Wednesday, October 3, 2012


One of the books I checked out of the library on my most recent trip was Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which, after about a third of it, I'm pretty sure I've read before. I don't remember how much of Carver's total oeuvre I've read, but I remember these stories, so if I just picked the same only book of his I've read, well, that was pretty stupid.

I checked it out to remind me of the experience of reading Carver's stories. I'd read them before and only sort of understood, kind of the way I feel when I read Hemingway. I can tell there's expertise and genius here, but it doesn't feel comfortable against my brain. I want more detail. I want more words. I don't want biting economy of language; I want the full ostrich-feather caress that I get when the writer wants to say it all.

Some would argue that Carver does say it all, but that you have to read under the words and between the lines. That he's a jazz musician: read the words he's not writing. There was a Simpsons episode where Lisa said this to a co-audience member about a jazz concert, "listen to the notes she's not playing", and the other guy scoffed and said he could do that at home. I find myself in that guy's shoes. I like jazz and I like subtext, but Carver's an iceberg: there's so much below the surface that it feels dangerous to navigate.

The thing is, I'd argue that nearly all of modern literary short story writing, all the journal stories, are Carver's offspring. Most of the stories I read on journals' pages are cold and subtextual and filled with hard emotions. They are based around seemingly ordinary incidents injected with subtle meaning, and they generally insert an event or conversation 2/3 of the way through that machetes quickly to the heart of...something, when previously it all felt benign. Or lifeless.

If it's not plain, I don't like this kind of writing. I admire Hemingway and Carver for being able to pack so much into so little, but it's the same kind of admiration I have for people who write exquisite historical nonfiction. The achievement fails to connect with me.

If Carver has a polar opposite in my reading life, it's Henry James, whom I adore. (Ironically, he was something of a radical for his time, and his straightforwardness could be compared to Carver's in context.) No one could accuse him of being brief, but his situations, turns of phrase, long and complex sentences, characterizations punch my gut far more powerfully, even though in theory I have a lot less in common with his 19th-century characters than I have with Carver's 20th-century folk. And even exhaustive detail doesn't rob James of ambiguity, you know. It just means there's more heft to him, more to see when you set sail.

No one writes like Henry James anymore. No short story writers, anyway. He uses adverbs, for God's sake. He explains. He doesn't hesitate to use fifteen words instead of five. He rolls around in language like a horse in a field.

I don't understand why there's only room for Carver stories in the literary market these days (unless you're a virtuoso writer), and I am frustrated by it. Yesterday I developed a story idea and thought I might, just for an experiment, try to structure and write it as if it were a Carver instead of the way I'd like to. But it's discouraging to feel the subsequent lift of "maybe that'll get an acceptance", just due to mimicking a style I don't like.

I can't even bring myself to finish his book of short stories. I just don't enjoy them. It's bad; I mean, this is my market. The very essence of it. But it's going back to the library unfinished.


Anonymous said...

I am a little embarrassed to admit how in thrall I was to Carver when I was in college. I've got books of his in French that I bought in Paris -- and I don't even read French. It's impossible to overstate how influential he was in the 80s and 90s, and I don't think that influence was necessarily positive. Actually, it was DF Wallace (along with DeLillo) who finally returned fiction back to its maximalist roots. Read The New Yorker from those days and it was pretty slim pickings. These days, Cormac McCarthy is holding down the minimalist fort. He does a fine job there, but I don't think there's room for too many more. John Barth had some fun at Carver's expense in The Tidewater Tales when he quipped, "Less may be more, but nothing is still nothing." I've not gone back and read Carver in a long time; I'm afraid it wouldn't hold up.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I agree, nothing is still nothing. Poor Barth. Carver's decidedly saying something, I'm just never perfectly sure what it is.

I don't know if the stuff we love in youth ever holds up quite the same way, but I'd definitely be interested in knowing what you think these days. You might love it for different reasons. Or you might admire it without liking it.

To me DFW is just as oblique as Carver but in the opposite way. He obscures linkages with more and more and more and more and more words. I like to be more sure that I get it than I usually am when I read him. And I haven't tried DeLillo again since I was much younger; I know I should, but I truly disliked him then.