Carver is one of those writers, like Hemingway, like Lawrence, who bugs me.
I don't like people who try to write like him.
I've tried to formulate some of these thoughts in a piece which was published in 2001 in a magazine called Pretext.
[This lecture was given as part of a British Council seminar on Identity which took place in Oradea, Romania (13-15 April, 2000). The original title was: Sexual/Textual Identity: Originality and Perversion.]
..Here is Richard Ford, prize-winning author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, eulogizing Raymond Carver:
'As long as I knew Ray - the next ten years - there was this feeling of so much good and bad that had been left behind in a single lot, so that among my friends, he seemed to be facing life in the most direct and jarring way, the most adult way - a way that made the stories he wrote almost inevitable.'
This, I think, is about the most insulting thing one writer could say about another.
The most insulting would be to accuse them of plagiarism.
To say that X wrote a very bad novel is, at the very least, to credit X with having written that novel.
To say that Rays stories were 'almost inevitable' is to relegate them to the level of faeces: he lived (he ate) therefore he wrote (he shat).
It is to deny anything the stories might have cost Carver in the writing. It is to negate him as a writer. And it is, ultimately, to negate writing.
Even the worst writer in the world (and if you have any suggestions as to who this is or was, Ill be interested to hear them) - even the worst writer should be credited with mere authorship.
Raymond Carver was a better writer than Richard Ford can ever hope to be; and a much more complex and conscious writer than Ford would have us think.
We can see this consciousness in the epigraph he chose for his
New and Selected Stories; also entitled, Where I'm Calling From:
We can never know what to want,
because, living only one life, we can neither
compare it with our previous lives
nor perfect it in our lives to come.
This is Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He is discussing, surprise surprise, Nietzsches theory of Eternal Recurrence.
If anything undermines a 'straight' view of time, of morality, and also of writing, then Eternal Recurrence does.
To elaborate on this idea of 'straightness' - Ive heard it said about English women writers up to, say, Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark, that they were always held back by something; and this thing was that, before they started to do anything (tell a story, describe a place), they first had to convince you that they were socially all right, that they were genteel, that they were - essentially - the kind of person youd happily let into your house, and leave alone with your china, if not - to begin with - your children.
It seems to me that a great many - perhaps even the majority - of American male writers suffer from a similar restraint.
Before they start to do anything, they first have to convince you - the reader - that they are manly, vigorous, straightforward, straight.
In other words, that they view the relationship between identity and originality as unperverse.
There is a social element to this.
Ive often thought that the persona adopted by an American male writer is designed to get them if not accepted then at least tolerated by some imaginary American Everyman in some imaginary backwoods honkytonk (or redneck bar).
This, of course, is the last place in the world that one could safely appear not-straight.
And so, American male writers are often obsessed with asserting their heterosexual machismo.
This can get ridiculous.
Here is Martin Amis, writing about the ultimate American wannabe
tough guy, Norman Mailer:
'For some reason or other, Mailer spent the years between 1950 and 1980 in a tireless quest for a fistfight... Having walked his two poodles one night in New York, Mailer returned home 'on cloud nine', 'in ecstasy', with his left eye 'almost out of his head'. He had got into a fight, he told his wife, because a couple of sailors 'accused my dog of being queer'. According to the doctor, it was 'a hell of a beating he took'. But 'Stormin' Norman' was unrepentant. 'Nobody's going to call my dog a queer,' he growled.
But if, in this imaginary honkytonk, the writer gets talking to the imaginary American Everyman sitting on the stool next to him, he is likely to be defensive about what he says he does:
"Yeah, sure, I'm a writer, but I write about manly, outdoor activities - like going fishing or hunting; I write about life on the mean streets of LA and New York; I write about war and heroism; I write about failure and the American dream. Hey and also, I write damn hard. The last thing I wrote took me fifteen drafts1 . But that wasnt because I was fancying it up at all. No, I was trying to make the thing as honest and direct and straightforward and straight as I could.2 "
So, where Virginia Woolf says, "Im genteel", Richard Ford says, "Im not gay.3 "
1 Here it is interesting to cite Hemingway, modern archetype of the straight writer. '"I write slowly," [Hemingway] told Walsh, "and with a great deal of difficulty and my head has to be clear to do it. While I write the stuff I have to live with it in my head." Well, sometimes he wrote slowly, just as sometimes he almost told the truth about his writing. Sometimes the stories came out so fast it scared him, but in Paris, James Joyce was the model for the artist as painstaker, reworking paragraphs until every word was exactly correct and in its proper place. Hemingway seldom wrote in this way, but he did not want the world to know how easily the In Our Time stories flowed.' Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, p266 There is a clear contradiction between these two presentations of macho writing: one that is 'almost inevitable' and one that takes fifteen drafts to say the one true thing. In 'almost' telling the truth about his writing, Hemingway exacerbates this. If he'd admitted his own facility, he would have been closer to a consistent position. By asserting both that Carver made many, many changes to his stories and that those stories could, in some sense, have been no other than they are, Richard Ford attempts to have it both ways: the artificial and the natural.
2 Hemingway, of course, did not originate this trope. He did, however, give it a particularly American twist - writer as backwoodsman. Here is Roland Barthes, tracing Hemingways European forbears: '..around 1850, Literature begins to face a problem of self-justification; it is now on the point of seeking alibis for itself; and precisely because the shadow of a doubt begins to be cast on its usage, a whole class of writers anxious to assume to the full responsibility of their tradition is about to put the work-value of writing in place of its usage-value. Writing is now to be saved not by virtue of what it exists for, but thanks to the work it has cost... Labour replaces genius as a value, so to speak; there is a kind of ostentation in claiming to labour long and lovingly over the form of ones work. There even arises, sometimes, a precocity of conciseness (for labouring at ones material usually means reducing it), in contrast to the great precocity of the baroque era (that of Corneille, for instance).' Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, pg 62-63.
3 On second thoughts, the main fear the Fordist writer exhibits is not perhaps gayness per se but effeminacy. After reading the lecture, an academic friend of mine took up this point. She said that it suggested an interesting gendering of language - a feminine jungle of baroque growth and overblown blooms which has to be cut back, razed, ploughed, farmed. This is, seen Fordistly, the 'natural' state of language. Interesting questions follow: What, for example, about women writers who follow a Fordist, cut-back-the-jungle aesthetic? What about the platitudinously Fordist aesthetic of the average American Creative Writing Course? What about all those pre-verboten adjectives?
© Toby Litt 2000