Dec/Jan 2010

Bared Minimalist

A massive biography explores questions about Carver's authorship

Matthew Price


Published in 1978, The Stories of John Cheever was a luminous treasure at the end of gravity's rainbow. In that retrospective collection, Cheever's fiction faced backward against the ranks of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and Gass to sum up a rapidly vanishing era of smart manners and discreet affluence, but the hulking volume also heralded a new moment for the American short story. (The book sold some half a million copies, a record for short fiction.) Even if the New Yorker formula Cheever had perfected had become a bit tweedy, his sturdy old realism had life in it yet.

But the second coming of American realism struck out past the well-manicured lawns of tony Westchester and went down market, into Appalachia, the deep South, out West, and beyond. The movement, such as it was, earned the sobriquets "dirty realism" and "Kmart realism," and if there is any one writer associated with the style it is Raymond Carver, whose influential collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love have been credited with reviving the fortunes of the short form in the 1970s and '80s. Carver inspires an intense—at times disconcerting—piety in his admirers. For a decade after his major publications, it seemed almost every young writer wanted to be the next Carver (graduates of programs like the Iowa Writers' Workshop should probably fork over royalties to the Carver estate: His hardscrabble tales launched a thousand MFAs). However, even a cursory scan of his biography—the booze, the infidelities, the serial bankruptcies, and the death at the height of his fame—leaves one with a sense of desolation as strong as any evoked by his famously gloomy stories.

It is said that Carver enlisted his sufferings in the service of his craft. It's an almost comically noble sentiment, one that Carol Sklenicka questions little in her biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. Her nearly six-hundred-page account buckles under a relentless accumulation of close-up detail; the biographer of this master of minimalism is a maximalist, ever ready with a histrionic flourish. (About his alcoholism, Sklenicka writes, "There was one problem he couldn't leave behind. The elephant in the room, the secret he couldn't face himself, grew bigger by the day.") She frames her narrative as a struggle between art and life, with her subject stranded in between.

Sklenicka provides a full record of Carver's childhood in Washington's Yakima Valley—he was the son of a lumber-mill worker—and his slow ascent as a writer. He had no connections to any literary establishment, and his long apprenticeship, when he worked a series of low-end jobs and contributed to tiny literary magazines, was nothing if not dogged. His career is inextricably linked to the rise of the writing workshop —as both a student and a teacher, Carver was in and out of writing programs—and the rise of the slickly marketed paperback original. (Along with Jay McInerney, Carver was one of the first authors featured in the Vintage Contemporaries series.) But some twenty years after his death, vexed issues about the way he was edited still bedevil Carver's reputation. Even so, the Library of America has gathered his two most famous volumes of short fiction, along with bits and pieces of memoirs, alternate versions of stories, and Beginners, the manuscript version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

What We Talk About, published in 1981, is undoubtedly Carver's most influential book. Despite the writer's blue-collar origins and the alleged verisimilitude of his characterizations—the fractured marriages, put-upon waitresses, and unemployed layabouts—his fiction lacks a certain particularity. If his stories are dotted with the place names of California and the Pacific Northwest (see, for example, the story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?"), there is not much that distinguishes him as a "western" writer; he was a pioneer of Anywheresville, USA. Carver lived for many years in Cupertino, a bland place that's not quite suburb, not quite city, so it's no surprise that his settings typically lack the social density and sense of locale that distinguish much traditional realism. This isn't a bad thing; writers aren't sociologists. But Carver's reputation as the laureate of the disenfranchised requires qualification; the class he explored wasn't social so much as it was psychological—the emotionally indigent.

About Carver's fiction, Irving Howe once mused, "It's a meager life that Mr. Carver portrays, without religion or politics or culture, without the shelter of class or ethnicity, without the support of strong folkways or conscious rebellion." Yet this observation perhaps missed the point. In the story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Carver homes in on what the narrator calls "human noise." It's a potent phrase—hinting at something inhuman, that the things that come out of our mouths are less than words, a kind of detritus of the soul. Indeed, this savagely mordant four-character roundabout is a tour de force of boozy talk—two couples whose attempts to talk about love take them on what seem to be necessary detours through death, violence, and suicide. Not that Cheever lacked for drunken banter, but Carver was up to something different: You might call this realism, but it's pushing at something else altogether, toward a dizzying void.

Questions about Carver's intent continue to swirl around these iconic stories and around the role played by his editor, Gordon Lish, who considerably reshaped Beginners into the volume we know as What We Talk About. How one views this controversy depends in part on what you think of the author-editor relationship. As the celebrated fiction editor of Esquire in the early '70s, Lish got Carver into the glossies and later edited two collections. Playing the role of domineering enthusiast, the editor made the struggling author, who had a few prize-winning stories to his credit, into a name brand.

The partnership was hardly unprecedented. Radical edits are nothing new in American literature—Maxwell Perkins shaped the unruly manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald's insistence that Hemingway cut the entire first chapter of The Sun Also Rises was on the mark, and The Waste Land would be very different without Ezra Pound's blue pencil. Lish, too, was often the better craftsman. He coined startling turns of phrase and ably mimicked the jagged rhythms of speech—"human noise" is his, and Carver's "I began to feel sorry for him right away" became the memorable "My God, Rita, those were fingers" in "Fat." He cut characters' backstories and pared down some tales into short-shorts that actually gave birth to their own subgenre. He sharpened dialogue in angular ways that almost detached voices from their speakers, leaving readers adrift amid the verbal thrusts and parries. Indeed, the process, by which the editor excavated an intent latent in the author's prolix draft, might be dubbed Carver reading Lish reading Carver. As the notes and letters accompanying their exchanges attest, the exercise filled the writer with a mixture of horror and awe. He nearly stopped the presses on What We Talk About, but he ultimately signed off on publication—an important point to keep in mind during the present-day debate over his authorship.

Sklenicka's accounts of these episodes are surprisingly evenhanded. Lish is not the bad guy, nor is Carver the dupe. Carver was ambivalent, but he knew what Lish could do —to his editor, he wrote, "I want them to be the best possible stories, and I want them to be around for a while. . . . So open the throttle. Ramming speed." Lish needed no such invitation; he had been tweaking Carver's writing for years. What We Talk About is an amplification, albeit in extreme form, of something that began in 1976 with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The Lish effect is there, but more subtly. If he took a scalpel to Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, he employed a machete on the manuscript of What We Talk About. Carver did publish alternate versions of certain stories, yet those versions do little to convince us that Lish was a malign influence. Take "The Bath," a story about a boy struck by a car on his birthday, which also appears in Cathedral (1983) and elsewhere as "A Small, Good Thing." The collaborative version ("The Bath") is menacing; much of its resolution is withheld by a perverse narrative cruelty. Does the boy live or die? For Lish, closure was for losers. In his conclusion, the parents get a call from the hospital—"'Scotty,' the voice said. 'It is about Scotty,' the voice said. 'It has to do with Scotty, yes'"—and that's all we know. It's the human noise again, buzzing in our ears.

The Lish-edited collections included in the Library of America edition are now canonical; at the time of their publication, they catapulted Carver to fame. But it was no deal with the devil, as Sklenicka concludes: "The success of What (orchestrated, for worse or better, by Lish) had unlocked doors for Carver. He was more than ready to walk through them." Carver did so, but his experience with Lish pricked at him. For Cathedral, he declared his independence—he would accept only minor edits from Lish, nothing more. These stories are careful, empathetic, and ultimately conventional. Not reputation makers, not fiction that brands a style. With his powerful instinct for etching heartache, Carver would have written worthy stories with or without his editor. Whether we would be reading that work in an edition designed for the ages is another question, one that's as unanswerable as it is provocative.

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to Bookforum.

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