I recently read Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life. The book is long and contains exhaustive detail about Carver’s life. I suppose it’s well researched, and it did well with the book critics, but having read it, I cannot help but wonder: How useful is it really to know so much about a writer’s life?
Carver is a legend to many, many students of writing. Outside that circle, or at least outside the circle of admirers of the short story, he seems to be less well known. I suppose he’s what they call “a writer’s writer.” That’s a phrase that’s always bothered me. It presumes, I don’t know, that writers are not also readers, or that readers have lower or different expectations of fiction than writers do. However, I guess it isn’t completely shocking. In general, one thing I’ve come to understand from blogging about books is how many people feel excluded by the short story, or think of it as something one reads for a literature survey, and not much more. I can understand this on some level. I am not a big reader of poetry. I do read it, and I even count some poets among my favorite authors (Philip Larkin, Rainer Maria Rilke), but I’m not (pardon the pun) well-versed in it, and to be quite frank I’m not overly interested in it.
Carver was a poet as well, something many people don’t know. In fact, he was much more prolific and near the end of his short life (he died from lung cancer at the age of 50) wrote more poetry than short stories. When it comes to his stories, he’s essentially known as the master of the “new” American realism and minimalism that was seen as a backlash to a lot of the more experimental writing going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Or at least that’s how he was known when I first started reading him, back in the early 1990s. The truth is, much of the work considered to be his “minimalist” masterpieces were in fact much longer works that were severely edited (almost to the point, in some cases, of being re-written) by Esquire and Knopf editor Gordon Lish.
Sklenicka spends a good amount of time on the relationship between Carver and Lish, and rightly so. It’s the most interesting part of the book, and a worthwhile and interesting read for anyone who loves to read. Editors are often overlooked by readers, and we rarely consider that the book we love has not been shaped, quite often, by the author alone. While it’s true that most editors may not be as liberal with the red pen as Lish was (some of the manuscripts he sent back to Carver were so marked up as to be unreadable, so he would send a freshly–and drastically altered–typed draft along with it), they do have a hand in things. Sklenicka comes to the conclusion that Carver accepted Lish’s edits because he desperately wanted to be published–and in some cases because he agreed with the edits. The fact that Carver “restored” many of the stories Lish edited, though, pretty much says it all. Carver never said a negative thing publicly about Lish’s versions of the stories; instead, he made the claim that he was simply continuing to rewrite them and publish the versions he felt were better for having been revised.
The rest of the book is a very detailed account of Carver’s life, especially focusing on his early struggles to write and his relationship with his family, especially focusing on his relationship with his first wife, Maryann Carver. They lived much of those early years in poverty; they drank a lot, they fought a lot, and they seemed to have a symbiotic relationship based around a shared, single-minded purpose: that Carver succeed as a writer, even to the point of neglecting their own children. Carver makes no secret of his ambivalent feelings toward his offspring. When they were young especially, he saw them as nothing but a burdensome obstacle to be overcome. In later years, in terms of his relationship with his daughter (and his mother and Maryann), he found them to be financial burdens. This is all, as I said, part of a long and extremely detailed work that includes a great deal of information about Carver’s academic career, his friendships, and other influences. These parts of the book tend to drag: another drunken party, another fight, another move, and so on.
Curiosity brought me to this book. The strange thing is, although it was interesting, I can’t say that I’m glad that I read it. Part of me really would rather not know all the sordid details (and yes, quite a few of them are sordid) about Carver’s life. With the exception of coming away with a better understanding about the Carver/Lish relationship and its very direct relationship to the public presentation of Carver’s work, I could have gotten through the rest of my life without knowing most of the stuff I learned. My opinion of his work (which is favorable, although I wouldn’t necessarily count him as a favorite) hasn’t changed.
For Carver scholars, Sklenicka offers a wealth of material. For general fans of Carver’s work–that’s a tough one. With someone such as Dickens or James, we can fit them in to the context of history–and of literary history–much easier than we can writers who are more modern. As with most things, time brings perspective. Biography, even the most well-researched and well-meaning, can be tricky. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t like to read about authors I like, or that I don’t read interviews when they give them or like to know what they’re reading or even what their writing process is like or what the impulse was for their latest work. Given that, I’m not sure how I feel about the story behind the story. In this case, it feels like too much of a good thing, or maybe even too much of a bad one.