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.