The Rear-View Mirror: Raymond Carver (1938)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

The most grassroots definition of a writer’s writer, I guess, is one whose writing you love to bits and immediately want to tell your friends about. In other words, somebody really good but still undiscovered. Katherine Dunn. Marisa Matarazzo. Esther Morgan. Sofi Oksanen. Greg Hollingshead. Rick Bass. Please feel free to add your own favourite obscure authors, and you will never run afoul of the definition above. Another, slightly looser definition might be that there is a lot you can learn from a writer’s writer for your own writing, such as dialogue from Elmore Leonard, or cliché-free sci-fi from China Miéville.

Of course, Raymond Carver is no longer a secret tip that other writers whisper to each other around the campfire. He is one of the most named authors if it comes to the American short story, or any other kind of short story, for that matter. Carver, born in 1938, knew how to reduce his word count to an extent that seemed to give you the gist of what you were reading with a few lines, and that was that. Try this one sentence, which is a title from one of his short story collections: Would you please be quiet, please?

See what it does? Much like a Hopper painting, it evokes a whole situation with only very few elements, which might not be what the short story is finally about, but there is a distinct flavour, a dense sort of atmosphere, a kind of direction to sentences like this. Carver knew that, and kept his prose as lean as he needed. That is true even if you discount Gordon Lish hacking through Carver’s texts like a mad surgeon. Carver’s prose got so sparse that it is difficult to imagine him as an author of even a medium-sized novel, but it’s hardly surprising that there are many excellent Carver poems as well. Check out his book Fires if you can.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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