains a prime spot in the crazy quilt patchwork that makes up our contemporary fiction.
As Ann Beattie informed The Paris Review, “I only have a certain bag of tricks. And that’s why the little things… make a difference.” This microscopic attention to detail, where every word and punctuation must carry a great deal of weight, is exactly why Beattie and her minimalist compatriots are so useful for study. We may not wish to write like Ann Beattie, may wish our own “bag of tricks” to contain much, much more, but we can certainly learn from her. Most significant to our discussion, perhaps no other writer so clearly illustrates the staggering degree of precision required for our art to be its most effective.
The following examples, therefore, come from Beattie’s Walks With Men, with the hand-marked manuscript version having appeared beside an interview in the Spring issue of The Paris Review. In manuscript, this is how the novella originally opened:
In the 80’s, in New York, I befriended a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him. The deal was this: he’d tell me anything, anything, as long as the information went unattributed, as long as no one knew he and I had even met. At first it didn’t seem like much of a deal, but my intuition told me he knew something I didn’t yet know about the way men thought. I wasn’t interested in bragging, so I liked it that nobody would know we meant anything to each other: not the university where he taught, or the magazine where he was on staff.
And here is how it appeared in the published work:
In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him. The deal was this: he’d tell me anything, anything, as long as the information went unattributed, as long as no one knew he and I had any real relationship. At first it didn’t seem like much of a deal, but my intuition told me he knew something I didn’t yet know about the way men thought – and back then, I thought understanding men would give me information about the way I could make a life for myself. I liked his idea that nobody would know we meant anything to each other: not the college where he taught, or the magazine where he was on staff. Not my boyfriend in Vermont.
The initial changes are quite minor: “the 80’s” becomes “1980,” and “befriended” becomes “met.” They showcase, however, how precision can require seemingly opposing strategies. Shifting from a whole decade to an exact year demonstrates precision the way we typically think of it, as a move towards greater specificity. The choice to eliminate “befriended,” on the other hand, performs the opposite function: Beattie chooses to be more vague and, in doing so, paradoxically becomes more precise. This is due to the fact that the characterization of friendship shortchanges the complexity of the novella’s central relationship. Simply put, “befriended” sets the reader off in the wrong direction. By being more ambiguous, “met” leaves the reader in precisely the uncertain spot where Beattie wishes us to reside.
The other changes here are purely additions. Adding to the “understanding men” line gives us a significantly clearer sense of the narrator’s voice and character. Even more importantly, the addition of a “boyfriend in Vermont,” particularly coming at the end of the paragraph, provides the opening with an obvious tension by hinting of future conflict. This, in turn, offers a stronger narrative drive. Despite our tendency to associate Beattie with a fairly radical late twentieth century shift in writing, the technique she uses here is as utterly traditional (and effective) as this line from nearly a hundred years earlier: “All children, except one, grow up.”
A little further down the page, Beattie’s revisions perform a similar function. Here, again, is a paragraph from the manuscript:
It was not realistic to think nobody would be aware that he and I knew each other, because he’d been the writer assigned to provide another perspective to things I’d said when I was interviewed by The New York Times. I suppose people could have thought that what was printed was just one person in the media addressing someone else, but in any case, I didn’t say no. I was interested.
And from the published version:
Neil had been the writer assigned to provide a perspective on statements I’d made when I was interviewed by the New York Times, about why my generation was so disillusioned, but unlike most subjects and commentators, we met. Soon afterwards, he made his offer, and I didn’t say no. I was interested. I’d only had two long-term relationships, and I had never had an affair.
Beattie again simultaneously pares down and fleshes out. All references to outside observers, either of the pair’s relationship (“to think nobody would be aware that he and I knew each other”) or as readers of the piece he’d written about her (“people could have thought”) are eliminated. In their place, the new material returns the focus purely towards the novella’s subjects: the relationship and, of course, the narrator herself. We now get a sense of the narrator’s status as a celebrity who could be considered a voice of her “generation,” and in this version, we receive greater clarity by learning that what goes on between her and “Neil” (his name is also a new addition) is definitely an “affair.” Even with the manuscript’s already stripped prose, Beattie finds ample space for cutting and then further tightening her focus. As a result, these two paragraphs in their revised form offer a distillation of the entire novella to come.
What more can we ask from revision?
From “The Curtain” (1936):
The air steamed. The walls and ceiling of the glass house dripped. In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches all over the place, and the smell of them was almost as overpowering as the smell of boiling alcohol.
From The Big Sleep (1939)
The air was thick, wet, steamy and laced with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket.
If Ann Beattie’s prose has cast a shadow of influence over following generations of writers, Raymond Chandler’s has caused a full-on eclipse. For better or worse, he set much of the stylistic template for the hardboiled detective genre that remains in use today, and what we see here is a fairly early example of how he achieved this. Any Chandler fan should recognize the above sentences, at least how they appeared in The Big Sleep: Philip Marlow is ushered into a greenhouse to meet the decrepit, wheelchair-bound millionaire that will set him off on a classically labyrinthine investigation.
The first version of this scene appeared in the pulp magazine Black Mask, and while evocative, the passage has little power of the revision Chandler published three years later in The Big Sleep. Both of these examples appear in David Madden’s Revising Fiction, where Madden convincingly argues that the changes here result from the pulp magazine and the novel having different audiences: “Chandler knew his quick readers of the Black Mask… For the novel, published by Knopf, a quality house, he hoped for more patient readers.”
This explanation, however, is overly simplistic. What we see here, more importantly, is Chandler revising to reach what we now recognize as his trademark style. We’ve discussed before how, as writers, we revise to find our story, but this is “story” in the broadest sense of the word: the defining aspect, the fundamental essence of any given work. In a sense, the entire process of writing involves fumbling towards this essence, which typically only becomes less abstract, more tangible for both ourselves and our readers, through revision.
For Chandler, his style and narrative technique go hand and hand with this essence: once the action of a scene starts, the prose strips down to little more than nouns followed by verbs interspliced with terse dialogue, as in this example which appears later in The Big Sleep:
I hit Agnes on the head with less delicacy than before, kicked her off my feet, and stood up. Brody flicked his eyes at me. I showed him the automatic. He stopped trying to get his hands into his pocket.
“Christ!” He whined. “Don’t let her kill me!”
I began to laugh.
Before the action, however, particularly when setting a scene, Chandler’s style can be surprisingly florid, if balanced with an aggressively masculine sense of irony. We see in his revision that he piles on sensory details that, at the most, are only alluded to in the earlier version: “steamed” becomes “thick, wet, steamy and laced” and so on. “The smell of boiling alcohol” transforms into something much more visceral with the addition of “a blanket.” This type of nearly over-the-top description is the hallmark of Chandler’s writing, what makes him different from Dashiell Hammett and separates him from countless other pulp contemporaries.
The early version reads just fine, but it lacks distinction and doesn’t fully place the reader in Marlowe’s world. By amping up the sensory details through revision, Chandler achieves no less than the discovery of his voice, his story, and yes, his essence.