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Book Review: Raymond Carver: Collected Stories edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll

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Raymond Carver was an impressive, celebrated short-story author whose work in the 1970s and ‘80s made a great impact on the art form. His slice-of-life tales peeked in on regular folks, working class if they were lucky enough to have jobs, some dealing with alcoholism as Carver did, some floundering in relationships, and he made their mundaneness fascinating. They were your neighbors, your co-workers, the people you see on the street, all with lives you know nothing about when the door closes. Carver trafficked in the same territory as writers Charles Bukowski and Tobias Wolff, which as a genre has been dubbed “Dirty Realism.” He died from cancer at the age of 50 in 1988, a fate expected for one of his characters.

The Library of America honors Carver by collecting 90 short stories. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Cathedral appear in their entirety. The remaining Collected Stories from Furious Seasons and Other Stories, Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, and Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories are ones, some of which Carver had revised, that weren’t included in the previous collections. Also, there are four stories from the beginning of his career not collected while he was alive, five stories found after he died, the incomplete “From The Augustine Notebooks,” and four essays.

However, the most fascinating and likely what will be the most talked about is the inclusion of Beginners: The Manuscript Version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Gordon Lish was undeniably responsible for helping Carver’s career. While working as a fiction editor for Esquire, he got Carver’s stories in the magazine and was instrumental in getting WYPBQP published. He edited the stories, and Carver approved of the “superb job” he did. When it came to WWTA, Lish edited with too heavy a hand, cutting the manuscript in half, to Carver’s great dismay evident by the letter included in Note on the Texts.

Without the benefit of Lish’s side of the story, it appears he was trying to keep intact the minimalism that worked so well in WYPBQP. “Why Don’t You Dance?” had 9% cut. It removed character names, minor details, and added some needed line breaks, but the changes are negligible, and the story remained intact. The more egregious cuts to “Where Is Everyone?,” which appeared as “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” and “A Small, Good Thing,” which appeared as “The Bath,” both of which had 78% cut out, were well worth Carver’s anguish. The abbreviated versions don’t tell the same story, especially “A Small, Good Thing,” which provides the parents resolution to their injured child while “The Bath” ends abruptly, like a needle popped off a record, leaving the reader briefly bewildered. They are intriguing until you learn Carver's intent. Lish missed out on the growth of Carver as a writer, later seen on display in Cathedral.

Editors William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll do a fantastic job providing the history of not only the WWTA incident but all Carver’s stories contained within as well his life. They perform a great service to not only Carver’s work and memory, but to literature as a whole. Anyone intrigued by the written word would do well to spend time with the works of Raymond Carver.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS