Discussion Topics

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What events in Raymond Carver’s life crystalized his development as a short-story writer?

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Identify the “inexplicable separations” in two or three of Carver’s short stories. What makes them inexplicable?

The short-story form often allows readers to put themselves briefly into someone else’s shoes. Find a few Carver stories that seem particularly effective in this respect. What techniques account for this success?

Carver’s Cathedral has been translated into more than twenty languages—a fact which suggests the existence of many readers in societies quite different from the United States. What themes, elements of his style, or other aspects of his stories seem best to account for the universality of his appeal?

The stories in Cathedral are fairly evenly divided into first-and third-person narratives. What can you determine about the advantages and disadvantages of each of these modes of narration?

Other Literary Forms

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Raymond Carver distinguished himself as a short-story writer and poet, and he wrote in both forms until his death. His poetry has been published in the following collections: Near Klamath (1968), Winter Insomnia (1970), At Night the Salmon Move (1976), Two Poems (1982), Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (1983), If It Please You (1984), This Water (1985), Where Water Comes Together with Other Water (1985), Ultramarine (1986), and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989).

Achievements

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Raymond Carver’s greatest achievement was overcoming his economically and culturally disadvantaged background to become an author of world renown. He made the short story a viable literary form; since Carver, short-story collections have again become a marketable commodity in the book trade. Both as a model and as a teacher, he had such an influence on younger fiction writers that author Jay McInerney could truthfully say (alluding to a famous statement that Fyodor Dostoevski made about Nikolai Gogol) that there is hardly a single American short-story writer younger than Carver who did not “come out of Carver’s overcoat.”

With only a bachelor’s degree and mediocre grades, Carver was invited to teach at distinguished universities and became a professor of English at Syracuse University in 1980. He received many honors during his lifetime, including a Strauss Living Award, which guaranteed him an annual stipend of thirty-five thousand dollars and enabled him to devote all his time to writing during the last years of his life. Just before his death, he received a doctorate of letters from the University of Hartford.

Other literary forms

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Raymond Carver is perhaps best known as a writer of short fiction. In addition, he wrote a screenplay and edited a collection of short stories.

Achievements

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Raymond Carver has been credited with rescuing both poetry and the short story from the elitists and obscurantists and giving them back to the people. His honors include the National Endowment for the Arts Discovery Award for Poetry in 1970, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award for fiction in 1971, a Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowship from Stanford University in 1972-1973, a National Book Award nomination in fiction in 1977, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977-1978, a National Endowment for the Arts Award in fiction in 1979, the Carlos Fuentes Fiction Award in 1983, the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award in 1983, a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination in fiction in 1984, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1984 and 1989, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize in 1985, and a Washington State Book Award in 1987. Carver was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988 and in that same year was awarded a doctorate of letters from the University of Hartford.

Bibliography

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Adelman, Bob, and Tess Gallagher. Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. Introduction by Tess Gallagher. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Produced in the spirit of a photographic essay, this book contains excellent photographs of Carver, his relatives, people who served as inspirations for characters in his stories, and places that were important in his life and work. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from Carver’s stories and poems.

Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, 2. A prominent American writer who is considered a leading exponent of the maximalist style of fiction writing defines minimalism in art and concludes that there is a place for both maximalism and minimalism in literature. He regards Carver as the prime shaper of “the new American Short Story.”

Bugeja, Michael. “Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver’s Cathedral.” South Dakota Review 24, no. 3 (1986): 73-87. Discusses the revision of an early Carver story, “The Bath,” which was reprinted in Cathedral as “A Small Good Thing.” The changes made throughout the story, and especially the somewhat more positive resolution, reflect Carver’s evolution as a writer.

Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introduction to Carver’s stories that focuses on such issues as myth and archetype, otherness, and the grotesque. Discusses the difference between “early” and “late” versions of the same story, such as “So Much Water Close to Home” and “The Bath” and “A Small Good Thing.” Includes Carver’s own comments on his writing as well as articles by other critics who challenge the label of minimalist for Carver.

Carver, Maryann Burk. What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Maryann Burk Carver recounts her tumultuous twenty-five-year marriage to Raymond Carver.

Carver, Raymond. “A Storyteller’s Shoptalk.” The New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981, 9. In this interesting article, Carver describes his artistic credo, evaluates the work of some of his contemporaries, and offers excellent advice to aspiring young writers. The article reveals his perfectionism and dedication to his craft.

Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, by Raymond Carver. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989. The collection in which this essay appears, a collection of Carver’s last poems, includes some moving reflections on his life and values as he faced the fact that he was dying of cancer. The writer of the informative and moving introduction is the person who knew him best, the poet Tess Gallagher, who lived with him for many years and was with him at the time of his death.

Gentry, Marshall Bruce, and William L. Stull, eds. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. A wide-ranging collection of interviews covering Carver’s career from the early 1980’s until just before his death.

Halpert, Sam. Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995. An expanded edition of a collection of conversations originally published in 1991 as When We Talk About Raymond Carver. Includes contributions from Carver’s first wife, his daughter, an early writing instructor, and some of his lifetime friends.

Halpert, Sam, ed. When We Talk About Raymond Carver. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1991. A collection of transcripts of interviews with ten writers who knew Carver on a personal basis, including a fascinating interview with Carver’s first wife, Maryann, who provides a fresh perspective on the incidents on which many of Carver’s stories were based.

Kesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. An intelligent discussion of Carver’s stories, focusing on Carver’s development of his own moral center.

Kuzma, Greg. “Ultramarine: Poems That Almost Stop the Heart.” Michigan Quarterly Review 27 (Spring, 1988): 355-363. In her introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, Tess Gallagher calls Kuzma’s review of Ultramarine “the most astute essay on [Carver’s] poetry.”

Mullen, Bill. “A Subtle Spectacle: Televisual Culture in the Short Stories of Raymond Carver.” Critique 39 (Winter, 1998): 99-114. Discusses the relationship between television—both as an influence on and a subject of—Carver’s fiction. Argues that in both structure and tone, Carver’s stories constitute a critique of television culture based on the medium’s ability to eliminate class consciousness; discusses “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”

Nesset, Kirk. The Stories of Raymond Carver: A Critical Study. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995. The first book-length study of Carver’s work, Nesset calls the book, “a preliminary exploration.” Includes an extensive bibliography.

Powell, Jon. “The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 647-656. Discusses the sense of menace Carver creates by leaving out or only providing clues to central aspects of his stories. Argues that this technique forces both the characters and the readers to try to understand the clues.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. Reading Raymond Carver. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992. Analyzes Carver’s stories as “intratextual” and argues that they should be read in relationship to each other. Claims that in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Cathedral each story is linked to the immediately preceding story and the one after it.

Saltzman, Arthur M. Understanding Raymond Carver. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988. A short overview of Carver’s life and work with the emphasis on Carver’s short stories and one chapter devoted to his poetry. Contains a valuable bibliography of works by and about Carver.

Scofield, Martin. “Story and History in Raymond Carver.” Critique 40 (Spring, 1999): 266-280. Shows how three late Carver stories—“Intimacy,” “Blackbird Pie,” and “Elephant”—embody a new experimental technique for integrating fiction and autobiographical or historical events.

Sklenicka, Carol. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life. New York: Scribner, 2009. Carver’s life is examined here, from his lower-middle class beginnings in Washington to his experiences as a husband, ex-husband, and father. This detailed and thoroughly researched biography illuminates his private life as no other book has.

Stull, William L. “Raymond Carver.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Jean W. Ross. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. This article covers Carver’s life and work up until shortly before his death and attempts to analyze his poetry and fiction techniques. It contains a fairly comprehensive list of Carver’s books and miscellaneous publications as well as a list of articles about Carver.

Stull, William L., and Maureen P. Carroll, eds. Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1993. Though not a formal biography, this collection of essays covers Carver’s working-class origins, his troubled first marriage, his battle with alcoholism, his teaching style, and his ultimate happiness until his death from cancer.

Wolff, Tobias. “Raymond Carver Had His Cake and Ate It Too.” Esquire 112 (September, 1989): 240-248. A friend and fellow author and teacher relates a series of anecdotes about Carver in his wild drinking days. The essay highlights Carver’s zest for life, his kindly interest in people, and his unconcealed delight with the recognition that he received toward the end of his life.

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