Would You Please Stop Writing, Please?

A review of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

WWTAWWTAL

I’m usually not comfortable with writing a scathing book review, but in this case, the author is dead, so I’m okay with it. I wrote the first part of this review before I had finished the book, then the second part after.

Part One

I’ve read five stories so far in this book of short stories and I want to write what I’m thinking long before I’ve reached the end of the book, so this is like a pre-review; my first impressions that may or may not change after I’ve read the whole thing, but so far, the impression that the first story gave me has persisted through the next four stories.

This book is by an author I’d never heard of but it came highly recommended to me and after a little looking around online I saw that the author is revered as one of America’s greats; a master story-teller. Being a writer of short stories myself, naturally I was interested in reading a master I had previously not known about.

I had pretty high expectations. I’d even been saving the book somewhat like a treat. I have many books to read and I’m usually reading at least one in print and one in digital concurrently. I bought this one in print and each time I’d finish a print book I’d think of starting this one, but I’d put it off for a better time when I could really enjoy it. The time seemed right on this 4-day, holiday weekend.

I read the first story, looking forward to seeing the author’s brilliance. It started off like just about any story, and then it went on for a few pages, and then it was done and I just went, “Huh?” I didn’t even get how that was a story. I read the next one and it was the same.

Here’s a person, and they do something, and they say some things, and The End. By the third story, I realized that when I reached the end of a page on the right-hand side of the book, I didn’t know if the story was over or not. There was no way to know if it was going to continue on the next page, or if it had ended, because that’s how his stories are.

Think of that. You can’t tell before turning the page whether the story is over, or if there’s more to it before it suddenly and disjointedly comes to an end. I started thinking about the Acknowledgements and how the author said he’d received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. That made me think of Robert Maplethorpe and Andres Serrano with his Piss-Christ “art.” I started to wonder if Carver is just some semi-talented rebel favorite of the left who is celebrated because he blatantly goes outside the norm. He apparently doesn’t have to actually do anything brilliant as long as he defies expectations and conventions.

I also wonder if I’m just not sophisticated enough to get his brilliance, as if I’m standing in a museum looking at a painting like Whistler’s Mother and going, “Huh? What’s so great about this? I don’t get it.” In fact, I’ve never understood what’s so special about the Mona Lisa, and I’m not afraid to admit it. 😛

Carver’s fame also reminds me of something I read once about a music professor who analyzed The Beatle’s music and described all of the brilliant and sophisticated things they had done with composition, arrangement, and extraordinary this and that, and he went into great technical detail describing their advanced musical genius. John Lennon read the book and said he didn’t even understand what the guy was talking about. They had just written songs – that’s all. I’m with you, John. Sometimes art is just art. Other times it’s just shit, with praised heaped upon it, and so a lot of people ooh and awe over it because the “experts” say it’s great.

Part Two

Okay, I finished the book, hating the author more and more as I read each story. Each time I finished another non-sensical story without a point, I kept thinking of all the rave reviews and how this guy is the “master” storyteller.

I’ll give him credit for being able to really bring you into a scene and create realistic dialogue, but shouldn’t a story be more than just that? I would think any good writer has to be able to do those things as minimum requirements – but he or she also has to go beyond that and maybe even have a point to the story. It’s not sufficient to just take a camera and zoom in on two people in the world and give us some minutes of hearing them discuss some dysfunctional aspect of their lives and then zoom out again. The End.

I was also extremely annoyed with his speech attributions, telling one entire story like this:

“I’m going outside,” she goes. I go, “Why?” “Because it’s warmer out there,” she goes. She goes, “I won’t be long.”

How annoying is that?

And in two of the stories he used no quotation marks at all, and in one of those, a person IN the story was telling a story to another character, still without quotes. I had to keep re-reading paragraphs to understand what the hell I was reading. Was that dialogue?? I’d get to the end of some of these “stories” and want to say to the author, “Hey, Fuck you!”

I wondered if Carver had ever said to a friend, “Watch this. I’m going to write another piece of shit story and everyone will fawn all over it, drooling as they praise my brilliance. hee hee. Watch…”

I also thought of how his writing could be compared to a painting. Imagine if someone painted a toilet. And the critics raved about what a master painting it was. I (and maybe you) would look at it and say, “It’s a freakin’ toilet. What’s the big deal?”

“But look at the handle!” they’d say.  “It’s like the last person who flushed the toilet had a greasy thumb and you can see the whorls of their thumbprint on the chrome. It’s magnificent! And my god, just look at the shitstains! You can practically smell them. It’s pure genius!”

Well, now you should have an idea of what you’re in for if you read Carver. Maybe you’ll see his writing the way my friend who recommended this book to me does and you’ll love it. The guy definitely has talent. There’s no denying that. I’m just not sure if he ever knew what to do with it. One of my thoughts of him was, “A government-subsidized wannabe Salinger.” You may find him to be even better than Salinger. I found him to be not even close.

But we all have our own opinions. And vive la différence.

🙂

7 thoughts on “Would You Please Stop Writing, Please?”

  1. One of the 1 star reviews on amazon gives some incite into how Raymond Carver got to his level of fame. It appears that connections and perfect marketing/promotion combined to boost his status as a writer. I haven’t read anything he’s written and based on your review, I won’t. I hope you were able to return the book for a refund; a couple of reviewers stated they had successfully done so.

    1. I ended up reading that too, Lex. It explained a lot. The guy can write, but he can’t write a story. I could write a really good beginning or middle of a story. But that’s like having a shovel with no handle or something.

      I couldn’t get a refund because I bought a paperback, and I saved it for a while, really looking forward to it.

  2. “Vive la différence” indeed, Edward! I was recommended to read Carver’s ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ as part of a creative writing course with Faber Academy, and I loved it! Carver’s writing in that collection was very intense, very insightful, ‘in the moment’ stuff – I could almost smell the rooms he described. I haven’t read the collection you are reviewing here, but I’m tempted to, just to see if I like that too.

    I wonder if part of the reason you couldn’t get on with ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is because, according to the Wikipedia entry, it may have been an early (perhaps incomplete?) draft – a heavily edited and altered version was published in 2009 by Gordon Lish. But brevity does seem to have been Carver’s style… I agree with you that a story ought to have a point – but perhaps the point in this case is that there is no point, and that it is simply a series of observations about what people talk about, when they talk about love… but I would have to read it to be sure.

    I found your review interesting, but unlike the previous commenter, would certainly not let it dissuade me from trying out other Carver works. Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, and there is nothing like seeing something for oneself.

    1. HI Elaine. I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt after reading about how that book was severely edited, and some say “butchered.” So I looked up the later publication of his original versions. The preview allowed me to read one of them in its entirety. it was the same. Maybe some others were butchered, or maybe there changes that were so insignificant that I didn’t even notice them.

      I think you’re right that his point was to have no point. Because there wasn’t any. It was like graphic snapshots of lives. He says to the reader, “Here, have a taste of this life.” But when I read a story, I want it to be a story. Like when I watch a movie, I want it to be a story acted out, and I hate those movies that jump all over the timeline, or are so “artsy” that they don’t resemble anything close to a story. One of the worst movies I ever saw was called Fragments. And it was extremely fragmented, and multiple frames from the movie would appear in various places on the screen, and there was never any sense of what the thing was about or what the heck I was watching. I hated it. And yet people call it brilliant.

      Maybe I’m just simple in my tastes. Give me a good ol’ beginning, middle, and end, and make me feel something, and I’m happy. But a few minutes of dialogue based on a situation? The most I can call that is “a nice start.”

      I made up a Raymond Carver style joke for you.

      A man goes into a bar. Walks up to the bartender in his tattered jeans with blood on the cuffs.

      Bartender says, “What’ll you have?”

      “Gimme a beer.”

      The bartender sucks at one of his back teeth, squinting his eyes at the man.

      “I’m a bartender,” he says.

      “Yeah?”

      “Not a fucking psychic.”

      The man flinches and draws back a few inches. He understands the bartender’s point less than he understands the mystery of his own life and the wretched state it’s in.

      “That means I don’t know what kinda beer you want.” He shakes his head and thinks for the 18th time today that he’s got to find a better job. But who would hire him? And could he really give up the free booze? Still not a bad gig for an alcoholic.

      “What kind of beer?” he yells at the man.

      1. LOL…good joke/example. Whether it’s an accurate illustration of Carver’s writing style, I can’t say; but I’ll take your word for it.

        I finished a book last night that followed a similar pattern and style. I can’t release the name of the book as it was connected with my “job,” reviewing for a well-known online review group. Like Carver, this guy could write; though he was unable or unwilling to write a three act story and completely exaggerated the “keep the reader guessing” technique. There were also many technical aspects that he assumed every reader should be completely familiar with. I wasn’t. I remained confused and lost all the way to a conclusion that made less sense than all of the previous 200=plus pages.

        Sadly, the guy paid for the review, I was paid to write it; but, due to a policy that allows only 4 and 5 star reviews to be published, mine will never see the light of day. Good for the author; perhaps, bad for the reading public.

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