Cathedral Carver, Raymond
Cathedral Raymond Carver
American short story writer, poet, and scriptwriter.
The following entry presents criticism on Carver's short story collection Cathedral (1983). See also, Raymond Carver Criticism.
Carver's 1983 short story collection Cathedral contains much of the author's most popular and highly respected work. The twelve stories in Cathedral build on Carver's earlier work, exhibiting characteristics such as inarticulate characters isolated by their inability to relate to one another; an unsentimental treatment of joblessness, alcoholism, and estrangement; and a prevailing mood of despair and hopelessness. However, in Cathedral, Carver departs from the intensely minimalist style that characterized much of his earlier work. These stories are longer and more inclusive, providing greater insight into the emotions and perceptions of his characters. In addition, in such stories as "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," and "Where I'm Calling From," Carver allows his characters to experience a sense of hopefulness and the opportunity to commune with one another—circumstances largely absent from his previous work. When asked about the collection in an interview, Carver said: "the first story I wrote was 'Cathedral,' which I feel is totally different in conception and execution from any stories that have come before. I suppose it reflects a change in my life as much as it does in my way of writing."
Plot and Major Characters
In many of the stories from Cathedral, Carver focuses on daily events, common occurrences in the lives of his characters. Couples and families are his main subjects, and frequently experience some type of epiphany during the course of the story. In "Careful" a man struggles to clear his ears from deafening wax. "Bridle" is about the downward spiral of a farm family losing their farm, requiring them to relocate. The family is forced to move a second time when the father suffers a head injury, leaving him unable to support his wife and four children. In "Feathers," Carver recounts a defining moment in the lives of Jack and Fran, a couple who visit their friends Bud and Olla one evening. Confronted with their hosts' peacock, a model of preorthodontics teeth, and an ugly baby, the couple is transformed. Fran believes the evening has destroyed their happiness, but Jack views it as the pinnacle of their contentment and success. "Chef's House" focuses on a defining moment in the life of another couple. Edna agrees to reunite with her alcoholic husband, Wes, for one summer to share a friend's beach house. During the summer Wes refrains from drinking, allowing the pair to enjoy an idyllic holiday. When Chef returns, requiring Edna and Wes to leave, Wes again succumbs to his despondency.
Carver's work in Cathedral falls roughly into two categories. Stories such as "Feathers," "Careful," and "Compartment" illustrate a sense of futility and hopelessness that pervades the characters' lives. The protagonists are isolated by their inability to relate to one another and to articulate their feelings. Denied the ability to express themselves they become frustrated, losing hope that their lives will improve. For instance, in "Preservation" the husband and wife cannot express to one another how they believe their lives have come to ruin. The wife watches her husband retreat after he loses his job, but she is unable to reach him or help him regain his optimism. Carver's characters are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, but often lack traits that allow them to triumph over their problems. However, while "A Small, Good Thing," "Where I'm Calling From," and "Cathedral" deal with dark subjects, Carver's tone in these stories is different. His protagonists are able to communicate with one another and to improve their situations. In "A Small, Good Thing," for instance, the confrontation between parents and a baker results in solace for both parties. The baker confronts his antisocial behavior and the parents acknowledge their grief.
Critics responded positively when Cathedral was published in 1983. Carver was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1984. He also received the 1983 Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. The collection continues to garner praise, and such stories as "A Small, Good Thing," "Cathedral," and "Where I'm Calling From" remain among his best-known and most highly regarded works. Most scholarship about Cathedral has focused on Carver's shift from a minimalist style evident in earlier collections such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) to the longer, more developed stories in Cathedral. As one critic noted, the length of the stories seemed to increase as the length of the collection's titles decreased. Reviewers also noted Carver's more hopeful tone. While a few commentators felt betrayed by Carver's new attitude, arguing that it bordered on sentimentality, most critics cited it as evidence of Carver's growing range and skill. In a review of Cathedral, Irving Howe wrote: "A few of Carver's stories … can already be counted among the masterpieces of American fiction."
Near Klamath (poetry) 1968
Winter Insomnia (poetry) 1970
Put Yourself in My Shoes (short stories) 1974
At Night the Salmon Move (poetry) 1976
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (short stories) 1976
Furious Seasons and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (short stories) 1981
The Pheasant (short stories) 1982
Two Poems (poetry) 1982
Cathedral (short stories) 1983
Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (essays, poetry, and short stories) 1983
If It Please You (short stories) 1984
The Short Stories of Raymond Carver (short stories) 1985
The Water (poetry) 1985
∗Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (poetry) 1985
∗Ultramarine (poetry) 1986
Those Days: Early Writings (short stories and poetry) 1987
†Where I'm Calling From: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1988
A New Path to the Waterfall (poetry) 1989
∗These works were published together in England as In a Marine Light in 1987.
†The new short stories from this volume were published in England as Elephant, and Other Stories in 1988.
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Time, Vol. 122, September 19, 1983, p. 95.
[In the following review, Gray suggests that Cathedral contains hidden depths of meaning.]
For years now, the demographics of the American short story have been moving up-scale. The line of Hemingway drifters and Flannery O'Connor grotesques seems to be dying out. Characters rarely worry any more about finding God or their next meal. They are likely instead to be well educated, sensitive to a fault, politically liberal, and affluent enough to feel pleasurable guilt in their possessions. They tend, in short, to resemble the stereotypical reader of The New Yorker, which is where the luckiest of these fictional people are chosen to appear. The rejected ones must troop off to the quarterlies and go through their paces (at greatly reduced rates) for smaller audiences composed of people with whom they can feel equally at home. These days a good many characters in short stories are also quarterly readers.
Author Raymond Carver, 45, has successfully bucked this trend toward the gentrification of short fiction. Furthermore, he has done so in part in The New Yorker, where three of the twelve stories in Cathedral originally appeared.
Carver's art masquerades as accident, scraps of information that might have been overheard at the supermarket checkout counter or the...
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in America, December 31, 1983, p. 438.
[In the following review, Knapp praises Carver's poignancy and emotional depth in Cathedral.]
Rarely, and at unpredictable intervals, a writer of genius appears on the literary scene, who waves a wand over the relentlessly banal events of everyday life and transforms them. Such a master of the short story form is Raymond Carver. His first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, announced to critics that an extraordinary talent had emerged from the obscure town of Clatskanie, Ore. In this latest collection of stories the author takes to its ultimate fruition Emerson's dictum that "all matter is emblematic of spirit." For Carver, all material events are evocative of the spirit, and each is crafted from a surprising perspective.
Hawthorne had found that "moonlight in a familiar room" was the requisite blending of reality and fantasy that short story writers needed. Carver does not need the moonlight, nor even dusk; he performs his sleight of hand even under the glare of the strongest sun. The objects can be as grotesque as false teeth enshrined above a television set or as tentative as the artificial community of motel dwellers living around a communal pool. Each story takes the humdrum and distills from it a poignant human...
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 1, Winter, 1984, pp. 71-2.
[In the review below, Grinnell praises Carver's writing, arguing that he has improved on his old style and added new elements.]
Things are finally looking up for Raymond Carver. In a way it is entirely fitting that this, his third volume of short stories is entitled Cathedral and that the collection ends with the title story, for in both Carver's life and writing, as in a Gothic cathedral, all signs are pointing upward.
Such was not always the case. Married at eighteen and burdened at that early age not only with the responsibility of a wife and children but also with a succession of dreary jobs, it is a wonder that he wrote at all. Raised in poor neighborhoods in Yakima, Washington, he somehow was able to attend college, to graduate with a B.A. from Chico State in California, to find his way to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he spent a year just barely surviving financially. He then took to drinking, wasting most of his thirties. He makes no excuses; he did not drink to escape nor for inspiration—he "was into the drinking itself."
Prior to 1983, he produced two books of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Only the titles of the collections are long; the stories...
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SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Western American Literature, Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 168-69.
[In the review below, Schnapp, who is a professor at Bowling Green State University, discusses the significance of the inability to articulate essential truths and beliefs in Carver's characters.]
A red-eyed peacock startles a couple visiting acquaintances who have an extraordinarily ugly baby. A man tells his estranged wife that he's about to go crazy because of his plugged-up ear. A wife comes home to find her unemployed husband unaware that the refrigerator has quit working and the food is thawing out. In Raymond Carver's Cathedral, his third collection of short fiction, stories are pared down to the banal details that compose most of our lives. And yet these very banal details explode in the mind with reverberating and ominous innuendo.
Frank Kermode has declared that Carver is a master of the short form, and Carver's "A Small, Good Thing," which is included in this collection, was this year's first place winner in William Abraham's distinguished annual "Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards."
There is no melodrama in Carver's spare, laconic, but brilliantly evocative fiction. "Vitamins," for instance, begins: "I had a job and Patti didn't. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital." Patti does get herself a job, however, "for her self-respect."...
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SOURCE: "'The Calm,' 'A Small Good Thing,' and 'Cathedral': Raymond Carver and the Rediscovery of Human Worth," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 287-96.
[In the following essay, Facknitz compares "The Calm," "A Small Good Thing," and "Cathedral," arguing that these stories represent unique attempts by Carver to create acceptance, closure, and connection among his characters.]
Raymond Carver is as successful as a short story writer in America can be. The signs of his success are many: prestigious and ample grants, publication in the best literary quarterlies and national magazines, and, from all appearances, an unperturbed ability to write the kind of stories he wishes to write. By contrast, the causes of his success are ambiguous. Carver's writing is often facile, and one might argue that he has chanced upon a voice that matches a jaded audience's lust for irony and superficial realism. Whatever the proclivities of his readers, Carver knows their passions and perversions well. In story after story, in language that babbles from wise lunatics, Carver's penetration of characters is honest and fast. But they compose a diminished race—alcoholics, obsessives, drifters, and other losers who are thoroughly thrashed by life in the first round. Only recently have his characters begun to achieve a measure of roundness, and as they have, the message of his work has...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Pieces of Resistance, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 162-66.
[In the following essay, Goodheart analyzes Carver's moral code, arguing that he is at his best when his characters adhere to it.]
The affectless narrative voice of a Raymond Carver story defends itself against surprise or shock or pain. The most banal situations propose inexplicable signs of menace that require, in response, a discipline of unemotional terseness. Nothing much happens at the dinner party in "Feathers," the first of the stories in Carver's latest collection, except for the weird appearance of a vulture-sized peacock, which stares at the guests and to which Jack, the narrator, responds at intervals with three "god damns," as if the word were a talisman for preserving equanimity. The peacock, the plaster cast of misshapen teeth on top of the TV, the very ugly baby of the hosts give the story a quality of surreal menace that never quite materializes. Though nothing of consequence happens at the dinner, the friendship between the men (the wives have just been introduced to each other) is significantly altered. "We're still friends. That hasn't changed any. But I've gotten careful with what I say to him. And I know he feels that and wishes it could be different. I wish it could be too." Every detail conspires to estrange the friends from each other, whatever else they might...
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SOURCE: "Blind, Intertextual Love: 'The Blind Man' and Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral'," in D. H. Lawrence's Literary Inheritors, edited by Keith Cushman and Dennis Jackson, Macmillan, 1991, pp. 155-66.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Études lawrenciennes in 1988, Cushman states that although Carver was not influenced by D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Blind Man" when Carver wrote "Cathedral," the stories are very similar.]
Anyone who reads Raymond Carver's 'Cathedral', the title-story of his 1983 collection, with a knowledge of D. H. Lawrence's short stories might easily conclude that 'Cathedral' is a shrewd, intriguing rewriting of 'The Blind Man'. Carver's tale presents a scrambled reprise of the crucial elements of Lawrence's great story. Lawrence's triangle of characters consists of a blind husband (Maurice Pervin), his wife (Isabel), and the wife's sighted friend (Bertie Reid). In 'Cathedral', the unnamed husband and wife are sighted, but the wife's visiting friend (Robert) is blind. The interplay of husband, wife, and visitor comprises the slight action of both stories. Both 'The Blind Man' and 'Cathedral' conclude with a potentially transforming act of ritual communion between the two men. The husband in 'Cathedral' genuinely enters Robert's world of blindness; Maurice Pervin does not realize how badly his attempted communion with Bertie has failed. The evidence seems...
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SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Understanding Raymond Carver, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 124-56.
[In the following excerpt, Saltzman compares such stories as "Feathers," "Chef's House," and "The Compartment"—which reflect hopelessness and despair—with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From" in which Carver allows his characters more compassion and choice.]
"I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone.1 In this way Carver announces a deliberate departure from the relentless austerity of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in favor of the "fleshed out" fictions of Cathedral. "Generous" is the term of approval employed by several reviewers to recognize the ventilation of the claustrophobic method and attitude that heretofore had dominated Carver's work. Perhaps befitting the increased stability and ease in Carver's personal life, the strapped constituents of Carver country breathe a bit more freely in this volume.2
Nevertheless, the majority of the stories dispute any claim to a fundamental break from the tenor of the three preceding collections. While there is impressive evidence in Cathedral of his having begun to transcend the haplessness and brittle restraint that commonly besets his characters, Carver by no means forsakes the...
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SOURCE: "Now You See Him, Now You Don't, Now You Do Again: The Evolution of Raymond Carver's Minimalism," in Critique, Vol. XXX, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 239-51.
[In the following essay, Meyer, a professor at Vanderbilt University, traces Carver's use of minimalist style throughout his career, arguing that Carver returns to his previous, more expansive style in Cathedral.]
At this point in his career, there can be little doubt that Raymond Carver is "as successful as a short story writer in America can be,"1 that "he is becoming an Influence."2 Still, despite (or perhaps because of) this position, Carver remains a controversial figure. Much of the debate about Carver's merits centers around a similar debate about minimalism, a style that a few years ago was very hot and very hotly criticized, and that, now that it is cooling off, is under even more fervent attack. Much of the controversy is sparked by a confusion of terminology. As hard as it is accurately to define minimalism, for the same reasons we cannot entirely pin down such terms as realism, modernism, or post-modernism. It is even harder to say who is or is not a minimalist, as demonstrated by Donald Barthelme's being called a minimalist as often as he is called one of the post-modernists against whom the minimalists are rebelling.3 Nevertheless, Carver is generally acknowledged to be "the chief practitioner of what's...
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SOURCE: "Breaking the Ties That Bind: Inarticulation in the Fiction of Raymond Carver," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 439-46.
[In the essay below, Gearhart traces the differences between the original story, "The Bath," and Carver's revision of the same story, "A Small, Good Thing."]
Raymond Carver has been widely acknowledged as a short story writer whose glimpses into the lives of "everyday" people have made him a master of the genre. The typical Carver character is a down-and-out blue-collar type familiar with the trauma of marital infidelity, alcoholism, and financial hardship. As critics have thoroughly noted, these characters share an inability to articulate their frustrations in words which causes their social, moral, and spiritual paralysis: "each new moment can bewilder a character, freeze him or her into a confusion of inaction. Carver … is famous for the passivity with which his characters confront, or fail to confront, their experience."1
Carver's first two collections of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, are relentless portraits of human despair and futility. But with the publication of Cathedral in 1984, critics acknowledged an unmistakable loosening of Carver's stark "minimalist" prose style, and noted the development of human potential in his...
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SOURCE: "Raymond Carver and Postmodern Humanism," in Critique, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, pp. 125-36.
[In the following essay, Brown—a professor at the University of California, Davis—argues that Cathedral is not a radical departure from Carver's style, but an example of his postmodern humanist writing.]
When Raymond Carver wrote "Cathedral," he recognized that it was "totally different in conception and execution from any stories that [had] come before." He goes on to say, "There was an opening up when I wrote the story. I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I'd be at a dead end" (Fires 204). He began to write longer stories, and his characters started to see things more clearly. Perhaps Carver was exaggerating, however, when he said that "Cathedral" was "totally" different.
Carver's writing has remained postmodern, a distinction as apparent as it is challenging to describe. The teacher of a drawing class once said as my class worked on contour drawings of a tree, "Don't lift your pencil from the page. Keep your eyes on the tree. Concentrate until you get a headache, until your pencil is on the branch of the tree." The contour drawing seems an apt metaphor for postmodern fiction, with its attention to surface detail, its resistance to depth, and its aspect...
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SOURCE: "'The Possibility of Resurrection': Re-vision in Carver's 'Feathers' and 'Cathedral'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 31-9.
[In the essay below, Hathcock compares "Feathers" and "Cathedral" to illustrate the ways in which Carver allows his characters greater freedom and ability to redeem their lives.]
In two of his late stories—"Feathers" and "Cathedral"—Raymond Carver appears to have changed his estimation of the potential power in his characters, the power to reconstruct their lives through language and, in the process, arrive at some understanding or intuitive accord. Unlike earlier Carver protagonists, the inhabitants of what one critic has called "Hopelessville," (Newlove 77) these narrators show an uncommon interest in the way they tell their stories. The stories themselves dramatize the characters' incipient awareness of their own authority: the control of their own language. This act of assertion reveals their ability to read, at last, the texts of their own lives. They "read" in the sense that Barthes defines the activity—an erotic interaction with the fabric of their memories, fears, and desires—and the "text" resulting from this practice resists the characters' tendency to fall passively silent (Barthes 31-47). The nihilism that many readers have faulted Carver for espousing is successfully deflected by these two narrators; through...
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SOURCE: "Maturity: Cathedral," in Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 48-66.
[In the following excerpt, Campbell, a professor at Texas A&M University, traces the changes in Carver's writing, noting that in Cathedral he exhibits great skill in adopting a softer, more hopeful tone.]
If a great number of critics hailed the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981 as the establishing event of Carver's career, it is the arrival of Cathedral three years later that confirms his place among short-story writers of the first rank. The confirmation results in part, however, not from a continuation of what established him, but from his manifest growth and the more generous spirit visible in his work.
The defining features of Carver's fiction alter during the period between the two books. The voice remains the same, but the vision becomes less grounded in despair. The fictional framework is enlarged and reinforced by traditional structures. Empty spaces fill with beginnings, middles, ends. Truncations vanish; where once the narrative halted in emotional tumult, the story continues and equilibrium is restored. Despair becomes redemption; the alienated are reconciled. Hardboiled realism turns out to be allegory with a soft center.
The techniques, situations, and effects of popular forms become the...
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SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 137-85.
[In the excerpt below, Runyon examines the connecting elements and recurring themes in the short stories from Cathedral.]
"Before and after" (14), Bud said, holding up an "old plaster-of-Paris cast of the most crooked, jaggedy teeth in the world" (12) next to his wife Olla's orthodontically straightened ones. It is one of several sights Jack and Fran have to endure on their visit to Bud and Olla's house. Another is the pet peacock that wanders into the house during dinner, is "smelly" (25), and lets out blood-curdling screams. Still another is their hosts' offspring, "the ugliest baby" Jack has "ever seen," with "no neck to speak of" and "three or four fat chins" (20).
Yet Jack, who narrates the story, is able to say that "that evening at Bud and Olla's was special…. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life…. I wished … that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening" (25). Fran was of a different opinion. "Fran would look back on that evening at Bud's place as the beginning of the change…. 'Goddamn those people and their ugly baby,' Fran will say, for no apparent reason." It was a change for the worse: Fran has since cut her lovely long hair and has "gotten fat on me, too" (26), Jack says. They have a child...
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SOURCE: "Insularity and Self-Enlargement in Raymond Carver's Cathedral," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 116-28.
[In the essay below, Nesset, a professor at Whittier college, argues that the stories in Cathedral differ from Carver's earlier work in that some of the characters are able to escape their self-imposed insularity.]
In "The Compartment," one of Raymond Carver's bleakest stories, a man passes through the French countryside in a train, en route to a rendevous with a son he has not seen for many years. "Now and then," the narrator says of the man, "Meyers saw a farmhouse and its outbuildings, everything surrounded by a wall. He thought this might be a good way to live—in an old house surrounded by a wall" (Cathedral 48). Due to a last minute change of heart, however, Meyers chooses to stay insulated in his "compartment" and, remaining on the train, reneges on his promise to the boy, walling out everything external to his selfish world, paternal obligation included.
Meyers's tendency toward insularity is not, of course, unique among the characters in Cathedral or among the characters of earlier volumes. In Will You Be Quiet, Please? there is the paranoid self-cloistering of Slater and Arnold Breit, and in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love we read of James Packer's cantankerous, self-absorbed...
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Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver, by Bob Adelman and Tess Gallagher, pp. 8-19. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
Provides an account of Carver's life, along with insight into influences on his writing.
Lehman, David. "Tales of Ordinary Madness." Newsweek (5 September 1983): 66.
Reviews Cathedral, claiming that while Carver was successful illustrating misery and hopelessness, his stories are too limited.
Meyer, Adam. "The Masterpiece: Cathedral." In Raymond Carver, pp. 124-47. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
Analyzes several stories from Cathedral, tracing changes in Carver's tone and style.
Weber, Bruce. "Raymond Carver: A Chronicler of Blue-Collar Despair." New York Times Magazine (24 June 1984): 36-51.
Surveys Carver's life, placing his work within the context of changes in the literary world.
Bonetti, Kay. "Ray Carver: Keeping It Short." Saturday Review (September-October 1983): 21-3.
Remarks on the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award Carver won...
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