Bold, great new writer: Raymond Carver
Back 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.