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Absolute Beginners

In the TLS (August 7, 2009), Toby Litt on Raymond Carver’s influence on writing, and more specifically, writing workshops, after the revelation of Carver’s pre-Lished early drafts of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

Carver is not simply another writer we read and enjoy and put aside. Even while alive he had been turned into a literary saint. For students on creative writing courses, his is a constant presence, both in the classes themselves (where “Write what you know” and “Show don’t tell” draw huge power from his example), and in their heads as they sit at the desk (where adjectives are cut, if ever written down, simply because they are adjectives and adjectives are bad).

What it finally comes down to, though, is the idea that Raymond Carver was a writer of true, pure sentences. When creative writing students looked at their own work, they coudl ask, “How would Carver have said this?”. With the publication of Beginners, the sanctity of Carver has been undermined. The stories were anything but inevitable. Many of the qualities of style (not subject) that one would identify as Carveresque turn out to have derived from Gordon Lish’s blue pencil…Lish did not simply cut, he also altered and added–in my opinion, almost always to the benefit of the story at hand.

I would argue that Carver not only allowed the resulting stories to come out under his name, but that he propagated a view that their spareness was entirely the result of his own aesthetic of the short story. And it is this idea, that a writer should relentlessly pare away at their prose to make it pure and true, that has come to dominate how creative writing is taught. Students aren’t given David Foster Wallace or W.G. Sebald as models; that would be too dangerous. They are given early Carver. Keep it simple, stupid. No tricks. Imitate Ray. It turns out, though, that what these students were all along aspiring to imitate wasn’t Raymond Carver’s stories or even Raymond Carver himself but the quality of the Carveresque–and that quality was the creation of two men, not one.

Having read a fair bit of Lish’s fiction (apparently a rare phenomenon), there’s not a lot to suggest that Lish overtook Carver in the realm of the subject, and the watered-down Lishian style that resulted in those early Lishified Carver stories is a good deal more enjoyable than Lish at his purest.

As for the cult of Ray, I’d add to the list of cliches that old advice (supposedly from William Faulkner, although that is one hell of an irony): “Kill your darlings.” I get the sense that the cult has somewhat faded in the last decade as trendier and hipper writers have upstaged Carver, but maybe the old guard stands strong.


  1. The cult of Carver has probably changed more popularly into the cult of Palahniuk. See his site, as it is seriously called The Cult where he hosts his own writer’s workshops and teaches people how to write like him. Palahniuk was trained under Tom Spanbauer, who likewise was trained under Gordon Lish, and like them stresses minimalism in fiction writing. I doubt Palahniuk’s stuff is taught in academia.

    Funny how the TLS author mentions Wallace as a dangerous author to students in creative writing classes. In his essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” Wallace thoroughly condemns the Carver cult (though not Carver himself) as “Catatonic Realism aka Ultraminimalism aka Bad Carver.” I guess he had to put up with a lot of these minimalists judging his work when he was in school.

    (This is not related to your post at all but I wonder why you haven’t written about Wallace as he seems like one of those difficult writers who cannot be easily classified like many of the other authors you write about.)

  2. ‘dangerous’ need mean no more than ‘pedagogically risky’, here: i would imagine that carver is way easier to teach, especially considering the varying abilities of teachers (and writers as teachers) and students (who may not be ready to study literature apart from wanting to write it).

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