Friday, August 21, 2009

Hey, Raymond!

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.



9 comments:

Gwendolyn said...

I just laughed out loud with tears in my eyes. I don't neccesarily agree with you and of course some of the things you say are offensive-that's what you do best-but I did just laugh uproariously. Thank you.

PS Lots and lots of dem "working class folk" can enjoy literature, culture, and the arts. Some of 'em even speak English pretty well. But I'm not going to bother arguing with you... Great post!

Stewart Sternberg said...

GWEN
Offense is the best defense. And about dem working class folk...yep, some of them do enjoy literature, culture and the arts, but I think that for the most part there is something anthropomorphic going on.

Charles Gramlich said...

I grew up as a farmer, which is pretty damn working class, and to speak in the language of home: We would have gutted Carver's wimp ass at the end of the day and fed him to the wolves. I read Cathedral not long ago and the only way I think it could have gotten published is by appealing to the elite and the effete. There's nothing working class in there at all, at least not my working class. No action, no plot, no characters with red blood and adrenaline flowing in their veins. Nothing but the kind of losers that the elite seem to picture as filling the working class. Man it was some of the most boring crap I've ever read.

Stewart Sternberg said...

CHARLES
And I thought I was being the inflammatory one. You know, the slice of life, dirty reality thing, is certainly not part of the writing world you and I belong to. We tend to write stories with plots and beginnings-middles-and-ends. We're of a different ilk. Still, I appreciate Carver for what he was and what he did, and as I said before, he wasn't Hemingway. Nor do I feel he was as deserving a place in literature as he has been given by the literati.

Charles Gramlich said...

;) I guess I was feeling belligerant last night. I'd just watched Last House on the Left and cheered as the bad guys met their demise!

Steve Buchheit said...

Just like alcohol, eventually you can distill reality down to where it's the most potent and least flavorable. I think that's what "dirty realism" ends up being.

L.A. Mitchell said...

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.

Thanks for the smile today, S. I like your assessment and will remember it when I pick up Carver's work. Or not ;)

Joe Ponepinto said...

A pretty good assessment of Carver (and McCarthy btw). But Carver is important for a lot of reasons, mostly because he helped changed the direction of American writing. But what's really fascinating to me is his relationship with Gordon Lish, his editor/mentor/patron, who pushed Carver into becoming the minimalist he is regarded as today. Lish regularly cut whole pages from Carver's stories to feed his vision of style. Carver was forced to go along if he wanted the stories to be published. Their correspondence debating the editorial changes reveals the difficult relationship between the two men, as well as Carver's struggles with alcoholism. Even today, with Carver long dead, the battle continues. I've met Carver's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, a few times, and she laments the troubles she is having trying to publish a book of "corrected" works by Carver, which would include the Lish-deleted passages. Lish, still alive and kickin', continues to fight their release. A portion of one was reprinted in a New Yorker a year or so ago (so there is reason to read the snob rag!), and showed that Carver, at heart, was as emotional and sentimental as any other writer—but Lish cut all the feeling out of what he had intended. He had his horse, and he was going to ride it until it dropped. I could go on, but I've already taken up too much of your space. I'll continue this on my own blog, if anyone's interested . . .

Stewart Sternberg said...

JOE
It is an interesting perspective and somewhat tragic. I think it sad that the author couldn't break free of his illness or find some inner strength to stand up to the editor and define himself. Maybe early in a career one does what one has to do, but once Carver was established, he obviously lacked the self confidence to move forward, to go beyond the sometimes absurd level of minimalism at which Lish had him writing.