Raymond Carver: Vicarious Slumming for the WSJ


It’s Raymond Carver night at the Rumpus! Moments after I wrote and scheduled the preceding post, I saw this tweet from the Library of America:

“WSJ on Raymond Carver: ‘There must be few story collections whose notes offer more melodrama than the main text.’ ”

Then they offered a link to the Wall Street Journal review of the collection, which bears the unfortunate-on-several-levels subhed: A reputation shaped by an editor’s hand, but a legacy formed by a writer’s maturation.

As might be indicated by that, the review that follows is pretty great — in an ironic sense.

The reviewer just doesn’t seem to have any affinity for Carver’s work, a lack of feeling that becomes kind of appalling when, two-thirds of the way down, he poses what he probably imagines to be a provocative question (and maybe it is, just not in the way he supposes):

So much has been boiled out of [the Lish-edited stories] that some Carver characters — a man who picks a fight at bingo night, a deaf-mute who commits a murder-suicide — can seem little more than studies in lower middle-class pathology. That raises an unpleasant possibility: Did the minimalist incarnations of Mr. Carver’s more traditionally discursive original stories appeal to what Lionel Trilling called ‘the reading classes’ because the fiction offered a chance to go slumming under the guise of reading experimental prose?

This chestnut has been brought out so many times over the last couple centuries, with regard to so many different writers, it’s not even worth addressing except to observe that the phrase “lower middle-class pathology” — and leave it to a WSJ writer to come up with that in this context! — pretty much indicates that reading Carver is vicarious slumming for him.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →