The Tales We Tell: Perspectives on the Short Story

By Barbara Lounsberry; Susan Lohafer et al. | Go to book overview

2

Social Critique and Story Technique in the Fiction of Raymond Carver

Hilary Siebert

Raymond Carver has often been described as a "minimalist" writer, one who renders moments of contemporary American life in a language that is spare in expression and bleak in outlook. Implicit in this labeling is the notion that his stories lack any transformative vision, that they present to us tales of alcoholics and losers as though blind, serf-destructive behaviors were matters of naturalistic fact and not subject to change through the insight stories can provide to their characters and their readers. Carver's early critics, notably James Atlas in 1981 and Madison Bell in 1986, accused him of what amounts to a flatness, not only in language, but in artistic vision; in this view, Carver leaves his characters in lives of quiet desperation (see Saltzman 1988, 178-82).

The assumption here is that, particularly in the most reduced collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love ( 1982), Carver had no social conscience as a writer or, as a stylist, he was committed to a technique devoid of social resonance. However, with the publication of Cathedral ( 1984), critical opinion began to register what William L. Stull described in the title of his 1985 article "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver." As Carver began publishing revisions of earlier stories ( "The Bath" as transformed into "A Small, Good Thing") and new texts such as "Cathedral," Stull saw a "humanist realism" replacing what had been an "existential realism" (6-7). In these newer texts, Carver made his authorial presence felt, stepping in to offer moments of redemption and insight to his seemingly helpless characters.

My point in this chapter is to question the assumption that Carver's most minimal texts are in fact devoid of social concern and social critique, particularly since the "help" Carver gives his characters in the revised and more expansive texts is, arguably, forced. Ewing Campbell, for instance, suggests that Carver's popular success with "A Small, Good Thing" "testifies to the cultural shift toward sentimentality that characterizes the decade of the eighties" ( 1992, 49). Carver demonstrates a social conscience in this text only by adding into

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