What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Magill's Literary Annual 1982)
From its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the American short story has always been more closely associated with lyric poetry than with its overgrown narrative neighbor, the novel. Regardless of whether short fiction clung to the legendary tale form of its ancestry (as in Nathaniel Hawthorne) or whether it moved toward the presentation of the single event (as in James Joyce) the form has always been a “much in little” proposition which conceals more than it reveals and leaves much unsaid.
There are two basic means by which the short story has pursued its movement away from the linearity of prose toward the spatiality of poetry—either by using the metaphoric and plurasignificative language of the poem or by radically limiting its selection of the presented event. The result has been two completely different textures in short fiction—the former characterized by such writers as Eudora Welty in the 1940’s and 1950’s and Bernard Malamud in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose styles are thick with metaphor and myth, and the latter characterized by such writers as Ernest Hemingway in the 1920’s and 1930’s and Raymond Carver in the 1970’s and 1980’s, whose styles are thin to the point of disappearing.
Carver’s first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, published in 1976 and nominated for a National...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Carver’s strong reliance on dialogue gives readers a sense of immediacy. This immediacy is as deceptive and illusory as the definition of love is for the characters. The story, after all, comes to the reader secondhand; moreover, the story is modeled on a fiction that concerns itself with the truth. The emotional escalation of a conversation, masterfully rendered, emphasizes the urgency of the human needs to love and be loved. The conversation shows that conversation is the medium through which love continually eludes those who would capture it and define it.
Many critics refer to Carver’s writing style as “minimalist.” He did not particularly like the term, given its connotations of smallness and inadequacy. Whether or not one assigns such a label or quibbles about how it should be defined, there is no question that each character is drawn sparingly, although with the essential details. For example, although Mel’s drunken torpidity increases as the story develops, readers are also aware that Mel is a surgeon, and that “when he was sober, his gestures, all his movements, were precise, very careful.” This observation is essential to establishing the significance of Mel’s behavior during the conversation about love. A favorable definition of minimalist writing is that in it there is nothing extraneous—such a definition applies to Carver’s stories.
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John Gardner (1933–1982), an American novelist and poet, was one of Carver’s first writing teachers. Gardner is perhaps best known for his novel Grendel (1971), which is a retelling of the traditional Beowulf story from the perspective of the monster. His novel October Light (1976) won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gardner was also a critic, and wrote two books aimed at aspiring writers: On Becoming a Novelist (1983) and The Art of Fiction (1984), both published after his death.
John Cheever (1912–1982) was a close friend of Carver, as well as his colleague and fellow fiction writer. In contrast to Carver, whose stories centered on the working poor, Cheever, a novelist and short story writer, was known for his middle-class suburban settings and characters. Among his best known works are The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953), The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), his first novel, which won a National Book Award, and The Stories of John Cheever (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Because of his clear prose style and ability to capture the social milieu of suburban America, critics have dubbed him ‘‘the Chekhov of the suburbs.’’
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The story is told from the first-person restricted point-of-view. The narrator, Nick, describes the interactions between the two couples only from his own perspective. Nick portrays his relationship with his wife, Linda, in glowing terms, full of warmth, affection, and mutual respect. Given the atmosphere of the story, and the tone of the conversation, however, the reader is invited to speculate if perhaps Nick’s idealized perception of his marriage may eventually develop the tone of ‘‘benign menace’’ characterized by the relationship between Mel and Terri. Because the story is related in the past tense, the narrator suggests a feeling of nostalgia on Nick’s part, for this early period of his marriage.
Setting: ‘‘Carver Country’’
The story is set around the kitchen table of the McGinnis’, in Albuquerque, New Mexico although the narrator explains that ‘‘we were all from somewhere else.’’ This is significant in that many critics agree Carver’s settings are not regionally specific, but that his characters and the lives they lead describe a specific segment of white, working-class American life many have dubbed ‘‘Carver Country.’’ Carver’s widow, the writer Tess Gallagher, has edited a book entitled Carver Country, which includes photographs that capture the flavor of ‘‘Carver Country,’’ accompanied by excerpts from Carver’s letters, stories,...
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"A Serious Talk" can conveniently illustrate fictional techniques common to many stories in the collection. Odd touches of comedy punctuate the story: the estranged husband drinking cranapple juice with his vodka because his wife has no other mixers; the husband's surreptitious cutting of the telephone cord while his wife talks to her new lover; and his dropping a pie in the driveway as he attempts to balance a stack of them on his arm when he leaves. (He had stolen the pies which were to serve as dessert for the Christmas dinner to which he had not been invited.)
Besides comic touches, one frequently finds in this story both symbolism and irony. Irony inheres in the husband's causing his wife and family to respond directly contrary to what he had intended and hoped for. Irony inheres also in his belief that he had accomplished something positive by going home. Symbolic details include the overgrown weeds in his wife's yard and the burnt out pilot light on the stove. The neglect of her house and property suggests her state of torpor and inertia. The ashtray with which the story ends is an emblem of the husband's inarticulateness, his frustration, and his lost hope.
An additional important technical feature of Carver's stories is their finely turned dialogue, which carries the action and bears thematic implications. Carver's dialogue sharply reflects his characters' states of mind. Throughout the stories, the characters talk endlessly. For all...
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Carver's stories exhibit little concern with social issues. The stories do not specifically focus on matters of class or race, and they generally avoid large-scale issues of social significance. Instead, they consistently depict characters whose lives reflect the loss of stability formerly provided by the traditional values associated with religion and family life. The world of the stories shares features with the world of absurdist drama, while differing from it in an important way. Like the absurdist writers, Carver's stories portray human beings as irrational and pathetic, helpless against life's chaos and inexorability. Dispossessed of religious conviction, cut off from history, and alienated from the natural environment, Carver's characters are often unable to understand themselves or to communicate with others. Unlike the surrealistic tendencies of many absurdist writers, however, Carver hews closely to a strict literary realism, incisive in its spareness and understatement.
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Compare and Contrast
1960s–1970s: The dominant trend in fiction is in the style of experimental, ‘‘postmodern’’ writing. The American short story is considered to be at a low point.
1990s: Carver’s turn to ‘‘neo-realist’’ subjectmatter, written in a ‘‘minimalist’’ style, which goes against the grain of postmodern fiction, is credited with both revitalizing the genre of the American short story, and inspiring a generation of writer’s attempting to imitate his minimalist style. Because of the large number of Carver imitators, however, a backlash against minimalist writing soon follows. Carver’s entire oeuvre is now seen in a broader perspective, and Carver is indisputably recognized as the foremost American short fiction writer of his generation.
1960s–1970s: While Carver’s story, published in 1982, focuses on the theme of domestic violence, the term itself is not mentioned. The battered women’s movement, which begins in the early-to-mid-1970s, grows out of feminist efforts at anti-rape legislation. Early efforts to help battered women include providing safe refuge for women and children escaping abusive situations, and lobbying efforts to protect women from abuse.
1990s: The awareness of the problem of battered women grows throughout the 1980s and 1990s: there is increased funding for and availability of battered women’s shelters, increased...
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Topics for Further Study
While he consistently disclaimed the label, Carver’s writing style, particularly in the stories of the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is consistently referred to by critics in terms of ‘‘minimalism.’’ The term minimalism has also been used to describe stylistic trends in both art and music. Find out more about minimalism in either art or music and pick a minimalist artist in either of these mediums to learn more about. How does the minimalist style of Carver’s story translate into the medium of the artist or composer you have chosen?
Carver has often cited the nineteenth-century short story writer and playwright Anton Chekhov as one of the greatest influences on his own writing. Read a short story by Chekhov. In what ways does Carver’s writing style seem to draw from that of Chekhov? In what ways is Carver’s style markedly different from Chekhov’s?
A central focus of the discussion between the four characters in Carver’s story is on the abusive behavior of Terri’s former husband, Ed. Find out more about the prevalence and conditions of domestic violence today. What resources are available to battered women in your town, county, or state? What laws exist at the local, state, or national level to protect battered women? What are some of the difficulties faced by battered women in trying to leave an abusive relationship?
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Ernest Hemingway is the ghost behind this collection of stories. Their spare, taut style, heavily implicative dialogue, and general toughness of vision indebt Carver to the modern master. Invoked implicitly also is Anton Chekhov, whose stories often depict moments of loss, separation, and grief in the lives of ordinary people. Like Chekhov's stories, Carver's are often unresolved. Both writers avoid neat, tidy conclusions that simplify and distort the complexity of experience. Like Chekhov's stories, too, Carver's display compassion for the characters.
Carver's stories generally adhere to a set of artistic guidelines he summarized in a Paris Review interview. First, he believes that a writer should get in and out of the story quickly, without wasting words. He quotes Isaac Babel approvingly: "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place." Second, he believes strongly in accuracy, in telling the truth and in falsifying nothing. He quotes Ezra Pound in support: "fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing." And third, Carver thinks it necessary that a story include a sense of threat or menace. His stories possess this quality in just enough proportion to create tension.
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A collection of Carver’s short stories was adapted to the screen and made into a composite narrative film entitled Short Cuts (1993), directed by Robert Altman.
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What Do I Read Next?
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) is Carver’s first major collection of short stories. It includes works developed over a period of fourteen years.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) is Carver’s second major short story collection. It is considered to be the epitome of Carver’s ‘‘minimalist’’ style.
Cathedral (1984) is collection of short stories considered Carver’s masterpiece. The title story, ‘‘Cathedral’’ is recognized as Carver’s best.
Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988) is Carver’s fourth major collection of short stories. It includes revised versions of previously published stories.
Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver (1990), with photographs by Bob Adelman, is a posthumously published collection of photographs that capture the flavor of the struggling working class world depicted in most of Carver’s stories. It includes an introduction by his widowed wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, and excerpts from letters, poems, and stories by Carver.
Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver (1993), edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, is a collection of essays by friends and fellow writers close to Carver, describing their experiences with him. The book is...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gallagher, Tess, Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver, Scribner, 1990, pp. 8, 11–12.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce, and William L. Stull, eds., Conversations with Raymond Carver, University of Mississippi Press, 1990, pp. xii, xiii, xvi.
Meyer, Adam, Raymond Carver, Twayne, 1995, pp. ix, 1, 20, 21, 27, 86, 87, 113.
Runyon, Randolph Paul, Reading Raymond Carver, Syracuse University Press, 1992, pp. 4, 85.
Carver, Raymond, Short Cuts: Selected Stories, Vintage, 1991. This collection contains previously published short stories by Carver, on which Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts was based. It has an introduction by Altman that discusses the processes of adapting a number of short stories to a single composite narrative film.
Carver, Raymond, and Tom Jenks, eds., American Short Story Masterpieces, Delacorte, 1987. This work is a collection of what the editors determined to be the best American short stories written between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Cheever, John, The Stories of John Cheever, Knopf, 1978. This book is a collection of short stories, originally published between 1946 and 1975, written by Carver’s close friend, colleague, and fellow author.
Foote, Shelby, ed., Anton Chekhov: Early Short Stories, 1883–1888, Modern Library,...
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, June, 1981, p. 96.
Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Carver, Raymond. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Edited by Marshall Bruce Gentry and William L. Stull. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Hudson Review. XXXIV, Autumn, 1981, p. 459.
Library Journal. CVI, March 15, 1981, p. 678.
The Nation. CCXXXIII, July 4, 1981, p. 23.
The New Republic. CLXXXIV, April 25, 1981, p. 38.
The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, May 14, 1981, p. 37.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 26, 1981, p. 1.
Newsweek. XCVII, April 27, 1981, p. 96.
Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.
Saltzman, Arthur. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Saturday Review. VIII, April, 1981, p. 77.
Time. CXVII, April 6, 1981, p. 82.
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