Thursday, February 12, 2009


A 'minimalist' painting by Mark RothkoSome of you might’ve noticed that title from yesterday’s post was a play on the title of a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver, a story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The story appears in a collection of the same title that was published in the early 1980s, a few years before Carver died (in 1988). Carver’s fame peaked right around the time of his death and just after, actually. Robert Altman was kind of riding the Carver wave there when made an interesting, unwieldy film called Short Cuts in 1993 that cleverly weaved together a number of different Carver stories into a lengthy feature.

Not a lot “happens” in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Two couples sit around a kitchen table one afternoon drinking gin and sharing anecdotes about themselves and others, all of which present differing definitions of “love.” Eventually the sun goes down, the bottle is empty, and the story just ends.

'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' by Raymond CarverIn terms of plot, the story sort of resembles a poker game. The four characters each have their own “styles,” with one (Mel, the cardiologist) kind of dominating the action. And there’s no particular “resolution” -- the story just ends.

Carver often got grouped with a few other writers like Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, Frederick Barthelme, and others into a category called “minimalism.” The category gets defined in different ways, but chiefly refers to a “lean” or “sparse” style that eschews flowery description and other judgmental intrusions in favor of letting the characters speak for themselves. The style or subgenre can be traced back to writers like Ernest Hemingway and even some “hard-boiled” guys like James Cain and Jim Thompson.

Actually, the name “minimalism” is a bit misleading when it comes to Carver, and, indeed, to most of the writers who usually get filed under that heading. But I suppose the main idea -- that when it comes to the storytelling the author tries to keep out of the way and let the reader decide what to think of the characters -- is a valid way of describing these authors’ approach.

Thinking about Carver got me wondering about how one could be said to employ a “minimalist” style at the poker table.

I’m not necessarily talking about the business of minimizing one’s tells at a live game, the kind of thing Dan Harrington and Bill Robertie talk about in Harrington on Cash Games, Volume II when they discuss “The Patrik Antonius Way” in which the Finnish player “just sits at a table, stiff as a board, and stares silently at a fixed point in space... giv[ing] a good expression of a catatonic trance” while his opponent decides what to do.

No, what I was thinking about was how that effect the so-called “minimalist” writers sought to achieve -- namely, not to “tip their hands” (so to speak) with regard to how they intended their stories to be interpreted -- was probably also an effect one desires to achieve at the poker table. That is, playing your hands in a manner that hides your intentions, your values, your “style.” You let your “cards speak” -- and your bets and your folds -- just as the authors let their characters speak, withholding overt judgments by which to guide readers’ interpretations. Let your opponents try to figure it all out. Show, don’t tell.

The paradox is that it takes maximum effort to be a minimalist. I think that’s one reason why Carver and some of the other writers who were pegged as such didn’t necessarily care for the designation -- it made it sound like they weren’t trying!

It’s a lot easier just to sit there and explain yourself over and over to everyone else. In fact, next time you’re playing, take a look around the table and notice how many of your opponents are doing just that.

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Blogger Gene said...

I think I have that very edition lying around in a box somewhere. Wrote a very good paper about Carver in college, very good indeed. Liked his work very much, Mason less so. Some minimalist writers do indeed look like they aren't trying--or that they don't have a firm grasp of language. If you want people to plumb the unspoken depths of your stories it certainly helps to be considered a genius (a la Hemingway).

2/12/2009 10:13 AM  
Blogger Mike G said...

You sir are the most articulate writer on poker around today - or blogger at least.

Nice work but I wonder if you play as well as you write?

2/25/2009 9:40 PM  

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