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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Sounds like your question has been answered, if not entirely to your satisfaction, John. Not that that'll stop me from trying a slightly different angle! Yes, lean prose is a sort of stripping down, though that doesn't mean a lack of description - more a matter of dropping in a few succinct descriptions rather than spending paragraphs or pages to describe something. Lean prose doesn't necessarily mean a complete lack of complex sentences, either. I doubt looking for absolutes will be of much help here. Most writers are looking for 'just what's necessary and nothing else,' but definitions on what that means in practice will vary from reader to reader and writer to writer.

I generally prefer to read and write lean, but of the two authors you referenced, I'd pick Faulkner over Hemingway any day. For the purposes of crime fiction, I like action oriented, stripped down writing - I think of it as the raw power/passion of the garage band versus a symphony. Both have their place, but for me it's a matter of "less is more." And yet, I also love James Sallis's work and he tends to be much more complex in his writing style and story structure.

How's that for clear as mud?!
Good answer.
I'm always been fascinated when fiction is described as "muscular". (Wish I had some examples.) And now I wonder...when talking about writing, is "muscular" the same as "lean"?
Or is "muscular" used to describe the content of the writing rather than the shaping of it? Or am I totally off-base?
ps. I always thought it would be cool to be described as a writer of "muscular fiction"......
To me, "muscular" suggests power, forcefulness. Lean prose isn't necessarily so charged. I don't think this sort of power can be achieved simply by adjectives or word choice ("arduous, hulking, strenuous, mammoth") independent of what a story is trying to achieve. Muscular prose works best in stories with a lot of dramatic moments that require powerful word choice.


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