Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
Contributing Editor: Paul Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Carver has been quoted as saying that his stories could happen anywhere. That is pretty much true. Additionally, they are so contemporary that they require almost no background material or preparation for reading and understanding by an American audience. Even the issues of class (most of Carver's characters, if they have jobs, are marginally employed), although they do exist in Carver stories, are not too heavily at play in "A Small, Good Thing." However, this lack of location, class, and even time can be used to start a classroom discussion. You might ask: Where is this story set and in what year? How old are the characters? How does this affect your reading of the story? Does this lack diminish the story? Would it have been a better story if we knew it had been set in, say, Cleveland in May 1978? How would this story be read by readers outside of Carver's culture? Would it be understood differently in France or in Cameroon? The questions can draw the class toward a discussion of style in literature and to one of the major issues for Carver: What constitutes a good story?
To bring Carver himself into the classroom, I recommend the Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory interview found in Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction or in Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s as sources for rich Carver quotes and his own insights into the stories and the writing process. For example, Carver cites Isaac Babel's dictum, "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place," as one of his own guiding principles.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In many of Carver's stories, issues of loss and of alcoholism are a part of the larger issue, which is the isolation and terror of people when a total breakdown of survival systems is at hand. The near-inarticulateness of his characters in the face of this terror and loss is significant and has been a major point of contention among his critics. Some say that Carver's characters are too ordinary, underperceptive, and despairing to experience the philosophical questions of meaning into which they have been thrust. His defenders say that Carver characters demonstrate that people living marginal, routine lives can come close to experiencing insight and epiphany under pressure of intruding mysteries, such as the death of a loved one.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
You would definitely want to talk about "minimalism" in fiction. The style has become so pervasive that students may just assume that this pared-down method of story-telling is simply how one writes fiction. Frederick Barthelme writes that as a minimalist "you're leaving room for the readers, at least for the ones who like to use their imaginations." John Barth counters with this definition of a minimalist aesthetic: "[its] cardinal principle is that artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means, even where such parsimony compromises other values: completeness, for example, or richness or precision of statement." Carver was at first the most influential practitioner of minimalism, and then, through the rewriting of his earlier stories, a writer who repudiated the style.
Luckily, Carver's stories can be used to show both the power of the so-called minimalist approach and its limits. Have the students first read the brief (ten-page) story "The Bath," which was the earlier version of "A Small, Good Thing." "The Bath" is an excellent example of what minimalism does well and can be more terrifying and unsettling than anything by Stephen King. Contrasting and comparing "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" from Carver's later, more expansive period will allow the students to participate in the intense debate about style. Carver preferred the second version, but he didn't pass judgment on those who like "The Bath" best.
Another useful approach for showing the nuances of revision at work in Carver's writing is to look at a few other versions of his stories. A particularly illustrative case is a short-short-story of under five hundred words that has been known as "Mine" (Furious Seasons), "Popular Mechanics" (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), and "Little Things" (Where I'm Calling From). The last two differ only in title, but there are significant differences in "Mine." Students need not be textual critics to talk about the choices that Carver has made in the various versions of his stories.
Carver's stories were published in most of the important slick magazines of the seventies and eighties including Esquire and The New Yorker. All along the way his work also appeared in small literary magazines. David Bellamy called Carver "the most influential stylist since Donald Barthelme." He was writing for writers, for those who appreciated experimental literature as well as for a general, though sophisticated, reading audience.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway are the obvious influences on Carver's work. The seemingly simple pared-down style of writing follows straight through to Carver. You might consider teaching Carver and Hemingway and perhaps Donald Barthelme together, then entering into a discussion of the bare bones style of each.
Another way to consider Carver's style is to remember that he began writing poetry before he tried fiction and continued writing and publishing poetry throughout his career. He said (in a Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson), "In magazines, I always turned to poems first before I read the stories. Finally, I had to make a choice, and I came down on the side of fiction. It was the right choice for me." Carver's poetry has been compared to that of William Carlos Williams, although I see many obvious differences in their approach, sense of the line, and sense of narrative. His poetry can also be compared to that of James Wright, particularly with respect to the class of people from which the poems and stories are drawn.
The following collections by Carver include stories mentioned above:
"Mine." In Furious Seasons and Other Stories. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1977.
"Little Things." In Where I'm Calling from: New and Selected Stories. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988.
"Popular Mechanics" and "The Bath." In What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.
Critical books on Carver are as follows:
Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Runyon, Randolph. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Carver talks about his writing and the writing of others in the following books:
Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce and William L. Stull. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
The following book of photographs helps show the locations for several of Carver's stories:
Adelman, Bob. Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. "Introduction" by Tess Gallagher. New York: Scribner, 1990.
I find it always helpful to hear the author read his stories, which is especially true in the case of Carver, although only the following early tape is available:
Ray Carver Reads Three Short Stories. Columbia: American Audio Prose Library, 1983.
"A Small, Good Thing" can be found on tape (but not read by Carver) in the following:
Where I'm Calling From. Read by Peter Riegert. New York: Random House Audio Publishers, 1989.