Why You Should Never Read A Collection of Raymond Carver’s Short Stories In One Sitting
Raymond Carver’s literature focuses on everyday life in American communities, with particular attention on those who are marginalized and isolated. There is a great human quality to his characters and their weaknesses and failures are as visible as their strengths and kindnesses. We readers care about them and often after reading we continue to be haunted by their fates. However my first experience of reading Raymond Carver’s short story collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please? was essentially a negative one. I read this particular collection in one sitting and afterwards I felt exhausted, drained and slightly nauseous.
Upon reflection I now believe that the reason for my reaction to Will You Please Be Quiet Please? was because Carver’s short stories are essentially, short stories. Short stories are a shorter narrative of the novel and are designed to be read in one sitting. Derived from the oral tradition of storytelling, short stories are the telling and absorption of a tale told in the moment. We inhabit a particular space and time wherein we are taken on a journey and enveloped into a world. And if it is written well, then it is a world where we care about the characters that occupy it. We may not like them, hate them even, but regardless, they matter to us.
Yet irrespective of how well a short story is written there is a fundamental difference in our ability to withstand a short story and a collection of short stories in one sitting. For there exists an illusion which is this – that the short story is short. Of course it is short in terms of its physical weight but its emotional weight is significantly more. In a short story, as in a novel, we meet characters who have a story to tell which we are persuaded to listen to and develop a response about. We often assume that because a short story is short, that its emotional context is lesser. What an assumption to make. A story is a story, regardless of its length and every story deserves a pause afterwards. To reflect, understand, and eventually, move on. A collection of short stories introduces us to a selection of characters and ergo stimulates a myriad of emotional responses. It is thus simply too much to absorb an entire collection in one sitting. Not only can we not cope with it, but to try and do so is to commit a great injustice towards the individual short story, which the author has most likely carefully and painstakingly written to exist in its own moment. Regarded as part of a wider narrative the short story in question loses its individual mark and in this grouping effect, it becomes blurred, even ruined.
And so when I read a collection of Carver’s short stories in one sitting I was inevitably and completely overwhelmed. In Will You Please Be Quiet Please? I read about how a waitress’s encounter with an extremely fat customer prompts her to re-evaluate her own perceptions, a couple that develop a sordid fascination with their neighbours, a double act of voyeurism when a couple spy on their neighbour who in turn stands outside his wife’s window and watches her get undressed, a meeting between two lonely strangers with distorted motives, a family discussion about who their newborn baby looks like and a young boy’s temporary escape from his dysfunctional family home. These were the first seven stories in a collection of twenty-two.
Whilst other short story collections have the same outcome, (there are perhaps a selective few that are exempt from this) it can be argued that Carver’s short stories have a more pronounced effect. This is because Carver’s literature is fashionably minimalist, though it is debatable if this was his intention. The release of Beginners in 2009- a collection of Carver’s unedited stories – reveal the changes that Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor, made to Carver’s original writings, some of which are drastically different. There are some, amongst them reviewer Giles Harvey who felt that Lish did Carver a great service whilst others feel that Carver’s unedited works contain a greater depth of emotion and subsequently criticise Lish’s interference. Regardless, Carver’s short stories are typically minimalist; significantly pared down with a focus on surface description. This kind of literature is often accused of limited or even absent emotion but minimalist literature, with its honest and raw focus, effectively captures and communicates human encounter and emotion. In stripping humanity to its bones, Carver can fully expose its complexities.
This can be observed in some examples from his collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please?. In A Student’s Wife Carver introduces us to a couple, Nan and Mike, and focuses on Nan’s futile attempts to communicate with Mike. She makes a sandwich late at night to prolong the evening, she describes the insignificant details of her dreams and she asks him random questions as he is falling asleep. Her desperation is evident throughout as is their inevitable break up. In They’re Not Your Husband a controlling husband forcibly encourages his wife to lose so much weight that she eventually becomes seriously frail and weak. Her passive obedience combined with his aggressive behaviour illustrates a damaging dominant-submissive relationship and also reveals their intricate insecurities. However it is in the title story of this collection that I feel Carver’s portrayal of raw human emotion is most explicit. In Will You Please Be Quiet Please? Ralph, who has always suspected that his wife Marion betrayed him in the past, finds out that she did “play around” with Mitchell Anderson. The disclosure of her indiscretion is quite random and sends Ralph in turmoil. He gets drunk, goes gambling and gets beaten up. When he finally returns home the next morning he begs his wife to be quiet, the irony being that after years of wanting to know the truth, he now wants her to be completely silent. There is hope in the dénouement that the two may reconcile but this story, like the others in this collection, demonstrates the complex and painful burden of humanity.
The burden of humanity is the central feature of Carver’s writings which is why reading a selection of his short stories in one sitting is not only exhausting but also uncomfortably intimate. As humans we are naturally drawn to the humanistic focus in Carver’s stories and despite ourselves we empathise with his characters’ intricacies. His representation of people and their emotions is simultaneously delicate and brutally honest. This skill of not only writing but also of understanding and embracing the human psyche is why you should read Carver. He is a marvellous story teller whose characters will most certainly haunt you for many days afterwards. But do not, do not read a collection of his short stories in one sitting. You and Raymond Carver deserve so much more than that.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I’m currently reading my other half ‘what we talk about when we talk about love’ before bed, having read them through once before I sometimes have to skip the odd story or two out, great article!
I love that collection! If you are reading it for the first time, I envy you. Though you can read a book again and again and still experience the magic countless times, there’s something so exciting and untouched about reading something for the first time… I hope you enjoy it.
Carver slips inside his characters with such skill and grace that you don’t read so much as eavesdrop. A master in his own craft.
I’ve been told some controversial claims told about the editor Gordon Lish and the re released unedited version of ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’. It could be argued that Carver style was created for him via the editing process… Although I share this opinion, I am in no way downplaying Carver. I think he is fundamentally a wonderful and insightful writer, he just did not create his style, Lish did, who in his own right was a genius. He took Carvers voice and stylised into what Carver is known for.
Yes definitely, I completely agree for despite rumoured conflict between the two, they both are exceptional writers whose collaborations today gave us all extraordinary literature.
Though, it is worth comparing Carvers’ Beginners (unedited version) with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (edited version), to witness the extent of their author/editor relationship.
I wonder, if Lish had such a measurable impact on the final product, should he be billed as co-author? The situation reminds me of that between T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound with regards to Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which apparently underwent significant edits by Pound’s pen.
Very nice post Aliya. Not yet read many of Carver’s short stories but this inspired me to do so.
Thank you! 🙂 I hope you enjoy his short stories.
The only Raymond Carver I’ve read is Short Cuts (the collection Altman used for his movie). I read one every night and enjoyed them all. Definitely some amazing stuff in there, Will You Please Be Quite Please? being among my favorites, and I agree they should each be tackled on their own terms. Great article, reminds me I need to read some more Carver soon.
Hemingway supposedly referred to editing as the process of “killing your own babies”. If he was right, then Raymond Carver is a serial child murderer.
This is a brilliant article. I read four of Carver’s short stories in one sitting as part of my weekly reading for a university class last year and your article absolutely pinpoints why it was so challenging to do so.
Thank you Amelia 🙂
What a beautifully written article that has left me feeling inspired to read Carver’s work!
Great article! Raymond Carver is definitely someone I want to read now!
I had to read a Carver story for class. When asked how I liked it, I said I enjoyed it but I felt that if I had to read a dozen of these in a rows I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. Interesting article pointing to why this is not necessarily a bad thing.
I really agree. When I first read that collection and the first story in that collection, “Fat”, I had to stop myself. It was such a short story, yet it sort of shocked me and left me puzzled. It is really a magic trick Carver pulls off in theses stories. Sometimes the subtext doesn’t hit you right away, it takes its time. And if you rush through them, you can do some serious Carver overdosing which isn’t good for your or Carver, as his work needs to be read and discussed more often.
Carver is absolutely amazing. I can only dream of being as brilliant a writer as he was. He so beautifully and delicately highlights the essentials, quirks, happiness and sorrow of the human condition.
Thank you for a brilliant article, Aliya! I have a similar issue with short story collections. I absolutely agree with your assertion that the emotional whallop of a short story should not be underestimated. For me, when I finish a particularly effective novel, Ill go a day or so without picking up something new because I have to create that emotional distance from the work before I can move on. With a short story collection, that becomes quite a challenge! After three or four straight short stories, I feel exhausted. As others have written, you really pinpoint this feeling.
Again, thanks for such an illuminating article!
I agree completely, especially when its a huge novel that has swallowed you up for a while. Literature is so powerful – a good story can absorb you completely and the withdrawal stage needs a little time. I guess with short stories we go under the illusion that this stage can be bypassed because the story is so short, but its still necessary. I guess thats what I was trying to convey & I’m glad you got it! 🙂
I came upon this article in an attempt to understand Carver; I just received What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and I’m trying to understand what makes his writing so revered. I’ve learned a couple things, one of which – that these are basically meant to be looked at as snapshots, or, as you characterize, moments to which we are voyeuristic witnesses – I had suspected. One thing I am still not 100% on, but understand in concept, is the fact that, for me, the stories just seem to stop. They just cut off at seemingly an arbitrary place; I get that that’s the idea: there is no way to properly “end” (in the traditional sense) a thing like Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit, perhaps, and remain convincing. But it leaves me perplexed. That’s likely the point, too. Particularly on Lish’s part, anyway.
Do not tell me what to do.