’Experiment is Out, Concern is In’1
In 1978, the novelist John Gardner published a fiercely polemical book called On Moral Fiction which, in arguing for a return to what he called ‘life-giving’ fiction, decried much of the experimental writing of the 1960s and 1970s as ‘trivial’ or ‘false’.2 The following year William Gass responded to the charge, and a debate on the nature and value of fiction between the two writers was published in the New Republic. ‘I have very little to communicate,’ said Gass, ‘I want to plant some object in the world’. ‘I think [fiction] helps you live,’ said Gardner, ‘I think with each book you write you become abetter person.’3 The argument encapsulated the decade’s aesthetic disagreements, and by extension, some claimed, its political and cultural changes. And Gardner himself was a pivotal figure between generations of university-educated short story writers. Briefly Gass’s student, he was also Raymond Carver’s most important teacher. Carver acknowledged his influence in many places, most notably in ‘The Writer as Teacher’ which became the foreword to Gardner’s ‘how to’ book, On Becoming a Novelist (1983). Whenever he wrote, Carver told one of his own students, he ‘felt Gardner looking over his shoulder … approving or disapproving of certain words, phrases and strategies’.4 But it was not just a matter of certain words. Echoes of Gardner can also be heard in Carver’s published views on the aims and purposes of fiction - in particular, his distrust of ‘something that “looks funny” on the page’ and his emphasis on a fiction of ‘consequence’ that combines ‘values and craft’, ‘generosity’ and ‘seeing things clearly’.5 This chapter will consider Carver’s fiction, and that of some of his contemporaries, in the context of these ideas and as part of the ‘renewal and revitalization of the realist mode’ which began in the late 1970s, and which some argued was ‘probably the most significant development in late twentiethcentury American fiction’.
The realist short story that emerged in the 1980s and which, said Carver, did ‘nothing less than revitalize the national literature’ was not