I hear the term "lean prose" used a lot to describe writing, in particular crime fiction, and I was just wondering what everyone thinks the definition of "lean prose" is. I'm curious if we're all on the same page or do we have differing ideas of it.

For me, lean prose indicates simple writing, simple in that it doesn't use a lot of description, just enough words to get the point across. But then, it also seems that lean prose refers to a specific lack of description. I mean, if lean prose is just what's necessary and nothing else, then William Faulkner could be described as having lean prose. His syntax is complex, he uses a lot of description, but none of it is frivolous. It's all there to either enhance mood, to control the flow of the story, for symbolism, etc. But I don't think many people would describe William Faulkner's writing as "lean prose".

So what about Hemingway? I hear lean prose and Hemingway thrown together a lot, but Hemingway isn't much different than Faulkner. The styles are different, but both use complex syntax. Hemingway's diction is a bit simpler than Faulkner's, but then they also lived in different regions of the United States, so that's going to affect diction somewhat. And Hemingway uses a lot of description. In fact, the scenery is usually a key symbol in the story. You have to read between the lines to get Hemingway, more so than with Faulkner (whom you have to read twice or three times to get, ha ha) .

So how does Hemingway have lean prose? His sentences have a lot of depth, 10% on the surface and 90% below the surface, as Hemingway himself has described it. So is lean prose just what's necessary, i.e. no "purple prose", or does leans prose refer to a lack of description, a stripping down of sorts. The latter is the impression I get.

What do you all think?

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Ah, But Hemingway doesn't just use short sentences, and he uses his share of modifiers too. Certainly, he does use plenty of short sentences. The opening to "Cat in the Rain" is a good example of that. But to stop there would be to ignore the other half of Hemingway's writing, because like any good writer, Hemingway varies his sentence structure as needed.

Take the opening to A FAREWELL TO ARMS:

"In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and
leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves."

There's some long sentences in there and several modifiers.

From "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place":

"It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him."

and:

"They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him."

This last quote uses both long and short sentences. One final example, from "The Butterfly and the Tank":

"Life is very short and ugly women are very long and sitting there at the table I decided that even though I was a writer and supposed to have an insatiable curiosity about all sorts of people, I did not really care to know whether these two were married, or what they saw in each other, or what their politics were, or whether he had a little money, or she had a little money or anything about them. I decided they must be in the radio."

That's one very long sentence followed by one short sentence. Hemingway varies his sentence structure. The simplicity of his work comes from his diction. He uses simple words, but the complex syntax is there and the modifiers are there; he just doesn't use fancy ones.

So by your definition, Hemingway does not qualify as "lean prose" because he doesn't tend to stick to simple sentence structures--he varies them. He doesn't use a lot of modifiers compared to someone like Faulkner, but he does use a fair amount of them, more than "very few".
I disagree that a lack of description equals bad prose. You say that a good writer shows "plenty of detail", but in my opinion, a few key details can be deployed to better effect.

John, you wnoder if lean prose is "just what's necessary and nothing else", and bring up Faulkner. I think that different writers can have differenct standards of what's necessary, and that Faulkner's style is, by its nature, wordier than Hemingway's.

My own idea of lean prose is just what the characters say and what they do. Specifically I try to limit saying how people are acting ("He was angry...") or how they're speaking ("...he said suspiciously"). I think most of us can agree that this kind of description is bad - if the words or the action don't let the reader know the manner in which they're said/done, they should be rewritten, not explained.

The gold standard for lean prose is James Ellroy, especially in THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, where he takes it almost to the point of caricature - too far for my taste, in fact. My own favorite lean prose is in the Parker novels by Richard Stark. Sample first line: "When the phone rang Parker was in the garage, killing a man."

I should point out that while I do prefer lean prose, there's nothing wrong with a wordier approach if it's done well, and in fact I have a weakness for Golden Age English whodunnits.
Yes, Faulkner is definitely wordier than many writers. And that's my point. Even though there's a lot of words, if they add to the story, if they serve a purpose, then you can still categorize the writing as "lean", going by the definition of necessary and nothing else (like lean meat, without the fat).

Yet I don't think anyone would call Faulkner's prose lean. So I think there might be differing views, or at least a general ambiguity to what "lean prose" really means.
James M. Cain is also an excellent example of lean prose in the crime genre.
The word prose itself, to me, refers to what we deal with on a sentence level. Whether the sentence describes something, or shows an action, or an emotion, or whatever, is irrelevant.

We all aspire to write lean prose, I think. Lean prose=good prose. We strive to say what needs to be said in as few words as possible, always looking (searching, reaching, digging, clawing) for the perfect verb, and striking out as many adverbs and adjectives as possible.
I think we all agree that we shouldn't use words that don't serve a function in a story. But just saying lean prose=good prose doesn't really tell me anything. If it were an algebra problem it would be a=b, which you can't solve.

I guess I'm looking at the question on a more analytical level, one of technique. For Graham, it seems to be along the lines of show don't tell. I agree with that, but I also think syntax and diction play a role.

So the question is, then, what characterizes "lean" prose? Jon Loomis' definition above is the one I hear the most.
So the question is, then, what characterizes "lean" prose?

Here's
the recipe. Pay close attention to the "reduce" part. ;)
My idea of lean prose is writing that does its job most efficiently--the way a lean athlete moves gracefully--affecting the audience more immediately and in exactly the way the writer intends. I don't link it any specific syntax. It depends on what the writer wants to accomplish.

Lean prose isn't necessarily specific to any writer, either. I've seen many writers use it as a means of characterization. Westlake writes leanly as Richard Stark because master thief Parker is coldly efficient. Westlake's other books are more meandering. The same can be said about Block's Matt Scudder series versus his other books.

One would think lean prose would be useful to thriller writers, to keep readers turning pages, but thrillers are often huge tomes, not fast reads.
Hemingway has probably influenced genre writing more than any other literary novelist. He was a journalist. Journalistic reporting tends to be "lean." If Hemingway's sentences are longer that what we've become used to in Ellroy et al., then that is because he uses compound sentences, which merely string together simple sentences with "and." Faulkner uses complex sentences, that is a main clause with multiple dependent clauses that qualify and define it. Clearly, it's easier to read a simple or compound sentence than a complex one, which requires close attention and thought.
Genre writers have to decide for themselves what audience they want to reach.
Hemingway uses complex sentences too. For proof, you can check the examples I quoted above. There's some in there. And Hemingway's prose doesn't read anything like journalistic writing.
Maybe one. "And," "or," and "but" are all coordinating conjunctions (i.e. compound sentence structure). Length is not what makes a sentence complex.
As I said, Hemingway was a journalist by profession.
The opening paragraph of "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" consists of three sentences. All three are compound-complex sentences, and the placement of the dependent clauses is different in each sentence.

So there's more than one just in that paragraph.

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