Friday, April 1, 2011

Introduction - Raymond Carver

May 25, 1938 – August 2, 1988

So I’ve carried around BASS 1986 for several weeks now and read the introduction a few times, even highlighting the important passages and finally, read several interviews with Carver and listened to two podcasts of interviews with Carver (Don Swaim’s wired for books).

Finally, I am now ready to introduce The Best American Short Stories 1986, edited by Raymond Carver.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was looking forward to this collection just as about as much as the collection assembled by John Gardner. My intro on Gardner here and closing piece here.

I was greeted in the introduction by more than one passage that I feel needs to be highlighted and brought forth below. I believe the passages will give us a clear idea to what Carver was thinking as he chose the stories for this volume.

Additionally, I do not think that I need to go into the specifics of Carver’s life, his early career, his education, his failures, successes, his writing style and finally, his death. I am more interested in focusing on Carver’s thoughts concerning the short story and the writing of short stories…so, let’s go.

Carver opens with a pretty generic couple of sentences including his assurance that the short story landscape in America is solid (And honestly, it was quite strong in the mid 1980s).

“The next best thing to writing your own short story is to read someone else’s short story. And when you read and reread, as I did , 120 of them back to back in a fairly short span of time (January 25 to February 25), you come away able to draw a few conclusions. The most obvious is that clearly there are a great many stories being written these days, and generally, the quality is good – in some cases even exceptional.”

Later, he discusses the reason why stories from the New Yorker are well represented in the collection. In his wired for books interview he pretty much states the same as he wrote below.

“Stories from the New Yorker predominated, and that is as it should be. The New Yorker not only publishes good stories – on occasion wonderful stories – but, by virtue of the fact that they publish every week, fifty-two weeks a year, they bring out more fiction than any other magazine in the country.”

If you take a look at the spreadsheet I created that is linked off this page (along the right sidebar), you can simply scroll through the sheet and see that the New Yorker has dominated the selections over the years.

Addressing his specific story selections:

“…under someone else’s editorship, this would be a different book with an entirely different feel and composition to it. But this is only as it should be. For no editor puts together a collection such as this without bringing to it his or her own biases and notions of what makes a good story a good story.”

And later -

“There were other biases at work. I lean towards realistic, “life-like” characters – that is to say, people – in realistically detailed situations.”

Further –

“I deliberately tried to pick stories that rendered, in a more or less straightforward manner, what it’s like out there. I wanted the stories I selected to throw some light on what it is that makes us and keeps us, often against great odds, recognizably human.”

I love that above paragraph.

“Short stories, like houses – or cars, for that matter – should be built to last. They should also be pleasing, if not beautiful, to look at, and for everything inside them should work.

“…looking back, I see it’s turned out that many, if not the majority, of my selections fell on younger, lesser known writers.”

Leading into the below:

“What do these writers have in common so far as the stories in this anthology are concerned?

For one thing they are, each of them, concerned with writing accurately, that is to say, thoughtfully and carefully about recognizable men and women and children going about the sometimes ordinary business of living, which is, as we all know, not always about an easy matter. And they are writing, in most cases, not just about living and getting by, but about going on, sometimes against the odds, sometimes even prevailing against the odds. They are writing, in short, about things that count. What counts? Love, death, dreams, ambition, growing up, coming to terms with your own and other people’s limitations. Dramas every one, and dramas played out against a larger canvas than might be apparent at first glance.”

---I can’t help but think that the passage above by Carver was directly shaped by his relationship both personally and as a student of John Gardner.

“One of the things I feel strongly about is that while short stories often tell us things we don’t know anything about – and this is good, of course – they should also, and maybe more importantly, tell us what everybody knows but what nobody is talking about. At least not publicly. Except for the short story writers.”

And with the above statement, I think Carver sums up exactly why I am so in love with the short story. It’s so right on.

And then finally, the last page of his intro - I feel it’s necessary to present in its entirety. -Note: purposely not italicized for purposes of ease of reading.

“Writers write, and they write, and they go on writing, in some cases long after wisdom and even common sense have told them to quit. There are always plenty of reasons – good, compelling reasons, too – for quitting, or for not writing very much or very seriously. (Writing is trouble, make no mistake, but for everyone involved, and who needs trouble?) But once in a great while lightning strikes, and occasionally, it strikes early in the writer’s life. Sometimes it comes later, after years of work. And sometimes, most often, of course, it never happens at all. Strangely it seems, it may hit people whose work you can’t abide, an event that, when it occurs, causes you to feel there’s no justice whatsoever in the world. (There isn’t more often than not) it may hit the man or woman who is or was your friend, the one who drank too much, or not at all, who went off with someone’s wife, or husband, or sister, after a party you attended together. The young writer who sat in the back of the class and never had anything to say about anything. The dunce, you thought. The writer who couldn’t, not in one’s wildest imaginings, make anyone’s list of top ten possibilities. It happens sometimes. The dark horse. It happens, lightening, or it doesn’t happen.(naturally, it’s more fun when it does happen.) but it will never, never happen to those who don’t work hard at it and who don’t consider the act of writing as very nearly the most important thing in their lives, right up there next to breath, and food, and shelter, and love, and God.

I hope people will read these stories for pleasure and amusement, for solace, courage – for whatever reasons people turn to literature – and will find in them something that will not just show us how we live now (though a writer could do worse than set his sights on this goal), but something else as well: a sense of union maybe, an aesthetic feeling of correctness, nothing less, really, than beauty given form and made visible in the incomparable way only short stories can do. I hope readers will find themselves interested and maybe even moved from time to time by what they find herein. Because if short story writing, along with the reading of short stories, doesn’t have to do with any of these matters, then what is it we are all doing, what is it we are about, pray tell? And why are we gathered here?"

-Raymond Carver

-And there he lays out the wonderful frustrations of those of us afflicted with this wonderful disease.

Here’s a little from a 1983 Wired for Books interview.

Carver enrolled at Chico State college in CA, and that happened to coincide with the arrival of John Gardner there as a professor of creative writing. This was Gardner’s 2nd teaching gig. His previous post had been at Oberlin College where he taught for one year.

Carver states that the meeting and class changed his life.

“I had always dreamed that I’d wanted to be a writer”. (Funny way of phrasing it.)

-Asked by Don Swaim to name some of the authors that Carver had his students read, Carver rattled off the following list.

Frank O’Conner, Kafka, Flannery O’Conner, John Gardner, Beattie, Chekhov, Tolstoy, John Cheever, Nabakov, Hemmingway, Schott and Joy Williams.

Further concerning Gardner, Carver mentions that after his time at Chico State, he and Gardner didn’t meet again until 18 years later. Their relationship quickly developed into a strong friendship. Swaim asked Carver if he thought that Gardner had a drinking problem, and Carver replied that he couldn’t speak of it…I suppose indicating that he really wasn’t comfortable passing judgment on Gardner.

In a 1986 interview, again with Don Swaim, John Gardner is discussed again and this time in relation to Gardner’s selection of stories for the BASS anthology.

Swaim makes the statement that Gardner admittedly refused to include any short stories from the New Yorker and that you (Carver) have done the opposite, in fact the New Yorker dominates the collection.

-Carver tells Swaim that Gardner for one reason or another had a bit of a bias against the New Yorker and that he (Gardner) had been turned down more than a couple of times by the magazine. Gardner didn’t care for the New York literary establishment or for the New York Times Book Review.

So there you have it.

I think I’ve said enough here now about Carver and I think that the introduction speaks for itself and my excitement towards what this collection holds.

Lets get started.

No comments:

Post a Comment