Will You Please Be Quiet, Please
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly April 1998


At 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.

One 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.

First 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 "Fat" opens:  "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."

The 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.

Born 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.

Will 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:

"Who 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, shrugging.

The 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, Please.

In "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:

He tried the knob. It was locked. Then she tried the knob. It would not turn...
They stayed there. They held each other. They leaned into the door as if against a wind, and braced themselves.

In 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 drink.

The 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 he led.