I stayed up too late last night reading some stories by Raymond Carver. They’re so short you decide to go on to the next one, and then the next. Then it’s 2 a.m. and you realize that a person who is slightly prone to depression should probably not read so many of them in a single session. Not that they are all inherently depressing. “Cathedral,” for example, is actually kind of upbeat. But they are all inherently true, and sometimes being reminded of a truth is not conducive to easy slumber.
Carver is the kind of writer where you read a few of his stories and start thinking you could have written them yourself. By now you know you could not have, of course. You can copy the style but you quickly realize that the mark of great writing – one of the marks – is making sure the reader is unaware of the craft behind it. Carver’s pretty good at that. His genius is not in the way he constructs a sentence, but in the way he constructs something profound from a small number of mundane sentences. All good writing begins with good observation, and Carver always saw the small things that mattered – things so small they could translate easily into a noun and a subject and a verb.
This is where I should complain that the American short story has devolved since then, into the kind meandering thumb-suckers we so often see in magazines. Or the kind I write. But the fact is, I don’t know what I’m talking about. When I look at a story in The New Yorker and don’t get beyond the first couple of paragraphs, as is usually the case, it’s my own prejudice and provincialism at work. If a story doesn’t start well, I just assume it will go downhill from there. I blame Raymond Carver. A writer like that has set the bar kind of high.