Saturday, August 02, 2008

Carver's Legacy

Twenty years after his death, Raymond Carver's star is on the ascendant. His reputation as one of the best short fiction writers of all time (as well as poet, playwright and essayist) is still growing, and alongside it an interest in Carver the man, Kasia Boddy writes me in the Telegraph.

There's now an International Raymond Carver Society, and a journal online : Raymond Carver Review. His collected short fiction will be out in a single volume next year, two novelists have used him as a character in their own fiction ... and he even has a rose named after him!

Much of Carver's appeal lies in his very spare style, but James Campbell in the Guardian last December (and this was a story I should have blogged back then - sorry!) dropped rather a bombshell. Carver's originals manuscripts (which may be published) had been much more wordy, and the spare minimalism that turned the stories into classics of the genre, was due to the intervention of his editor, Gordon Lish!

But whatever the truth, Carver's stories are as near to perfect as is possible, and if you write short fiction yourself you could do much worse than let a bit of his influence rub off on you.

After all, Jay McInerney, Haruki Murakami and AL Kennedy acknowledge the debt.


Burhan said...

interesting article. carver's stories should always be considered masterpieces. i was made to understand several years ago that the particular brand of realist minimalism (for some reason people sometimes called it 'the iowa workshop school of writing') that carver initiated was already on the wane in the usa.
mostly because it had become too popular and too imitated for its own good. several editors i know or had read about said they consciously avoid publishing carver-like short stories by young writers. even more strange is that the style started because of an editor, james lish!

BorneoExpatWriter said...

My introduction to Raymond Carver was when he wrote the foreword to John Gardner's excellent On Becoming a Novelist. I liked his style, but you can't always do that when writing about another culture, like in Malaysia, to a US audience who have no frame of reference. You got to qualify things, explain a little, as I had to do for "On Fridays" before it finally got published in the US.

Carver's growing reputation is well deserved and no matter who is "stealing" credit for it, makes no difference. Any changes Lish may have made were, no doubt, approved by Carver. That's his name on the byline. And most of writers are wordy and any good editor will pare it down. We can all use a 10% cut. I've done that many times in my stories and novels and I'm always amazed what can go, if it has to go, and the story does improve. Anyone who has a garden knows what I'm talking about.

Lovers and Strangers Revisited

bibliobibuli said...

a lot more authors could do with a stronger editorial hand, particularly when it comes to pruning.

Burhan said...

yes, exactly. there is a difference between (1) writing that has been edited so it's not wordy, and (2) great minimalist writing. even if lish was partly responsible for (1), it does not mean that he should take credit for (2) as well.

we should edit our prose and, if the work demands it, tighten it and prune the extraneous phrases out. this is Writing 101.

whereas minimalism is one of the many aesthetics available to us. and it comes in many flavors: carver's realist, hemmingwayesque masculinist, haiku, john cage, ozu, philip glass, etc.

it goes without saying that it is by no means the only way or even the best way to approach literature and art (not that it makes sense to compare one aesthetic to another, whatever that would entail). that would annul a lot of works that we hold dear: dickens, shakespeare, thomas mann, henry james, p.g. wodehouse, cervantes, proust, hugo, david foster wallace, baroque art and mozart's music.

and it also goes without saying that minimalism or maximalism does not necessarily make something good. it depends entirely on whether one can make it work for oneself, for the work in question. how to achieve this is the mystery of mysteries. it is what makes creative writing so interesting and worthwhile.

bibliobibuli said...

nicely said.

i find that as a reader i appreciate the variety of styles and enjoy moving between them.

Terry Finley said...

Carver and Chekhov are
two of my short story

Terry Finley

Anonymous said...


You said: "Carver's growing reputation is well deserved and no matter who is "stealing" credit for it, makes no difference."

I got the impression that Lish was already dead. :) It's Carver's wife who stirred up this ruckus.

You also said: "Any changes Lish may have made were, no doubt, approved by Carver."

To quote from the Guardian article:
As an appendix to Beginners, Gallagher and Stull intend to include an eight-page letter from Carver to Lish, "in which Carver expresses his profound dismay upon seeing the results of Lish's editing". Small portions of the letter have been released to the media over the past few weeks, which test the resolve of even the most committed believer in the iceberg technique: "Please do the necessary things to stop production of the book ... If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story."

It's definitely be interesting to read the unedited and edited stories side by side.