Alex Hollenberg published in Style

Seeking the Vocabulary of Literary Simplicity

Simplicity, according to Professor Alexander Hollenberg, should not be a bad word for academics. And this is the thinking behind Dr. Hollenberg’s most recent article, “Smooth Structures: Narrative Form as Ethical Contact in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop,” which was recently published in Style, a leading journal of literary discourse. Continuing his research efforts to establish a vocabulary of literary simplicity in order to be able to better talk about its rhetorical effects, he tells us, “The theoretical question I’m posing in this article is whether we can talk about literary simplicity without transforming it into another form of difficulty. I’m certainly aware of the ironies of talking about simplicity in an academic setting, but that’s partly the point: simplicity does something, and I want to explore what that something is and how it works in the modernist literary context.”

Although casual readers may be unfamiliar with the works of Willa Cather, in the last 20 years or so she has attracted significant critical attention from the literary academy. While modernist literature—think Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot—has typically been thought of as an predominantly difficult mode of writing, Hollenberg’s research makes the case that such a paradigm is reductive and, perhaps, unnecessarily intimidating for readers. For Hollenberg, Cather is an essential figure of early twentieth-century American literature precisely because her aesthetic of simplicity demonstrates literary modernism’s diverse ways of responding to and negotiating its own cultural moment: “When we read Cather’s novel carefully, we see significant moments of ethical negotiation that are, in fact, made richer by her simplicity of form and style. This novel frames intercultural contact between Euro-American and Indigenous peoples as a practice of interpretation where characters’ encounters with, say, a simple word or object points, paradoxically, to the limits of their capacity to know ‘the other’, despite the need to try.”

Stories tell us much about ourselves—about our cultures, about our histories, and about our values. But to Hollenberg they are also, in a sense, others, modes of thinking through which we inevitably recognize something different from ourselves. Can simplicity in storytelling nuance the ways we imagine our responsibility to others in the world? Alexander Hollenberg’s fascinating research suggests it can and it does.