being raymond carver

Now we find out who that was. And I’m crying, for that knowledge feels long stolen.

It’s a little startling, to see in the pages of the New Yorker, that the code once represented by Carver’s name – code for laconic, tight, minimal prose, Hemingway on cheap beer – was a mirage.

In the late 1980s, if you wanted to be published, prose was supposed to be like that. I (who fashioned myself an emerging novelist, except I never emerged) hated it all– though in retrospect I think I was mostly put off by Carver’s legions of imitators, who cluttered the pages of half the magazines I picked up. Thus began the solid decade (inspired also by Tom Wolfe) when I boycotted straight white male U.S. writers.

In the middle of that period, admitted to being was startled when my friend Ralph read aloud Carver’s last story, “Errand.”: It felt different, and I wondered if I’d misjudged him. But I was in those days singularly tunnel-visioned, and busy trying to keep up with the work of other novelists I was working to emulate. Then, when I began to teach undergraduates, I discovered stories like the iconic “Cathedral,” and others that slayed me. Add having been wrong about Raymond Carver to my other mid-life discoveries.

Now, I learn that the stories I liked better represent who Carver was from the beginning. That the “Kmart realism” touches editors loved and I loathed came not from Carver but from editor Gordon Lish, who I’d long learned to hate (or other reasons) in San Francisco. And that his widow, Tess Gallagher, is now fighting his publisher for the right to publish the stories un-redacted. as as he wanted them.

Late as always to the party, I learned it only this week- when the New Yorker ran *Beginners,” the story that legions of readers (including my former students) know as “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Initially confused — don’t I know this story? – I went to the Web site and learned what it was: I sat down, read it and cried. Not just because the story itself is moving, though it is. But because his vision, his full-throated way of conveying emotional truth, was distorted for so long. And of no fault of Carver’s, a generation was told to distrust such instincts.

That story Ralph read to me was about the death of Chekhov, a writer to whom Carver aspired to be, Not Papa, with his booze and misogyny, albeit brilliant prose. And in a weird way I wonder if Lish, who after all was editor of Esquire, was acting out some weird counter-feminist desire to turn the working-class writer into Papa, along the way giving all male American writers a bad name.

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One thought on “being raymond carver

  1. Thanks, Chris–I do recall reading “Errand,” a story that I still occasionally share with people, at just the moment when they are facing certain inevitabilities. You remind me of two things: having my middle school students compare “The Bath” and “A Small, Good Thing,” and something I once heard about not believing anything you read in books.

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