the time of his death from cancer ten years ago Raymond
Carver, 50, was the most admired and imitated short
story writer in the country. As a stylist, Carver
was credited with founding the movement known as minimalism
and commercially he was responsible for bringing about
the short story renaissance of the 80s. Like in the
songs of Bruce Springsteen, Carver's frequently unemployed
characters marry too young, drink too much and find
their children a burden. Carver's pared down prose
dispenses with setting, description and planted imagery.
"If the first draft of the story is forty pages
long," Carver said in an interview with The
Paris Review, "it'll usually be half by the
time I'm finished with it." His sentences have
the direct cadence of speech rather than the sound
of artfully crafted and nuanced compositions. Much
is done through Carver's use of dialogue, which like
in actual speech is repetitive and often unrevealing.
To other writers it was deceptively easy to employ
his techniques, and a generation of writers educated
in Masters of Fine Arts programs like the Iowa Writers
Workshop began to fill literary journals and book
shops with mass-produced Carver-style stories of blue
collar angst and middle class ennui.
of Carver's own editors, Gordon Lish, argued that
anyone could now be a great writer. "I see the
notion of talent as quite irrelevant," Lish said
in an interview with Alexander Neubauer. Lish offered
expensive private classes to students arguing that
"[m]y notion is that anyone who speaks, by reason
of that speech, has prospects of achieving important
imaginative writing." Of course, what Lish fails
to realize is that not all speakers are worth hearing:
a fact obvious to anyone who has been caught sitting
next to the wrong person on a bus.
published in 1976, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please,
Carver's debut collection of stories, establishes
his distinctive approach to the short story form.
On the surface little of significance happens in these
stories: a waitress serves an overweight man in a
restaurant, a couple go visit friends to smoke pot,
a mailman tells what he knows of the turbulent relationship
of a couple on his route. "One big mistake that
almost all writers make when they start out writing
is not being honest in the way they use words,"
Carver said in an interview with Hansmaarten Tromp.
"They use words that they've heard but that don't
fit the story material." In fact, what makes
Carver's writing so distinctive is not only his ability
to find a language suited to his often stilted characters
but also the consistency with which he manages to
maintain an artful momentum for the reader. The story
"I am sitting over coffee and cigarets
at my friend Rita's and I am telling her about it.
Here is what I tell her."
intimate tone that Carver has mastered is an illusion
which has been carefully crafted. While writing these
early stories, Raymond Carver was an obsessive reviser.
"I've done as many as twenty or thirty drafts
of a story," Carver told The Paris Review.
"Never less than ten or twelve drafts."
Unlike fiction, life always moves forward and perhaps
it was the chaos, mistakes and misfortunes of Carver's
life that made him such a tenacious rewriter.
in 1938, Raymond Carver spent his childhood in Yakima,
Washington, where his father worked in a sawmill.
By his own account it was an "undistinguished
childhood." "But I did want to write, which
might have been the only thing that set me apart from
my friends," Carver told Larry McCaffery. In
1957 Carver married his pregnant 16-year-old girlfriend,
and by the end of the year their daughter was born.
Crippled by a serious drinking problem, for the next
twenty years Raymond Carver worked, when he worked
at all, a series of jobs ranging from custodian to
editor. The Carvers were forced to move frequently
and twice had to file for bankruptcy. Will You
Please Be Quiet Please is the product of this
tumultuous period; Carver explained to John Alton,
"The stories were written by the seat of my pants
over a twelve or fifteen year period." By contrast,
Cathedral, Carver's second collection of stories,
was written in just eighteen months.
You Please Be Quiet, Please though containing
many memorable stories is an uneven debut. In Carver's
less successful efforts the distastefulness of his
characters overwhelms the narrative. "They didn't
seem to see or feel or learn much beyond their insecurities,
the bleakness of their prospects, the force of their
streaks of envy, jealousy, cruelty, shame, dishonesty,"
the critic Ted Solotaroff writes. As a result, the
whole seems less than the parts. Another problem with
some of Carver's early efforts is that they can be
too pat. For example, in "They're Not Your Husband,"
an unemployed man goes to the restaurant where his
wife works as a waitress and overhears two men talking
about how unattractive she is. He demands that she
go on a diet. After she loses weight he returns to
the restaurant to see what people will say about her.
Instead they notice him, because he is drunk and obnoxious:
is this joker, anyway?"
Earl put on his best smile. He held it. He held it until
he felt his face pulling out of shape...
...They all stared at Earl.
"...He's my husband," Doreen said at last,
point, of course, is not only how Earl fails to see
himself, but to contrast his behavior with Doreen's
gracious acceptance of him. Almost an allegory, once
understood, the story itself is dispensable. It does
not linger in the reader's mind. Instead, "They're
Not Your Husband," caters to the reader's voyeurism.
It is an appeal whose dangers Carver understands in
his strongest work: like "Neighbors," one
of the best stories in Will You Please Be Quiet,
"Neighbors" Bill and Arlene Miller are asked
by their vacationing neighbors, the Stones, to look
after their apartment. Bill from the first is unable
to resist snooping and eventually he becomes obsessed
with it; he misses a day of work, going through the
Stones' closets, trying on the clothes of both Harriet
and Jim Stone and sleeping in their bed. At the end
of the story, Bill discovers that his wife, too, has
explored the Stones' home. When the Millers head over
to the Stones' apartment together to share their guilty
pleasure, Arlene discovers that she left the key inside.
They are locked out:
tried the knob. It was locked. Then she tried the knob.
It would not turn...
stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into
the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.
just under five pages, "Neighbors" manages
to fully explore the personality of Bill and Arlene,
the status of their marriage and their desperate need
for vicarious sensation. The Millers feel left behind
by life, and as readers of "Neighbors" ponder
how it happened to them, we are also forced to confront
our own motives in reading the story. There are many
equally significant stories in Will You Please
Be Quiet, Please including "Collectors"
in which a vacuum cleaner salesman may be collecting
other things as well and "Put Yourself in My
Shoes" in which a stuck writer finds his next
story. The book was nominated for the National Book
Award which was unusual for a first time writer and
almost unheard of for a collection of stories. Even
though it didn't win, Raymond Carver's reputation
was established and, more importantly, his life underwent
significant changes. Between October 1976 and January
1977 Carver was hospitalized four times because of
his drinking, and on June 2, 1977 he had his last
years before Carver's death on August 2, 1988 were
the most prolific in his life, yielding three more
collections of stories as well as producing numerous
book reviews and increasingly well regarded volumes
of poetry. He even found financial stability and happiness
with his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher. Far
better than his legions of imitators, Carver, in his
later collections, worked through the possibilities
of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please and justified
its promise. In his final stories like "The
Errand," a telling based on the death of Chekhov,
he left any trace of minimalism behind and was moving
in entirely new directions. At the end, Carver proved
a writer not limited to any movement: even the one