The Triumph of the Quiet Style

Annie Baker, naturalism, and the pauses dominating art.

Image: super awesome via Flickr

The clearest demonstration of the quiet style—the dominant, most provocative, most interesting aesthetic of our time—is in theater, where Annie Baker created a revolution by slowing everything down, inserting long pauses, setting plays at room temperature. Baker is, in America and for straight plays, the unquestioned superstar playwright of her generation. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and a MacArthur Grant in 2017. Her success is so sweeping that it’s almost hard to remember how weird her style seemed five or ten years ago, and how much it ran against all the prevailing headwinds of playwriting, which, for decades, had been all about making plays faster, more shocking, edgier.

American plays were already fast-paced (quick cuts, overlapping dialogue) and then, in the 1970s, David Mamet figured out a syncopated style that made them even faster. (“Arrive late, leave early,” is his prescription for writing scenes). Neil LaBute, Mamet’s heir, starts his signature play, Reasons to Be Pretty, with the stage direction: “Two people in their bedroom, already in the middle of it. A nice little fight. Wham!” Edward Albee, the reigning granddaddy of American theater, admitted that he wrote The Goat, a play about a man’s love affair with a farm animal, more or less because he couldn’t think of any taboos left to break.

For Baker, studying playwriting at NYU, the contemporary approach to playwriting was a nightmare—a formula to get your turns and reveals as plentiful and as high up in the script as possible, and all of it about as artistic as working in the pit at Daytona. While in graduate school, she had a breakdown (by her accounting, one of many) and, stuck, declared to her mentor that what she really wanted to do was to write a play about her mom and her mom’s “hippie friends sitting around and talking about spirituality for two hours,” which, to Mamet and her NYU professors, would have been like saying that what she wanted most as a playwright was to make sure that her audience had the right atmosphere for a nice, peaceful nap.

Here’s how she described her style:

Silence and stillness are very exciting to me. I feel so over–stimulated and bored by a lot of the theater I see these days because of the breakneck speed at which it’s performed. There’s this obsession with “pace,” and I think it’s because we’re terrified of boring audiences that are used to looking at the internet while watching TV while talking on their iPhone. Also, when it feels like nothing is taboo anymore—we can have sex and violence onstage and no one blinks an eye—I think the one thing left that really makes people uncomfortable is empty space and quiet.

And Baker is right: to a theater audience, quiet is shocking and uncomfortable. During the Playwrights Horizons’ run of Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick, the theater’s artistic director felt compelled to issue a strange letter to the theater’s subscribers, since so many of them were walking out of the play in protest. They were livid at the long scenes in which the play’s characters (minimum-wage employees of a movie theater) are sweeping the floors of the stage—sweeping the floors and not-talking and not-advancing-the-plot for an inordinate length of time.

Baker’s 2010 play The Aliens epitomizes the quiet style. It’s set in the dingy backyard of a coffee shop, and for the first act, the characters just talk. In the second act, one of the ‘aliens’ has dropped dead, but everything else is pretty much the same. There’s a long meditative interlude, in which a character repeats a single word so many times that it starts to function like a mantra. Forget the Daytona pit—the play is more like getting a flat tire and then running out of gas. It could hardly be slower or quieter (“at least a third—if not half—of this play is silence” is Baker’s instruction on performing it), and it’s a brilliant play—subtle, richly felt, completely believable, and both heartbreaking and funny, without straining for any effects.

Baker’s triumph has been total, and the real proof, more than accolades, is that all the new, exciting playwrights seem to be following in her lead, employing a heightened naturalism and taking it even further. Will Eno, Stephen Karam, and Lucas Hnath (probably the most lauded contemporary playwrights apart from Baker) are pindrop quiet—Eno to unsettle the audience, Karam for social commentary, Hnath for a kind of lyrical fugue state. Bess Wohl, another contemporary of theirs, sets an entire play at a silent-meditation retreat. It’s as if David Mamet had never existed.

Baker’s novelistic equivalent is Ben Lerner (and as far as Baker is concerned, he’s just about the only fiction writer who matters: “I’m so scared of contemporary fiction that isn’t Ben Lerner,” she said in an interview for Tin House). Lerner isn’t dominant in fiction the way Baker is in in playwriting, but he’s part of a group of hip writers, the ones who get passed around and argued over, the provocative ones where there’s a sense that, even if you don’t like it, something is going on. Into that group goes Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Garth Greenwell, Miranda July, maybe also Geoff Dyer and Chris Kraus. The inevitable Knausgaard makes an appearance also in this group, as the quiet style stretched to epic length.

They all have the same heightened naturalism as in Annie Baker’s plays. Everything is room temperature, unhurried. It’s a kind of point of pride to have as little plot, as little drama as possible—you want to stick very closely to what’s true. Anything dramatic, or ostentatiously funny, is a way to pander to the audience. There’s an abhorrence of insincerity. There’s a tendency to write in first person (after all, goes the reasoning, first-person is how we actually experience the world; third-person is authorial and managerial and, ultimately, pretentious). There’s a tendency to write characters who are lost, immature, anxious (under the principle that that’s what everybody’s inner life is really like), and, very often, the writing comes out (intentionally) as affectless rather than masterful. There’s a tendency for the narrator/protagonists to make themselves as loathsome as possible. For many of these characters, the central relationship is with fame. They discover, when they’re honest with themselves, that they’re deeply uninterested in all the people surrounding them; their most cherished relationship is with the fantasy of their own fame, but achieving that is so remote and so laughable that the only viable route to self-respect is to pretend to not be interested in it (at which effort these protagonists fail with characteristic haplessness).

In Leaving The Atocha Station, Lerner’s protagonist, Adam, spends the novel wandering around the museums of Madrid and pretending to look at the paintings while really thinking about the kind of figure he cuts as he looks at paintings in art museums. In what passes for plot points, he concocts various fictions for his kind-of-sort-of girlfriends, like that his father is a tyrant and his mother is dead. It’s fairly easy for him to figure out why he might be doing that (to make himself more mysterious) but, often, as when he pretends that his Spanish is worse than it actually is, he doesn’t have a clue as to why he behaves the way he does. In what should be the climax of the novel, the 2004 terror bombing in Madrid, he can’t bring himself to work up any sort of reaction at all appropriate to the situation (and to the extent that he can muster any emotion, he’s upset that everybody around him seems to be so much more talented than he is at summoning forth the right kind of grief). Lerner’s portrayal of Adam is much more biting than some sort of comic mockery—his failures are the opposite of endearing. They’re so internal and weird and craven that they wouldn’t even register as failures were Adam able to articulate them to anyone else; to himself, he’s beneath contempt.

Even if (or maybe especially if) you haven’t read any of these books, it’s easy to articulate the critique: they’re twee, precious, navel-gazing, entitled, airless hipster literature. It’s not naturalism, runs the critique, it’s mumbly solipsism. There’s something deeply anti-social about the style—the narrator curling into a ball for the duration of a novel—and it’s not even true-to-life; there’s an artifice, and falsity, in trying to paint oneself in the ugliest possible way. James Wood, for instance, the dean of American critics, tries assiduously to get into the spirit of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and then finally gives up: “If I wanted to hear that,” he writes, fuming at another dose of Heti’s self-pity, “I could settle in at a Starbucks and wait for the school kids to get out at three o’clock.” Wood has a point: nothing is worse than the ‘quiet style’ pushed to absolute indolence—take Tao Lin, for example, who pushes the style to its extreme, an unremittingly self-loathing lifelessness. In valuing truth over stories, the style focuses almost entirely on first-person memoirish writing at the expense of the imagination.

Wood may have a point about mannered fecklessness, but he goes astray when he dismisses the style as disengaged. There’s a trenchant protest embedded within the quiet style. There’s a sense that institutions are a colossal lie and a brave insistence that the experience of the individual is paramount, and outweighs any implicit debt that a person has toward ‘society.’ The period of being lost, when you’re least tethered to any kind of status marker, is actually when you’re most truly yourself.  In Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You, the narrator, adrift and self-loathing in Bulgaria, approaches something like love with his violent prostitute lover Mitko. By the time he settles down and gets a real boyfriend, he’s a prig. In Baker’s Nocturama, the protagonist, Skaggs, his life in freefall, hits a breakthrough in the unlikely company of his loserish stepfather and his misery-loves-company one-night stand; once he pulls himself together and gets a job, he’s just another jerk again. “No genius here,” reflects Adam in Leaving the Atocha Station, in what’s probably the novel’s summation, “no deep song. But my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself a poem.”

There’s something Quakerish in this sensibility—an adamant insistence that it’s in the most insignificant, most easily overlooked moments of daily life where the sacred resides. Why isn’t ordinary life treated as important? these writers keep demanding. Why are you more worthwhile if you’re successful and published? And, implicitly, why are you therefore worthless when you’re mired in edits for your awful manuscript (as are Miranda July and Sheila Heti’s heroines)? What is it about people that makes them always root for the frontrunners? Why is it so hard to sit still and just take in what life really is?

To put it another way, there’s a deep faith running through the quiet style, a belief that if you write what is organic and true, if you trust life (and don’t pump for laughs or plumb for drama) then your artwork will prove, in the end, to be truly funny and gripping. And at maybe a deeper level, there’s a belief that art is all that matters – that it’s the act of recording and commemorating that imbues life with sanctity. “My plays,” said Annie Baker in an interview, “are about how art can save your life.”

The visual arts went through a similar transformation decades ago, with Donald Judd-style minimalism. As an aesthetic trend, it’s been mostly clearly labeled in film as ‘mumblecore,’ which is an ugly pejorative and makes a whole wave of interesting filmmaking sound like some weird hipster fetish. But, yes, Jim Jarmusch, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, and Richard Linklater qualify as ‘quiet style’. Linklater’s Boyhood is a masterpiece of the genre—a genuinely daring film. At its heart, Boyhood is a kind of prayer. That’s obvious enough from the film’s poster: bored Mason lying on the grass and staring at the sky; or from the film’s closing scene, teenage Mason wondering airily what the point of everything is. Linklater tries to answer that prayer with heightened naturalism, the sanctity of daily life itself. Things that are completely unremarkable for Mason, and for the filmmakers, at the moment they’re filmed—Oregon Trail on a school desktop; the baggy clothes of the early 2000s—will, by the time the film is completed and released, come to seem inexpressibly beautiful.

“Girls” is the quiet style’s most visible foray into television. There’s the familiar rootless protagonist making an endless succession of self-defeating mistakes; there’s the same unhealthy fixation with fame as the fantasy cure for daily life; and the same lingering sense that nothing ever really happens; time just passes more or less slowly. “The last four years of my life have been kind of a wash,” Hannah declares at the end of the third season, which we know is not true because, by that point in the show, we’ve absorbed the aesthetic of the quiet style and we’re fully aware that it’s the time when you’re ‘unrealized’ that you’re most acutely yourself. “Louie” is quiet style and a gentle corrective to the myth that fame yields excitement. Most impressively, “Mad Men” is quiet style, and employs the strength of the quiet style to push aside the smug conventions of historical fiction: there’s a constant insistence that the ‘big events’ are really just noise, and daily life is where the real game is. For the purposes of the show, JFK’s assassination matters because it disrupts the wedding of Margaret Sterling, and the moon landing is significant because it’s part of the backdrop for Sally Draper’s first kiss.

But it’s not as if the quiet style began ten years ago. Chekhov is quiet. Our Town is quiet. Beckett is quiet. French New Wave is quiet. Probably, in every era, ‘serious’ art is quieter and slower than commercial. What I am saying, though, is that something distinctive is happening, and it’s clearly resonating with audiences since the same tendencies are dominant in all these different mediums, producing what for years has been the the most unsettling, most challenging, most talked-about work.

The key figure for the quiet style, the one who lays its sociopolitical foundations, is J.M. Coetzee. In Coetzee, the ruling class relinquishes—reluctantly but voluntarily—all its entitlements and, in humility and debasement, acquires a kind of beneficence. “The alternatives [to the power structure] are not,” he writes in the Diary Of A Bad Year, “placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.”

For the protagonists of the quiet style, most of whom descend from generations of easy living (their privilege is so patent and so internalized that they rarely deign even to speak of it), institutions no longer have anything to offer them and need nothing from them. They tend to be very willing to relinquish whatever societal power they have to those who want it more than they do. It’s characteristic to be an ex-pat (as in Lerner and Greenwell) or to be in some sort of internal exile (Vermont in Baker’s plays) or to be adrift in the ghettos of the unpublished, unproduced artistic underclass (as in Jarmusch, Baumbach, Heti, Dunham, etc). In other words, to have opted out.

What’s crucial—and, ultimately, what defines the quiet style—is the gesture of abnegation, a recognition by its heroes that success either is not for them or doesn’t matter to them. In spite of its heavy use of naturalism, the quiet style is not realism. Fundamentally, the quiet style is a mode of religious expression and it leans heavily on its confessional aspect, its blind faith that the moments of most abject, most senseless humiliation are also the moments when we are at our funniest and truest and (ultimately) most divine.  For me, the great attraction of the quiet style is that it takes the attributes of my much-maligned generation—our restlessness, fecklessness, envy, solipsism —and turns them into something like a prayer.

 

Sam Kahn writes fiction and plays.