Raymond Carver probably is the most popular writer of quality fiction to appear upon the American literary scene since the publication of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953). Like Salinger, Carver had a truncated career. Salinger elected to stop writing and to live in seclusion; Carver died of lung cancer just when he was achieving the kind of reputation that would make it possible for him to live in comfort and devote all of his time to his work.
Like Salinger, Carver wrote in simple language but seemed to imply a wealth of hidden meaning, so that admirers never grow tired of talking about his stories and what they really mean. Carver, like Salinger, has attracted a great deal of critical attention. Many critics proceed on the premise that Salinger and Carver did not really understand what they were trying to say and need the help of literary midwives to deliver their creations to the reading public.
Reading Raymond Carver is an exhaustive analysis of the short stories published in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Where I’m Calling From: New and Collected Stories (1988). Carver has been stuck with the label of “minimalist” even though he repeatedly rejected it. Randolph Paul Runyon, a professor of French at Miami University in Ohio, quotes from John Barth’s well-known definition of minimalism, which appeared in an essay titled “A Few Words About Minimalism” in The New York Times Book Review of December 28, 1986:
Minimalism (of one sort or another) is the principle (one of the principles, anyhow) underlying (what I and many another interested observer consider to be perhaps) the most impressive phenomenon in the current…literary scene.… I mean the new flowering of the (North) American short story (in particular the kind of terse, oblique, realistic or hyperrealistic, slightly plotted, extrospective, cool-surfaced fiction associated in the last 5 or 10 years with such excellent writers as Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Robison, Mary Robison and Tobias Wolff, and both praised and damned under such labels as “K-Mart realism,” “hick chic,” “Diet Pepsi minimalism” and “post Vietnam, post-literary, postmodernist blue-collar neo-early-Hemingwayism”).
Runyon’s analysis is based on the premise that Carver’s stories can be understood by comparing them “intertextually,” something like cracking two walnuts against each other. He believes that when Carver published his stories in collections, he deliberately arranged them so that the juxtapositions of two or more stories provide clues to their hidden meanings. In his analysis of “How About This?” which was reprinted in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Runyon suggests the possibility of a code, “a hidden language that would enable us to read between the lines,” concealed in the sequence of stories.
Runyon’s closely reasoned explications are hard to follow because he dauntlessly tries to analyze practically every story that appeared in book form before Carver’s untimely death and even tries to make something out of the juxtapositions of the seven new stories in Where I’m Calling From: New and Collected Stories, which were reprinted in plain chronological order.
It takes the reader a long time to understand Runyon’s method and still longer to understand what significance he attaches to it. Then, on page 80, the light breaks through. In his discussion of Carver’s story “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” Runyon explains that the protagonist feels fear when he sees a woman “tossing her hair” because “she embodies the mythical long-haired Medusa, whose horrible face turned to stone the men who gazed at her, and who, as Freud pointed out, embodies the female sexual organ.”
Runyon is that most exasperating type of literary critic, a Freudian. He quotes extensively from Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) in order to demonstrate, first, that dreams are disguised expressions of repressed wishes; second, that daydreams are “really the same” as other dreams; third, that creative writers’ productions are disguised daydreams; and finally, that Carver’s short stories are disguised expressions of conscious and unconscious wishes.
Significantly, Runyon states: “Freud does not say whether the ‘changes and disguises’ the successful writer exerts on his daydreams are consciously or unconsciously done; it is quite probable they are a mixture of both.” This is a convenient way for a Freudian critic to give himself carte blanche, since the unfortunate author undergoing analysis...
(The entire section is 1961 words.)