Raymond Carver was only 50 when he died, in 1988, of lung cancer. Those who knew him personally mourned, and continue to mourn, the loss of a warm and generous friend, a man whose hard early life--periods of dead-end jobs and poverty, severe alcoholism--had somehow made him gentle. Readers aware of him only from his books have missed him too, for Carver had, during the 12 years preceding his death, virtually reinvented the American short story.
His acclaim stemmed from four collections: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976); What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981); Cathedral (1983); and Where I'm Calling From (1988). Carver's stories also became a staple in Esquire during the 1970s and the New Yorker in the '80s. His voice--spare, understated, unsentimental--and his typical subject matter--moments of truth in the lives of hard-luck men and women who know they are failing in a country consecrated to success--became immediately recognizable. Carver resisted the trend toward gentrification in U.S. fiction, the Jamesian notion that only those with fine-tuned sensibilities and no money worries have the leisure to mess up their lives in interesting ways. Carver could write about life's losers without any condescension because he had often felt he was one of them.
His stories appeared so simple and effortless that many aspiring writers decided to turn them out themselves. These admirers might get the props right--say, a mobile home with linoleum on the floor and an opened bottle of gin on the kitchen table--but not the magic that Carver could work with such material, not the sense of enormous import lurking in the pauses of desultory conversations.
Reviewers and critics dubbed Carver and his epigones Minimalists, a term the author disliked. His reasons for doing so extended beyond the normal artistic resentment at being pigeonholed. Carver knew, as others have discovered in the past few years, that heavy excisions were performed on his early stories by Gordon Lish, a fiction editor at Esquire in the '70s and then at Knopf during the preparation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. That book, with 17 terse stories crammed into 159 pages, solidified Carver's reputation but left him feeling that he had ceded too much control to his editor. (He later restored Lish's cuts to two of the stories and included them in Where I'm Calling From.) Carver devotees portray Lish as the villain of this piece, an overreaching editor who bullied an uncertain beginning writer. Lish's defenders argue that he did for Carver's fiction what Ezra Pound did for T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, i.e., cut out the fat to expose the essential genius within the work.