I made the error of asking: "Who is Raymond Carver?"
They rolled their eyes and fell into spasms of literary shock. What? You haven't read Carver? We thought you were well-read, we thought you were a serious writer. Phillistine!! This was the second sin I had committed within an hour. I had turned to the quiet and desperate young man sitting next to me and quietly commented about a book he had in his lap: "Cormac Mccarthy? I'm really not impressed by him. He's one of those Oprah hypes, isn't he? I mean, 'The Road' is sort of a wannabe genre piece." The young gentleman in question, who has these amazing veins that throb at the sides of his head, uttered: "Everything he's written is wonderful." I'm sure he wanted to say something else, something to put me in my place, but I accepted his chastisement and crossed my leg. It's a thing Jews do in remembrance of circumcision.
So I decided to correct my deficiency and ran to Barnes and Noble and picked up an anthology by Carver called: "Cathedral". I suppose I could have picked up a McCarthy book as well, but the circumcision thing...well, you know.
For the unenlightened, Carver wrote during the seventies and eighties, primarily in the short story market. His work appeared in The New Yorker and several literary magazines, the sort that people tend to buy because they look good on them at Starbucks. His work received tremendous praise. He was heralded as a minimalist. Some people described his writing as 'dirty realism'--a phrase which apparently means that writers forsake description to allow context to associate meaning.
After reading his work, I have two impressions. First, I respect Carver. He is a working class stiff who seeks to capture a moment, a feeling. He understands the absurdity and darkness of our lives. As a recovering alcoholic and a man who held all manner of jobs and suffered for his mistakes, his work feels like therapy. I recommend it. Is it Hemingway? No. Let me go further--hell, no. I know the post modernists will crucify me for this, but here's my second impression....
Many of the people who read Carver, or who are going to read Carver, are as far removed from a working class environment as they can get. And if they once came from a working class environment, then Carver allows them to look down their noses or to find some strange and sick fascination with people whom they would walk past quickly on the sidewalk.
I don't blame Carver. He probably did some major fist pumping when he was embraced by the literary elite, but I'll bet when he was home, kicking off his shoes and reading some literary interpretation of one of his short stories, that he probably chortled and said: "What a schmuck."
What did Carver have to say about writing? "I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact - so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting." (from the intro to 'Where I'm Calling From, 1998).
Now I love his economy. It stops the reader and presents him with a mirror. However, sometimes his stories, the ones I've read, lack in plot, internal or external conflict, or even theme. Dirty realism, you know. I suspect Carver stuck with short stories because he couldn't sustain theme or character development through a novel. He couldn't handle the pacing of a longer work or the consequences of certain scenes he painted. In that way, I think he was something of a cheat. Throw something down and then the critic can come along and praise it for what it doesn't do.
Hey, give me credit. I went out and read Carver. I wonder if the weak chinned individual with the nervous eyes and the frightening air of desperation as he massages his McCarthy novel is willing to step outside his 'literary' whorehouse and enter my whorehouse. You know...the work that is read by the real workingman and workingwomen and not the suburbanites who fly through the cities with their windows up and their doors locked.