Literary John Wayne – Raymond Carver


If you love short stories you can’t ignore Raymond Carver, even if like me, you’ve rarely been impressed by him. There’s the possibility with these kinds of seminal influences that those who have followed in his footsteps are far more sprightly and sure of foot than this dreary and dour ‘American Chekhov.’ Few writers have attributed to them such a clear principle as the ‘less is more’ motto, that seems to have been tattooed to Carver’s forehead.

Before this goes too far in one direction, there are some stories Carver wrote that even I must concede offer a kind of perfection in concision. His story ‘Fat’ is a case in point. But yesterday I found myself buying another book of stories by the guy, and I’m wondering why, since I’ve yet to get all the way through, ‘Will You Please be Quiet, Please?’ I just read the story from that collection called, ‘They’re Not Your Husband,’ and found myself thinking, ‘yeah, whatever’ like a distracted shopping mall princess.

It’s not just that he’s depressing but I kind of already know that the world is often pathetic and miserable. Make it worth my while, is all I’m saying, if you’re going to piss on my shoes.

I know why I bought the book though. It was a great interview I read a few weeks ago with Richard Ford, who talks about his buddy Ray to great effect; and there’s the Murakami biography. So I bought ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ And I like the title, though it doesn’t exactly seem in keeping with the Master of Minimalism — having a nine word title. You’d think he’d be brave enough to cut it back to just that one word at the end of it. I can’t promise to read it all. But I’m going to read the first story and tell you what I think. Who knows? Maybe I’ll finally see the light. Or do I mean the opposite? In any case, I’ve got my eyes open.

* * * * *

I read ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ and felt the six and a bit pages were about six pages too long. I mean, if he’s going to cut away any reason for what happens in this strange story about a guy who moves all his furniture out onto his front lawn, and also cut away any background to the guy or the couple that come to use his furniture, he might as well cut away the rest.

Michael Wood wrote an interesting analysis of Raymond Carver for The New York Times, called ‘Stories Full of Edges and Silences.’ He concludes by saying, “In Mr. Carver’s silences, a good deal of the unsayable gets said.”

Carver seems like one of those guys who keeps his silence so that he can seem dark, mysterious, brooding, etc. A performance rather than an actual aspect of deep intelligence. What’s maddening is that Michael Wood, like so many other critics and authors, works so hard to create this literary aura.

Wood quotes Carver, and interprets what it signifies: “’She seemed anxious, or maybe that’s too strong a word.’ Only a very delicate stylist would worry about the strength of anxious and the milder, perhaps unnamable quality of feeling that hides behind this attempt at description.”

Really? Maybe she was perturbed or worried. Troubled, perhaps? What about uneasy? How has this attempt at description, and failure, come to represent the ‘unnamable’ delicate mixture of ephemeral emotions? It does sound like a lovely idea, but then, that’s kind of the job of the writer, isn’t it? That’s why we admire the ones that do it well, like Chekhov, and not the desperately inferior American knock-off.

The key word is stylist. There’s a tough swagger to the way Carver moves through his sentences. But it feels like cowboy bluster and a John Wayne drawl. Another cowboy stylist is Cormac McCarthy but with this author, we do get insights into characters that show us, without doubt, that his characters have subtle, complex and ranging inner lives, and consequently their author’s ability to reveal them to us when it’s required.

Carver didn’t invent minimalism. At best he made it fashionable. In my mind the greatest exemplar of a minimalism that worked, was Hemingway. He wrote, “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” And that was it. Brief but complete. Succinct, sufficient, sharp. Fully amplified and mind blowing.

And yet I find myself only midway through my thoughts on Carver. Maybe it’s because the idea of concision is still an appealing one. I know I’ll keep reading him despite this feeling that he’s overhyped, and that those he’s influenced, like Richard Ford and Denis Johnson, have done a far better job with his brand of minimalism.

Alec Patric

AS Patric is the award-winning author of The Rattler & other stories (Spineless Wonders, 2011), Las Vegas for Vegans (Transit Lounge, 2012) and Bruno Kramzer (Finlay Lloyd, 2013).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Goodness. Quite a thorough review of a body of work given it seems you have only read two stories by him and a heap of critique.

  2. Gidday Alec,
    If you’re gonna tilt at literary windmills you might as well tilt at the biggest! I don’t want to take the lazy way out – but it is impossible to argue for Carver, I think, because you either feel it or you don’t. Like that Louis Armstrong quote on jazz: ‘if you can’t hear it, you’ll never understand it’. But then, I stopped reading Carver a number of years ago because the feeling was too acute, too overwhelming, so maybe I should revisit and see if the magic remains. I actually reread Hemingway’s ‘Fiesta’ a couple of weeks ago and was stunned to find my feelings for that piece of work have gone 180-degrees; it seemed flaccid and forced. As for your man Richard Ford, he has never made me feel anything except bored.
    Anyway, keep the windmill-tilting coming. No-one deserves a free pass, and your evaluations are always provocative.

  3. I have to agree with you Michael. On Hemingway at least. Fiesta (Sun Also Rises) and most of his novels were flaccid and forced, as you say, but I’d go further and say that they’re just plain boring. No author writes less believable women than Hemingway either. But his shorter works were where he did his best work; where he was most elementally the stylistic innovator and virtuoso of concision we think of when we think ‘Hemingway.’ Regarding Louis Armstrong – I can hear it, I understand it, but I still prefer John Coltrane.

  4. “Carver didn’t invent minimalism. At best he made it fashionable.”
    In response to this statement it has to be said that typecasting Carver as a stylist is irrelevant, considering he was less of a stylist than his editor Gordon Lish made things seem. Carver’s writing is minimal, yes, but was he an intentional minimalist? Lish is responsible for cutting sentences, whole paragraphs, and even changing the names of some of Carver’s characters. “What we talk about what we talk about love” was originally called “Beginners”, it was an editorial decision made by Lish that saw the use of a nine-word title. Carver’s concern was to accurately represent the moments that combine to create existence. It is only natural that when zooming in on subject matter, the language and style used to represent this will be sparse and honest.

  5. I’m surprised you’ve even come across this post Katia. I thought it was dead and buried under half a year’s worth of articles and comments, but here we are, still talking about Carver. I think that’s the real gift of Carver actually–> that he gives us such a definite reference point within the craft of short story writing.

    Gordon Lish was an editor who used Carver like a block of stone and hammered out the image he wanted to see. He didn’t do that to any other writer, (certainly not to the same degree). So he’s instrumental in creating the Carver legacy but Raymond must have offered up the right kind of material. Editors have always played a far greater role in the history of literature than we’ll ever know about. Nam Le’s ‘Boat’ for example had a team of editors in Australia and another team of editors in America. Nam Le composed most of the collection while he was still in the Iowa Workshop so there were editors there as well. Gordon Lish was an abomination in that regard, but the results were historic. It’s still all Raymond Carver.

    I don’t see that Carver’s subject matter (“moments that combine to create existence”) was any different to many other American writers of his generation. Friends of his like Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford often thought that the edits were too severe, but then moved in a direction that had their work labeled ‘dirty realism.’ It doesn’t matter what you call it, there’s always an attempt to move closer to life as it really is. That’s a thing of perception though, and life can appear intricately nuanced and subtle, or it can seem brutal and clear cut. The words, phrases and structures we use to reconstruct it textually will reflect a spectrum of experience. I’ve personally never found Carver rewarding in that respect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *