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Bold, great new writer: Raymond Carver

August 31, 2009

carverBack in Raymond Carver’s glory days, the mid-1980s, when he was hailed as the greatest thing since Chekhov if not sliced bread, I dug in my heels. Instead of reading his short stories, I preferred to grumble-grumble about the limitations of minimalism. Now, a new Carver collection by the Library of America has brought me to my senses.

It didn’t help that those attempting to ram Carver down my throat included not only critics and other writers, but also my own friends, John DeGroot among them. Skepticism is a big part of my make up as a reporter and a critic, and I’m always stand-offish when some writer, singer, actor, director gets sucked up into the media machinery, which then spews excessive praise all over the cultural firmament.

In general, I think, this is a useful if not altogether rational response, one that keeps me safe when the lemmings raise the call to mobilize and head for the cliffs. But it also makes me miss out betimes, which is bad. But also good, as it sets me up for the peculiar joy of late discovery.

Of course, I did not completely avoid Carver, back when I was just starting out as the book reviewer for the SunSentinel. At the urging of my friend, the writer David Huddle, I read “Cathedral,” and “Neighbors,” and “Nobody Said Anything,” and maybe one or two other Carver short stories. While I could readily see the craftsmanship, I found the writing lean to a fault.

It felt stingy, airless. I wanted more narrative context than Carver’s rigorous minimalist aesthetic allowed. I wanted more stylistic grace in the prose. I wanted more writing. Compared to the short stories of writers I already admired — Saul Bellow, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates–an air of fraudulence seemed to hang about these thin little tales and the stick figures that populated them.

Even then I suspected I might be missing something. After all, Carver almost single-handedly revived the short story, which lately had been a moribund form, increasingly neglected by writers, readers and publishers. Carver, who never published a novel, reminded the world of its power. He also gave rise to an entire literary movement, the aforementioned “minimalism,” which proved useful to writers the likes of Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Amy Hempel.

Carver’s work also restored literary respectability to realism, which had been shouldered aside by the fabulism of American modernism — think Robert Coover, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth. I should have known something was up, because Barth — the uber-American modernist — was one of Carver’s earliest and most enthusiastic advocates.

But, you know: So many books, so little time. If my dislike of Carver was a mere matter of taste, well, the world sloshed with other stuff to read.

On impulse the other night I took Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America, $40, 1019 pp.) to bed with me, thinking I’d read a story or two. I fell instantly in Carver’s thrall, reading one brief, brilliant story after another. Far from stingy, they resonate with the thrum of life as lived. Instead of wishing for more “writing,” I admired the absence of intrusive description or look-at-me! metaphors and other stylistic curlicues.

It’s also part of my critical make up that I have no trouble admitting when I was wrong or pig-headed. Carver, who died in 1988, age 50, of lung cancer, deserves every new reader lucky enough to discover him. And once again The Library of America fulfills its mission. Thanks, Library of America.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. jared rapaport permalink
    August 31, 2009 2:47 pm

    I’m so glad to see this article. Many critics and readers of Carter (a personal favorite of mine and a mentor to some extent) bring to light his minimalistic form and a few of the neat tricks he employs as a writer. But when you look at Carter from a wider lens, specifically over the entire realm of his work, you find a myriad of work, none of which is limited in his more famous minimalistic form. Specifically, some of his earlier collections, as well as some of his later works, bookend a minimalistic career with many expanded forms of writing. The first time I read “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” I was shocked to see how much of his work was not traditional minimalism. I found a wealth of great writing that has influenced me, both as a writer and a reader. Again, I am so glad to see this article within your blogspace, and concur with all of it.

  2. August 31, 2009 2:58 pm

    Nice piece and nice to see Carver getting the LoA treatment. Those editions are great. Also interesting how books hit you differently at different times in life. I had to read “To the Lighthouse” in college and it left me pretty cold. Ten years later, I read it as part of a book group and found it enthralling. One of these days I’ll get up the courage to re-read Huck Finn — I had to read that so many times in high school and college that it still makes me a little nauseous to think about. But maybe it will be a whole different experience now …

  3. rachel permalink
    August 31, 2009 3:09 pm

    I was first exposed to Carver rather recently through “Short Cuts.” I greatly enjoyed that and am curious to see how those stories could be made into a movie. However, I felt a little cheated, like when listening to a compilation and realizing that you love the artist, but you don’t really know them, don’t really know their albums, only what someone put together as their favorites, what they consider their best works. The stories I did read left me in a sort of appreciative shock. So I look forward to actually getting to know Carver, by reading his stories, in the order that he intended for them to be read.

    You are a silly man Chauncey Mabe. I really enjoy your blogs and always learn something from them.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    August 31, 2009 3:15 pm

    I hated Huckleberry Finn in high school, too, but when I came to it again as a grown-up, in my late 20s or other 30s, I was shocked by how great it is. For one thing, teachers who it a profound disservice by presenting it as a children’s or YA novel. It is very much an adult story, full of all manner of grown-up malfeasance and venality. It’s also has a radical, ferociously satirical critique of the entire American enterprise, with its hypocritical, self-congratulatory triumphalism. It’s pretty hard on religion, too. It’s also the closest thing to a great American novel we have. Do yourself a favor. Give it a try.

    • Candice permalink
      August 31, 2009 8:08 pm

      Surely you jest. How can anybody hate Huckleberry Finn, even in high school??!!

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        August 31, 2009 10:47 pm

        Just a natural talent, I reckon.

  5. September 1, 2009 12:49 pm

    I loved Huck Finn, then and now. It was a book I could read and dream. Just like it was right there in front of me. We used to have a pond back home that came right out of the book. It was called Apple Mary’s. After an old apple farmer named Mary of course. It had a rope swing that you could swing in to the water . It was in a weeping willow tree. I think some books back then we tended not to like because we had to read them. Reporton them and stuff like that.

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