The Beauty of Ordinary Stuff in Frederick Barthelme's Short Stories

Seminar Paper, 2009

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Frederick Barthelme's Aesthetics
2.1 The Author
2.2 Minimalism – History and Critique
2.3 Features of Minimalism
2.4 Ordinary Stuff – Comparison between Carver and Barthelme
2.5 Denial of Consumer Criticism
2.6 What is the Ordinary Stuff
2.7 Purposes and Benefits of Barthelme's Aesthetics

3 Examples for Ordinary Stuff in Driver and Cleo

4 Conclusion

The Beauty of ordinary Stuff

in Frederick Barthelme's short Stories

1. Introduction

The concept of beauty provides room for neverending discussions and is discribed by multiple explanations and definitions which disperse widely and will never reach a common point. The problem in describing beauty is, that it is an absolutely subjective concept for which almost every human being has a different idea.

By definition, no definition or association of beauty can be wrong, but through the ages, a cultural imprint has built a frame what can be considered as beautyful.

The biggest influence on the human conception of beauty is exerted by the arts. In Literature and in visual arts, there is an inseparable link between beauty and nature most of the times. In many epochs, the divine brilliance of nature represents the human picture of beauty. Mainly in romanticism and naturalism, artists escape from the abhorred engineered reality of the industrial revolution into the sublime nature. As a component of the natural beauty, the human beauty respectively the beauty of gender plays a big role in the arts.

Beside visual arts and literature, beauty always was an important subject in philosophy, where philosophers saw beauty in truth or in supernatural or divine phenomenons.

Most of the time, beauty is something that takes place in higher spheres or is something very rare, we do not experience in our everyday life and something to aspire toward.

But never we talk about the beauty of a parking lot, a shopping mall or the wrapping of a chocolate-bar – the beaty of ordinary stuff. Else wise in Frederick Barthelme's short stories. He talks about all these things we come across in everyday life like cars and television – not to pass criticism on the consumer society. He really wants to open the readers’ eyes for the beauty of the ordinary stuff so near to everybody.

In this assignment, I want to analyze how Barthelme can see something beautiful in things and places like a parking lot and if and how this very different concept of beauty can be linked to the usual perception.

2. Frederick Barthelme's Aesthetics

2.1 The Author

Frederick Barthelme was born on October 10, 1943 in Houston, Texas as brother of Donald Barthelme, one of the major exponents of postmodernism in literature and Steve Barthelme, also a respected author. Frederick Barthelme started his career in plastic arts with upcoming success. His works were exhibited in the Seattle Art Museum and in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Nevertheless he soon turned away from plastic arts and began his writing career. He made the Master of Arts in creative writing at John Hopkins University and is Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. Frederick Barthelme is counted as one of the most important representatives for literal minimalism together with authors like Raymond Carver or Mary Robinsons.

2.2 Minimalism – History and Critique

Barthelme is not only a representative for minimalism, along with Raymond Carver he is one of the founders of this writing style. Barthelme developed his own writing style as a clear differentiation to postmodernism, for which his brother Donald was famous. But also he did not want to fall back into realism. Some see minimalism between realism and postmodernism, like Chrzasnowska-Karpinska, who claims that minimalism stands in realist tradition because it picks up the ordinary but also contains postmodernist symptoms like “dissociation” or “disconnection”.[1]

The new minimalism also had strong opponents, who used the term as cuss. Barthelme was designated as “dirty realist”. In the 1960s and the 1970s, postmodernism was the preferred writing style, so people were used to, that everything was written in the experimental mode. The new style was considered as odd and old-fashioned.[2] Simply a dirty return to realism.

Critics like Madison Smartt Bell accuse minimalist writers to “be cynically knocking out stories that deliberately said too little”. Barthelme's instead answers, that the new style of writing was an attempt on the part of members of his generation to separate themselves from both the postmodernism of an older generation (including his brother Donald) and the traditional realism in the mid-1970s. “Neither realism nor the adventure of post-modernism was going to get it”.[3] So for Frederick Barthelme his writing style was not a simple descendant of realism, it was a brand-new writing style. It is worth mentioning, that Frederick Barthelme himself at first did not use the term “Minimalism”. He saw his writing as “Representation”. Nonetheless the common term “Minimalism” will be used in this paper.

2.3 Features of Minimalism

To bring light into dark after all the explanations what minimalism is not and after all the critique it shall now be examined how this writing style looks like.

Minimalist works are written in a straight, simple style with often colloquial vocabulary. Most of the stories are written out of the sight of a first person, participating narrator in present tense. The short stories are written with a minimum of narrative devices and get by with very little action.[4] The settings mostly take place in small clippings of privacy in contemporary American everyday life.[5] They are set in a narrow space like a living room or a kitchen[6] or in public places like a parking lot or a mall. The persons, taking part in minimalist short stories are mostly lower-class or average middle-class and often the stories get along with two to three persons, who could be wife and husband, but also often persons who accidentally met somewhere.

Another very important element of minimalist fiction is common things – ordinary stuff. Settings can be ordinary and also items which are seemingly insignificantly play an under part in the stories are still very important for the atmosphere of the stories.

2.4 Ordinary Stuff – Comparison between Carver and Barthelme

Not all of the authors which are numbered to minimalism depict ordinary stuff and ordinary life the same way. Here, a short comparison between Raymond Carver and Frederick Barthelme concerning these stylistic devices should be drawn.

Both of the named authors practice unchallengeable the minimalist style of writing, but they do that with big differences. Barthelme's stories take place in middle-class society, Carver's rather in lower classes. Barthelme's protagonists never have any real existential problems. Carver's settings and actions are much more tragic, while Barthelme's contents are rather facile and hold much more playful elements.[7] The same applies to their handling with the ordinary stuff. Raymond Carver focuses on the characters; he almost never mentions brands or settings like malls or fast-food restaurants and at most uses some ordinary stuff to point out the financial situation of his anti-heroes. Miriam Marty Clark asserts that “There are no popular songs […] and no advertising jingles; there are, despite some erroneous assertions by critics, very few brand names. There are few current events, few books […] and only one or two TV programs.”[8] Barthelme's Stories instead live from ordinary stuff like his settings at ordinary places, common brands, artificial surfaces or colours, cars, packaging and so forth, they are “governed and drugged by gadgets and other quick bright things”.[9] All these devices will be mentioned more detailed, later.


[1] Jutta Person, “Less Is More“, 27

[2] Robert Rebein, “Hicks, Tribes & Dirty Realists“, 22

[3] Robert Rebein, “Hicks, Tribes & Dirty Realists“, 35

[4] Jutta Person, “Less Is more“, 13

[5] Jutta Person, “Less Is more“, 11

[6] Robert Rebein, “Hicks, Tribes & Dirty Realists“,36

[7] Jutta Person, “Less Is More“, 95

[8] Miriam Marty Clark, “Raymond Carver's Monologic Imagination“, Modern Fiction Studies 37:2, 242

[9] Richard Eder for Los Angeles Times, quoted at the back of Moon Deluxe

Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Beauty of Ordinary Stuff in Frederick Barthelme's Short Stories
University of Stuttgart
American short fiction
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In dieser Arbeit wird die Schönheit des Gewöhnlichen, ein essentieller Bestandteil Minimalistischer Literatur, in den short stories von Frederick Barthelme betrachtet. Content of this Term Paper is the beauty of ordinary stuff - an important element of minimalist literature - in Frederick Barthelme's short stories.
Beauty, Ordinary, Stuff, Frederick, Barthelme, Short, Stories
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Matthias Dorsch (Author), 2009, The Beauty of Ordinary Stuff in Frederick Barthelme's Short Stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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