Raymond Carver by Lish, Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver

I often tell an anecdote during my intro to lit course: it is of a conversation with my freshman English teacher. I told him, earnestly, that I’d chosen to major in English; he asked why. I blurted out that it was because I liked people. Then paused. I knew that wasn’t really it – I’m actually kind of a bitch and don’t always like people. But I do find them fascinating. That was the reason I went into literature. My more linguistically minded sons-in-law and daughter love words – where they came from, what they mean. But I liked character and plot. Haven’t we always? We share that love for narrative across cultures and millennia. That is human nature.

One of my husband’s friends did a book on Raymond Carver, complaining that his later works became. . . well, I don’t remember the word, but I suspect bourgeois would do. They had plot, they had character: in the late twentieth century, we often doubted a human nature existed. (One of the reasons I hope Thompson doesn’t drop out is that in his speech after South Carolina he affirmed its importance – another hint that he’s probably been reading more of the founding fathers than the post-modernists.) Lately, literature has been praised for eschewing those middle class, popular qualities. This was a useful way to separate art from its audience, high art from low. Mere plot, mere character some of my husband’s colleagues would snort.

So, I was surprised (and perhaps not surprised) to see that those late Carver works I liked so much better – with rounded characters and fuller plot – were ones Carver chose despite not because of good reviews, editorial revisions. The New Yorker, which defined the American (Updike as exemplar) short story of the mid-twentieth century, published Carver’s “minimalist” ones, a dominating form in later decades. So, it is appropriate that the New Yorker’s “Life and Letters: Rough Crossings: The Cutting of Raymond Carver” discusses how Carver grew to define his own aesthetic. Of course, someone who “wanted desperately to write poems and stories about the landscapes he’d seen and the people he’d known” must have realized we needed a bit more to see his world as he did.

His life was full of demons; Gordon Lish, who became his editor, seems to have encouraged a man who needed encouragement. Perhaps the late sixties were finally his time, when he had enough quiet to write. Still, “'[s]omething happened during that time in the writing, to the writing,’ he said. ‘It went underground and then it came up again, and it was bathed in a new light for me.'” For the next dozen years, Carver wrote and Lish edited.

By the late seventies, Carver had defined a certain kind of short story; he began receiving awards; he stopped drinking. His blue-collar, laconic, down and outers began to take the place of the upper middle class world of the earlier New Yorker short story; his were opaque renderings of less conscious characters living on the economic edge. They seemed at odds with the New Yorker ads. But these triumphs came from a hard-won peace.

His life was short and much of it occupied with making a living – he had two children by the time he was twenty. While many of our greatest writers were alcoholics, Carver’s drinking seemed to seriously get in his way: “Over time, there were bankruptcies, blackouts, and breakdowns, physical and mental. ‘I made a wasteland of everything I touched,’ he once remarked. ‘Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved and emergency rooms and courtrooms.'” But, in the last decade or so of his life, he seemed to find the confidence that comes with peace & a certain happiness. He began resisting Lish’s editing, enlarging stories – rounding out characters, developing plot. In these stories we don’t just appreciate the purity of the abstract art of a story but enjoy characters acting –   representations of life.

Perhaps these reflect the aesthetic of a Carver who, even as he was dying, was living less close to the edge. Or maybe he’d seen the abyss and walked back. Or maybe he just found, in the end, that he liked plot and character. His own interpretation was that “I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I’d be at a dead end––writing stuff and publishing stuff I wouldn’t want to read myself, and that’s the truth. In a review of the last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it.”

He no longer sought Lish’s knife to whittle his works down. The stories remained laconic but fuller – of character, of plot, of substance. That Lish understood what was core seems true. That he may not have understood that art isn’t just indirection, as powerful as that can be; nor is it conveyed only in silences, as powerful as those can be. Lish’s aesthetic was that of the fifties. Early Carver (and surely Lish’s Carver) took the path of their contemporaries – the art we all admired in my youth – Pinter and Antonioini, Bergman and Beckett. But, art is also found in rounded character, twists and turns of plot, resolutions that leave us satisfied even in the most tragic of conclusions – art has a coherence, conveys a whole experience. In the end we come back to works where that emptiness isn’t left for us to fill, but has its own rich life laid out for us to feel.

Thanks to A&L for the original link.

6 thoughts on “Raymond Carver by Lish, Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver”

  1. Woke up feeling pretty good about myself this morning. I sat down at the computer, cracked my knuckles and prepared to confidently share my vast store of knowledge with the rest of humanity.

    Then I read this post. Wikipedia informs me that:

    Carver is considered a major American writer of the late 20th century and also a major force in the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s.

    I never heard of the guy. My vast store of knowledge doesn’t seem so vast as it did 10 minutes ago.

    *Sigh* Mondays and humility don’t mix well.

  2. Shannon: Don’t feel bad. I started reading the New Yorker article because I thought Raymond Carver was a mystery writer. At some point I realized my error and moved on. But this is something that has happened to me repeatedly over my life. I will share a real University of Chicago story from the old days, to the same effect.

    I began my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1965. I took Humanities I that year. My instructor was a man named Leo Treitler*. On the first morning of class at 8:00 a.m. he began the class by handing us copies of several poems by Wallace Stevens, and asking us to read them. He gave us a few minutes and then asked us if we had any questions. My hand shot up.

    “Who is Wallace Stevens?” I asked.

    I could see his eyes roll and his lip curl up. A cartoon balloon opened up over his head and the words “Oy Vey, why do I always get the hicks?” scrolled through it. He gathered himself together sufficiently to explain why my question was irrelevant to our purposes in Humanities I.

    I would love to report that things got better after that, but they didn’t. A few weeks later he began a unit on music by playing Alban Berg’s Wozeck at 8:00 a.m. I groaned. I should be grateful for the C he gave me.

    *Almost 40 years later I learned that Treitler had good reason to be bitter about teaching Hum I to snot nosed 17 year-old kids from Ohio. He had a very distinguished career as a musicologist see below:

    Leo Treitler is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at CUNY Graduate Center. He emigrated to the USA in 1938, studied at the University of Chicago and Princeton, and held professorial appointments at the University of Chicago, Brandeis University, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His role in the development of the “new musicology” is widely acknowledged, as is his expertise in music historiography and medieval music. His most acclaimed publications include:

    Music and the Historical Imagination, Harvard, 1989, ISBN 13: 9780674591295

    Leo Treitler is a central figure in American musicology, both for his writings on medieval and Renaissance music and for his influential work on historical analysis. In this elegant book he develops a powerful statement of what music analysis and criticism in relation to historical understanding can be. His aim is an understanding of the music of the past not only in its own historical context but also as we apprehend it now, and as we assimilate it to our current interests and concerns. He elucidates his views through unique new interpretations of major works from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries.

    With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made, OUP, 2003, ISBN13: 9780198166443

    Leo Treitler’s seventeen classic essays trace the creation and spread of song, sacred and secular, through oral tradition and writing, in the European Middle Ages. Each of these seminally influential essays has been revised to take account of recent developments, and is prefaced with a new introduction to highlight the historical issues. The accompanying CD contains performances of much of the music discussed.

    “As either a review or introduction to a prominent writer on medieval music, this handsome tome of Treitleriania is indispensable. … Treitler is a musicological master of the essay form, and what we have here in one tome are without a doubt some of his most thoroughly crafted works.

  3. Carver’s life was short; his output limited. Surveys may (mine do) shortchange post WWII stuff because, well, it’s hard to “get it all in” & the canon isn’t all that settled &, like Carver says, too minimal no one wants to read. Or maybe when you leafed through a magazine, his stories (and therefore his name) didn’t register because you like narrative, not an extremely thin slice of life.

    That’s my point. My parents lived in a town of 500 and my father had a blue-collar job; both were educated in non-humanities areas – he as an engineer and she with a home ec degree. Both talked about current novels, they were around the house, traded, the subject of my mother’s book club & my father’s late night talks with his friends. It may be the people, bur I suspect the nature of contemporary fiction leads my friends and me to buy & talk about non-fiction.

  4. No Ginny. I just don’t read short stories, particularly literary ones in the New Yorker. Life, after all, is too short.

    Who is the mystery writer I am thinking of?

  5. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep; his Philip Marlowe was the “knightly” detective. He wrote many detective stories & novels as well as co-writing Double Indemnity & collaborating on Strangers on a Train. Here’s a Wikipedia paragraph:

    Critics and writers, ranging from W.H. Auden to Evelyn Waugh to Ian Fleming greatly admired the finely wrought prose of Raymond Chandler.[1] Although his swift-moving, hardboiled style was inspired mostly by Dashiell Hammett, his sharp and lyrical similes are original: The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street tunnel; The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips, defining private eye fiction genre, and leading to the coining of the adjective Chandleresque, which is subject and object of parody and pastiche. Yet, Philip Marlowe is not a stereotypical “tough guy”, but a complex, sometime sentimental man of few friends, who attended university, speaks some Spanish and, at times, admires Mexicans, is a student of classical chess games and classical music. He will refuse a prospective client’s money if he is ethically unsatisfied by the job.

    Actually, Marlowe seems to me rather typical – they all make their tough guys vulnerable (we like that).

    By the way, his “Red Wind” was added to the last edition of the basic American anthology text. (It’s a short story & written in a fairly heavy hard-boiled dick style.) The influence of Chandler (& Hammett, etc.) was important – perhaps looking back, we’ll find it stronger than that of Carver. But then, Carver seems influenced by that hard-boiled style, as well – he just took it a step farther.

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