As we’ve learned, American authors of short stories were once regarded as less prominent than novelists. Many readers would await their favorite short story writers to break out with a novel. And if and when that happened, critics would call them “debut authors.”
Although that has changed, it still is challenging for many writers to interest major publishers in their short story collections without attaching a synopsis of their upcoming novel . . . if one exists. And if there isn’t a novel simmering on the back burner, many authors continue to search for a publisher for their collection of stories, while they anticipate smaller advances and fewer sales. Other authors take the route of submitting their work to periodicals, book contests, and university and independent presses. Some of the characteristics that make short story collections analogous to novels—attracting publishers, indie presses, and readers—are their quality, strength of place, meaningful correlation among the stories, a unified theme, and a set of closely related characters.
Let us now look at an author whose successful career was dedicated to short stories and poetry: Raymond Carver. Born in 1939 in Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the Columbia River, Carver grew up in Yakima, Washington, where he was educated at local schools. Carver’s father, a native of Arkansas, was a sawmill worker, a fisherman—and a heavy drinker. Carver’s mother worked on and off as a waitress and at retail jobs. In Carver’s spare time, he read novels by Mickey Spillane or publications such as Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, and hunted and fished with friends and family. After graduating from Yakima High School in 1956, Carver worked with his father at a sawmill in California. He attended Humboldt State University in California before going on to graduate school at the University of Iowa.
Carver taught writing at Syracuse University for several years. In the late seventies, his fiction and poetry made him notable. Carver described himself as “inclined toward brevity and intensity” and “hooked on writing short stories.” Another stated reason for his brevity was “that the story or poem can be written and read in one sitting.” This was not simply a preference but, particularly at the beginning of his career, a practical consideration as he juggled writing with work. His subject matter was often focused on blue-collar experience, reflective of his own life.
Characteristics of minimalism are generally seen as one of the hallmarks of Carver’s work, although he never thought of himself as a minimalist or tied to any other specific category. Carver’s style has also been described as “dirty realism,” which connected him with a group of writers in the 1970s and 1980s that included Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff (two writers with whom Carver was closely acquainted), as well as others such as Frederick Barthelme, and Jayne Anne Phillips. These writers focused on sadness and loss in the everyday lives of ordinary people—often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized individuals.
Raymond Carver’s stories are collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1978),What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981),Cathedral, (1983) andWhere I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988). This last collection published in 1988 was a recipient of an honorable mention in the 2006 New York Times article citing the best works of fiction of the previous 25 years.
Having overcome numerous obstacles to pursue his goal of writing, Carver’s works have contributed to the revitalization of the American short story. He won five O’ Henry Awards for his short stories before he passed away in 1988. Raymond Carver’s stories—along with those of many others—remain alive, with messages, themes, and characters to which countless readers can relate.
-Francine Pappadis Friedman