Authors: Raymond Carver

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer


In his relatively short career as a professional author, Raymond Carver established a critical reputation as the most powerful and innovative short-story writer of his generation. He was born in a small town in northwestern Oregon, but by the time he started school his family had moved to Yakima, Washington, where his father worked as a logger. Carver once declared that the most important, although in many ways the most negative, influence on his early hopes to become a writer was the fact that he married and became a father before he was twenty. The need to support his family made the work he really wanted to do impossible.{$I[AN]9810001300}{$I[A]Carver, Raymond}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Carver, Raymond}{$I[tim]1938;Carver, Raymond}

Raymond Carver

(Marion Ettlinger)

Carver moved his wife and two children to California in 1958, where he enrolled at Chico State College, then a small school in the California state college system. There he attended a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, soon thereafter to become better known as a writer, who encouraged Carver in his writing efforts. After transferring to Humboldt State College, a northern coastal school, Carver received his degree in 1963.

During the 1960’s Carver wrote and published his poetry and fiction in various small magazines. His career took a decisive turn in 1970, when he was honored with a National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award for Poetry. That award enabled him to spend time revising some of his stories, which appeared in his first important book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Carver was soon publishing in major journals and gaining recognition, but he had by this time succumbed to alcoholism. In 1977, when Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was nominated for the National Book Award, he was hospitalized several times. Carver’s resolution that on June 2, 1977, he would stop drinking forever had a significant effect on his writing style and career.

Carver’s professional career began to blossom in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s: In 1979 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1981 he published a highly praised collection of stories titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and two years later he published the collection Cathedral. His personal life improved significantly after he and his wife were divorced in the late 1970’s, and he entered into a relationship with the writer Tess Gallagher. In 1987 Carver, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed as having lung cancer, and he died in Port Angeles, Washington, on August 2, 1988.

Raymond Carver’s first two collections of short stories shocked readers with their violence and puzzled them with their laconic, Chekhovian style. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? contains twenty-two stories with stark images of lives lived in quiet desperation. In many of the stories in this collection the characters are thrown out of their everyday routines and caught in situations where they feel helpless and estranged.

The stories in Carver’s first important collection are relatively drained of imagery and recall the style of Ernest Hemingway. The stories in his second major collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are even more radically spare in their language; indeed, they are so minimal that they seem mere dehumanized patterns with no life in them at all. What themes they may have are embodied in the bare outlines of sometimes shocking, sometimes trivial events and in the spare and reticent dialogue of the characters who seem utterly unable to articulate the nature of their isolation. The most basic theme of Carver’s stories is the tenuous union between men and women and the mysterious separations that always seem imminent.

The stories that appear in two of Carver’s later collections, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, are more hopeful than the earlier stories, perhaps because they were written after Carver had recovered from alcoholism and met Gallagher. The style is also more voluble and detailed, exhibiting Carver’s increasing willingness to discuss, explain, and explore the emotions and situations that give rise to the stories. Instead of separation, Carver’s later stories move toward union or reunion.

Raymond Carver is, in the opinion of many critics, the most important figure in the renaissance of short fiction that was sparked in American literature in the 1980’s. He belongs in a line of short-story writers that begins with Anton Chekhov and progresses through such masters of the form as Sherwood Anderson, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Ernest Hemingway, and Bernard Malamud. On the basis of a small output of stories, Carver will remain a significant figure in the history of twentieth century American literature.

BibliographyAdelman, Bob, and Tess Gallagher. Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. Introduction by Tess Gallagher. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Produced in the spirit of a photographic essay, this book contains excellent photographs of Carver, his relatives, people who served as inspirations for characters in his stories, and places that were important in his life and work. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from Carver’s stories and poems.Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, 2. A prominent American writer who is considered a leading exponent of the maximalist style of fiction writing defines minimalism in art and concludes that there is a place for both maximalism and minimalism in literature. He regards Carver as the prime shaper of “the new American Short Story.”Bugeja, Michael. “Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver’s Cathedral.” South Dakota Review 24, no. 3 (1986): 73-87. Discusses the revision of an early Carver story, “The Bath,” which was reprinted in Cathedral as “A Small Good Thing.” The changes made throughout the story, and especially the somewhat more positive resolution, reflect Carver’s evolution as a writer.Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introduction to Carver’s stories that focuses on such issues as myth and archetype, otherness, and the grotesque. Discusses the difference between “early” and “late” versions of the same story, such as “So Much Water Close to Home” and “The Bath” and “A Small Good Thing.” Includes Carver’s own comments on his writing as well as articles by other critics who challenge the label of minimalist for Carver.Carver, Maryann Burk. What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Maryann Burk Carver recounts her tumultuous twenty-five-year marriage to Raymond Carver.Carver, Raymond. “A Storyteller’s Shoptalk.” The New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981, 9. In this interesting article, Carver describes his artistic credo, evaluates the work of some of his contemporaries, and offers excellent advice to aspiring young writers. The article reveals his perfectionism and dedication to his craft.Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, by Raymond Carver. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989. The collection in which this essay appears, a collection of Carver’s last poems, includes some moving reflections on his life and values as he faced the fact that he was dying of cancer. The writer of the informative and moving introduction is the person who knew him best, the poet Tess Gallagher, who lived with him for many years and was with him at the time of his death.Gentry, Marshall Bruce, and William L. Stull, eds. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. A wide-ranging collection of interviews covering Carver’s career from the early 1980’s until just before his death.Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995. An expanded edition of a collection of conversations originally published in 1991 as When We Talk About Raymond Carver. Includes contributions from Carver’s first wife, his daughter, an early writing instructor, and some of his lifetime friends.Halpert, Sam, ed. When We Talk About Raymond Carver. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1991. A collection of transcripts of interviews with ten writers who knew Carver on a personal basis, including a fascinating interview with Carver’s first wife, Maryann, who provides a fresh perspective on the incidents on which many of Carver’s stories were based.Kesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. An intelligent discussion of Carver’s stories, focusing on Carver’s development of his own moral center.Kuzma, Greg. “Ultramarine: Poems That Almost Stop the Heart.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (Spring, 1988): 355-363. In her introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, Tess Gallagher calls Kuzma’s review of Ultramarine “the most astute essay on [Carver’s] poetry.”Mullen, Bill. “A Subtle Spectacle: Televisual Culture in the Short Stories of Raymond Carver.” Critique 39 (Winter, 1998): 99-114. Discusses the relationship between television–both as an influence on and a subject of–Carver’s fiction. Argues that in both structure and tone, Carver’s stories constitute a critique of television culture based on the medium’s ability to eliminate class consciousness; discusses “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. The first book-length study of Carver’s work, Nesset calls the book, “a preliminary exploration.” Includes an extensive bibliography.Powell, Jon. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 647-656. Discusses the sense of menace Carver creates by leaving out or only providing clues to central aspects of his stories. Argues that this technique forces both the characters and the readers to try to understand the clues.Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992. Analyzes Carver’s stories as “intratextual” and argues that they should be read in relationship to each other. Claims that in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Cathedral each story is linked to the immediately preceding story and the one after it.Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. A short overview of Carver’s life and work with the emphasis on Carver’s short stories and one chapter devoted to his poetry. Contains a valuable bibliography of works by and about Carver.Scofield, Martin. “Story and History in Raymond Carver.” Critique 40 (Spring, 1999): 266-280. Shows how three late Carver stories–“Intimacy,” “Blackbird Pie,” and “Elephant”–embody a new experimental technique for integrating fiction and autobiographical or historical events.Sklenicka, Carol. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life. New York: Scribner, 2009. Carver’s life is examined here, from his lower-middle class beginnings in Washington to his experiences as a husband, ex-husband, and father. This detailed and thoroughly researched biography illuminates his private life as no other book has. Stull, William L. “Raymond Carver.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Jean W. Ross. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. This article covers Carver’s life and work up until shortly before his death and attempts to analyze his poetry and fiction techniques. It contains a fairly comprehensive list of Carver’s books and miscellaneous publications as well as a list of articles about Carver.Stull, William L., and Maureen P. Carroll, eds. Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1993. Though not a formal biography, this collection of essays covers Carver’s working-class origins, his troubled first marriage, his battle with alcoholism, his teaching style, and his ultimate happiness until his death from cancer.Wolff, Tobias. “Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too.” Esquire 112 (September, 1989): 240-248. A friend and fellow author and teacher relates a series of anecdotes about Carver in his wild drinking days. The essay highlights Carver’s zest for life, his kindly interest in people, and his unconcealed delight with the recognition that he received toward the end of his life.
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