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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981)

by Raymond Carver

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,517563,116 (4.14)70
In his second collection, including the iconic and much-referenced title story featured in the Academy Award-winning film Birdman, Carver establishes his reputation as one of the most celebrated short-story writers in American literature--a haunting meditation on love, loss, and companionship, and finding one's way through the dark.… (more)
  1. 40
    Beginners by Raymond Carver (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: "Beginners" is the version Carver submitted to his editor, Gordon Lish, under the author's title. Lish made significant cuts, changed character's names and removed dialogue to produce the version that made Carver's name: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love".… (more)
  2. 20
    The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (whitewavedarling)
    whitewavedarling: Similar styles and character types, though Jackson's stories are a bit more developed in regard to character and plot. Both authors have a tendency of working toward endings that leave a reader making final decisions instead of tying everything up fully with a more traditional ending.… (more)
  3. 00
    Letti Park by Judith Hermann (JuliaMaria)
    JuliaMaria: Jedes Wort zählt.
  4. 00
    Sleepwalk: and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine (bsbllbsbll)
    bsbllbsbll: Tomine captures Carver's immense talent for creating intense emotions in short spaces.
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» See also 70 mentions

English (53)  Spanish (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (55)
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
2.5 ( )
  jeraccoon | Oct 29, 2022 |
A wonderful collection of short stories!

Each story a stand-alone slice of life. Most of the books are about love, but also just being human. The author gets a lot done with each word - nothing extra and nothing missing.

I listened to the audio, which was wonderful. ( )
  sriddell | Aug 6, 2022 |
3.5

"All this, all of this love we're talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory."

It's about love, but not the cutesy type or the grandiose Love with a capital L. It's about what comes after that – mostly dread, sometimes life. It's not just about romantic love either, although most of the stories do feature married, once-married, or soon-to-be-married couples. It is also about the love that entangle that – the parents whose decisions you can never understand, the best friends you don't notice changing right before your eyes (not until it's too late), the neighbors you used to drink with, from whom you're now separated by a tall fence, even the strangers who share your sorrows, though you might not know it yet. ( )
  kahell | May 4, 2022 |
I don't know about you, but I've never really seen the fuss around Carver's writing...yes, I get the "unique, outsider" stuff that's been plastered on him, but I spent years reading outsiders' work when I was an agent and, with that deep pool of experience to draw on, I think the only reason you're seeing this review at all is Gordon Lish.

He latched onto something in Carver's writing. He polished that something. But he polished it into something it never was before, and this is incontrovertible because Carver's widow Tess Gallagher didn't much like what Lish did and undid it. Here's a whole Wikipedia article about it. Also the plot gets summarized, a task I don't want to do myself.

The specific story I'll refer to is the title one, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Originally titled Beginners (read the full, unedited story here, behind The New Yorker's paywall; you can have three free reads a month, and this one's worth burning one for), the story is a four-person Decameron of lower-class life, a series of sad, slatternly people narrating the dead ends of dead people. A modern name for that is grit lit, or use the older group noun "noir" that intellectuals in the 1940s slapped on similar stories (especially their movies) to shake the last drop of piss off them. Fancy labels make all things better, establish their Worthiness for Inclusion; it's why there are fads and rediscoveries.

But if you read Carver's letters to Lish (again, the paywall applies, but I'm less sure it's worth burning a free read for this), I think you'll see how much Carver was replaced by equal or greater quantities of Lish. Editors do, always, leave their own DNA in a writer's work. It's part of a collaborative process that, at its best, makes the read that much better for the reader, and the writer that much better for the outsider's loving attention. But this, from Lish to Carver in 1982, after the fallout from this collection's contentious birth soured things:
I’m aware that we’ve agreed that I will try to keep my editing of the stories {in Where I'm Calling From} as slight as I deem possible, that you do not want me to do the extensive work I did on the first two collections. So be it, Ray. What you see in this sample is that minimum: to do less than this, would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly.
EXPOSE YOU is telling, isn't it; you're flawed, you're talentless, but *I* am here to protect you from the consequences! I'm also more than a little offended on Carver's behalf that Lish "deems" his work to be the minimum to make the lumpen oddities presentable, an attitude I think Lish telegraphs quite clearly by using the verb "to deem":
deem (v.)
Old English deman "to judge, decide on consideration, condemn;, think, judge, hold as an opinion," from Proto-Germanic *domjanan (source also of Old Frisian dema "to judge," Old Saxon adomian, Middle Dutch doemen, Old Norse dma, Old High German tuomen, Gothic domjan "to deem, judge"), denominative of *domaz, from PIE root *dhe- "to set, put" (compare doom). Related: Deemed; deeming. Originally "to pronounce judgment" as well as "to form an opinion." Compare Old English, Middle English deemer "a judge." The two judges of the Isle of Man were called deemsters in 17c., a title formerly common throughout England and Scotland and preserved in the surname Dempster.
(This from the Online Etymological Dictionary, whose Chrome extension I use with great frequency and frequent delight.)

I borrowed my library's Kindle edition of this book, my own 1980s paperback having vanished decades ago. I read the Lished version; I read Carver's original; I can't say I liked one better than the other because I wasn't enamored of either. They're not bad. But I came away thinking "...and why was this work deemed (!) so marvelous as to deserve to be gefilted (gefilte fish (n.)
1892, gefüllte Fisch, not a species but a loaf made from various kinds of ground fish and other ingredients; the first word is Yiddish, from German gefüllte "stuffed," from füllen "to fill"
if you're innocent of Jewish ancestors) into this allegedly superior work presented by Lish?

Why bother? There is so very much work out there, quite a lot of it starting out better than Lish ended up making this collection, that one could more profitably spend one's time reading! Works by QUILTBAG authors, works by Black authors, Asian and Asian-American authors, Spanish-speaking or Arabic-speaking or Serbian-speaking authors...all so much more trenchant or squalid, if that is your kink; yet here's this nice-enough collection (I re-read this one story, it's widely critically hailed as the chef d'ouevre, and it is the only one I remembered the first thing about, so you "you're wrong, I think it's wonderful" commenters are deprived of the usual favorite opening line) sucking up money and attention forty years on and for no particularly compelling reason that I can see. There are books whose titles are plays on this collection's title! It's that well known, it's some kind of cultural touchstone.

Try this: Imagine a lesbian had written these stories. Do you still think this would be a venerated cultural artifact? Much more likely it'd be a forgotten typescript in some poor, beleaguered agent's archives. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Feb 28, 2021 |
What's that phrase? Nasty, brutish and short? There are some spots of brilliance here (So Much Water So Close To Home is up there), but too many of these feel like variations on the same themes (drinking, adultery, etc.) Reading this immediately after Munro's Runaway was a pretty stark contrast. ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 53 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carver, Raymondprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Duranti, RiccardoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frielinghaus, HelmutTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gustafsson, KerstinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mattila, RaijaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pivano, FernandaAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Puławski, KrzysztofTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rolin, GabrielleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Udina, DolorsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zberro, NathalieTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zulaika Goicoechea, JesúsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zulaika, JesúsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Tess Gallagher
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(From Why Don't You Dance?) In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In his second collection, including the iconic and much-referenced title story featured in the Academy Award-winning film Birdman, Carver establishes his reputation as one of the most celebrated short-story writers in American literature--a haunting meditation on love, loss, and companionship, and finding one's way through the dark.

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Book description
Contents:
  • Why Don't You Dance?
  • Viewfinder
  • Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit
  • Gazebo
  • I Could See the Smallest Things
  • Sacks
  • The Bath
  • Tell the Women We're Going
  • After the Denim
  • So Much Water So Close to Home
  • The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off
  • A Serious Talk
  • The Calm
  • Popular Mechanics
  • Everything Stuck to Him
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  • One More Thing
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