Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Errand – Raymond Carver

When I flipped the page to this story, I was surprised to find it collected in this volume. I know a bit about Raymond Carver and have come to really enjoy his writing. I first encountered him back in BASS 1982 when Cathedral was chosen for inclusion. Discovering authors like Carver is one of the countless benefits of this project. I know that some of you are probably astounded that I’d never read Carver before Cathedral…but yup…there it is. Since reading and writing about him, I’ve had some wonderful online discussions with his legions of fans. Here are the links to my previous posts about his stories as well as the post where he served as guest editor for BASS 1986


Where I'm Calling From

Guest Editor Introduction 1986


Back to me being surprised – after reading the introduction by Mark Helprin and his thoughts about minimalist writers, the LAST person I’d expect him to include would be Carver.

Here are a few selected lines from Helprin’s introduction and how he feels about minimalist writers.

“No better illumination of the pitfalls of the collective impulse exists than the school of the minimalists. What they do is as bad as what they believe in. They appear to start from the premise that the world has unjustly offended their innate virtue and forced them to become trenchant impassive observers of its universal offensiveness.”…

“’in their approach, adherents of minimalism are almost uniformly oblique, which is not surprising, since the uncomprehending often crave inscrutability as a shield behind which nothing can be something.”…

Damn…this guy can write a throw-down!

And he goes on –

“Mice who tour lion country need masks and other tricks to have a safe trip. Besides, their unwillingness to deal with life other than obliquely is not subtly, as they would have you think, but cowardice. And they aren’t even oblique as much as they are simply sarcastic and snotty. I wonder if, in other civilizations, priestly castes and philosophers are elevated and revered because they are snotty.”…

SLAM!!! Man, he sounds a little like my main man J. Gardner when he was stirring shit up!

“Minimalists appear to be people who have not been forced to struggle, and who have not dared upon some struggle to which they have not been forced. Thus, they have contempt for their own lives of mild discomfort-and who can blame them? They live in a strange, motionless, protected world.”…

“Not only do they abstain, they have made a virtual industry out of ridicule. And what do they ridicule? Effort, perfection, devotion, fidelity, honor, belief, love, bravery, et al.”…

“Their characters always seem to have a health problem (in addition to the nicotine addiction and alcoholism that are de rigueur) that is far more disgusting than perilous.”…

And this next passage really got me!

“Of the stories read for the purpose of gathering the twenty herein, more than a third dealt with divorce, separation, or extramarital affairs. Alcohol appeared in more than half, cigarettes and coffee in more than a third, and that satanic square that I can hardly bear to mention, television, in more than half”…

Helprin then goes on to question why all of these” things” and “characters” appear in so many minimalist stories.

“It may of course have something to do with who writes the stories and who now reads them. Though I feel that I have intruded upon a closed system, I do not hesitate to report on it, because my anxiety over the possible consequence to my livelihood (no matter, judging from my mail, most of my readers are in Trondheim and Antwerp) is dwarfed by my wonder at what I have seen. In the tunnels on contemporary American literature, the moles are singing. They are singling in unison, they are singing to each other, and they are singing of the darkness. Far be it from me to criticize some who are my colleagues. That would be dangerous. And it would be impolitic. But, then again, literature is not politics. Or is it?”

And a couple of pages later, after reflecting on his time editing with Rachel MacKenzie of The New Yorker…and lamenting that not enough editors like her have survived and this is why current (1988) editors put out junk…with the excuse that this is what the people want…things get pretty interesting.

And this is also where I bring it back around to Raymond Carver.

Helprin writes:

“Partly to avoid the evils of reputation and partly for other reasons, the stories in this volume have been judged blindly.”…

“After choosing the stories, I learned the names of the authors. I was surprised, delighted and a little taken aback to discover that I had chosen stories by some people whom I do not like personally, by one who wrote one of the stupidest reviews I have ever read (of my book, no less), and by some whose work I find very hard to bear. And yet, I chose their stories.

And with that passage, I bring us back to Carver…because I think that he is including Carver as one of “some people whom I do not like personally…”

I think Carver got his story in under Mark’s nose. Not by plan of course.

In the contributor’s notes, Carver writes:

“The story was a hard one to write, given the factual basis of the material. I couldn’t stray from what had happened, nor did I want to. As much as anything, I needed to figure out how to breathe life into graphical telling. And, finally, I saw that I needed to set my imagination free and simply invent within the confines of the story. I knew that as I was writing this story that it was a good deal different from anything I’d ever done before. I’m pleased, and grateful, that it seems to have come together.”

And with that, a minimalist got into the collection.

And what I enjoyed reading the most from the above passage, which I need to apply to my life – “…I needed to set my imagination free and simply invent within the confines…”

I doubt that I’ll ever discover if Carver was one of the people Helprin didn’t like…but for all of the slamming he does of minimalist…and Carver being Royalty of the minimalist tribe…how could he not dislike him?

Concerning the story…yeah, I really enjoyed it. It’s by Carver…and having it collected here and discovering this newly discovered style of writing by Carver…to enjoy it with him, was special.

Raymond Carver died in August of 1988 so it’s unlikely that he saw this story physically included in this volume since these volumes tend to come out in the last quarter of the year.

I was worried that this would be the last time I would run into him…one of my “crew”…but no, we’ll see him again – and that makes me happy.

Big props to Helprin for having the “guts” to write what he did – even if I didn’t agree with everything he wrote. I gotta say though, the more I read it, the better it gets. It’s so dense and a perfectly structured attack.


  1. Hi Nokaj. You certainly got it wrong when you said that Mr. Helprin might be referring to the late Mr. Carver as "some people whom I do not like personally" and yet ended up choosing the latter's story for inclusion in the volume for which he was the editor (1988). Actually he was referring to another writer (and maybe to some extent also a minimalist like Carver), Tobias Wolff, and his story "Smorgasbord," which was one of the entries he could not resist including among the final twenty. You have to wait until you get to the 1994 edition for which it was now Mr. Wolff's turn to serve as the year's editor and he had a lot to say about this in his introductory essay, and he even had made a dig at Mr. Helprin himself, claiming that the act of "reading blind" all of the submitted stories with the names of the author scrapped off, as well as the names of the magazine or journal that published them, did not effectively work for him as it did for the other previous editors who had used this process of selection. Hope this help. ---Ced

    1. Thank you for your comment and valuable information. I can’t wait to get to the 1994 edition – Wolff is one of my favorites. I’ll be sure to link back to this entry when I introduce the volume and note that my thoughts were off base. Another wonderful aspect to this reading exercise is the education that I gain over the months of reading these stories as well as the knowledge that commenters such as yourself pass along.

    2. You're welcome. But just one correction I'd like to emphasize here. Mr. Wolff read "blind" when he selected the stories for inclusion in the 1994 volume. And to quote him, "To hold myself to this purpose I followed the custom of several former editors and had the names erased from the manuscripts before they were sent to me. This I did in the interest of objectivity...." I might be thinking of another editor, and hence volume of the Best American Short Stories. Sorry for this. And one more thing. Although I have not read all the entries in the 1988 volume, I can say that one story is a stand-out and maybe the best of the lot, "Helping" by Robert Stone.

  2. Geez Louise, what a small-minded man (Helprin that is!) You have to wonder what kinds of personal issues people like him are trying to work out by coming down so hard on other artists. I for one love the minimalists. The reader has to reach with something other than intellect and logic in order to get at the deeper meaning of the text. Helprin just isn't the ideal reader for writers like Carver or Hempel or Robison.

    Also, I'd have to agree with the person above. If you haven't yet reached "Helping" you're in for a real treat! I actually just assigned it to my creative writing class as this week's reading.

    Great job with the blog by the way. I've never commented before and usually just come across it in passing but I've loved what I've read and wish you luck on your journey!

    1. Dear Thomas -
      Thank you very much for your comment.
      I can't wait to read "Helping" and it's exciting to know that there is a class reading it! I am really having trouble making it though this volume of BASS but it is through comments and kind remarks like you wrote that give me an extra nudge to carry-on.
      All the best with your class and thank you again.