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Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

by Carol Sklenicka

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1617124,304 (3.92)2
A profile of the late short-story master analyzes the myths and controversies attributed to his character and covers his struggles with alcohol, the role of a zealous editor in shaping his first collections, and his ability to portray the challenges of ordinary people.



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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Very satisfying literary biography. Not such a satisfying literary life. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Very satisfying literary biography. Not such a satisfying literary life. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |

In Stephen King's New York Times review of this imposing biography, he criticizes author Carol Sklenicka for displaying "something like awe for Carver the writer" and yet being "almost nonjudgmental when it comes to Carver the nasty drunk and ungrateful husband." I have to disagree with King's interpretative synthesis in this regard. While I agree that Sklenicka refrains from outright judging Carver for his less than stellar behavior, she lays it all out on the page for the reader to digest. I came away from this book having formed my own opinion of the man based on her impressive primary source research. I did not need Sklenicka to decide for me what I would think about Carver, nor would I have particularly cared to hear her own opinion. While I respect and enjoy Carver as a writer, I can see that in his personal life he wreaked havoc left and right. Clearly the man put writing first from day one, and at the great cost of hurting his own family members, both through his behavior and in how he portrayed them and his relationships with them in his stories and poems. It also seems deeply unfortunate that Carver's first wife Maryann Burk and his children with her, who supported him and loved him for so long, were not able to wholly share in the greater successes he achieved later in his career. As for Sklenicka's own awe for Carver, I would question what writer willing to write such an in-depth biography (10 years in the making!) could do so with anything less than awe as a motivating force. I would personally much rather read an intelligent fan's exhaustive biography of a favorite writer than that of a dismissive academic writing at arm's length.

In another critique I read, the reviewer commented that Sklenicka brought Carver to life, but could have done as much with less. Perhaps this is true; however, I found this 489-page monster to be a complete page-turner. Never once did I get bored with this book. Sometimes I find an abundance of minutiae on such elements as family history to be a little boring, but I thought Sklenicka did an excellent job sketching out Carver's family background. The trajectory of his career was fascinating to read and the sheer number of direct quotes from colleagues, family, and close friends was both astounding and insightful.

Above all, Sklenicka's book made me want to read Raymond Carver's words even more carefully than I have in the past. She put so much of what he wrote about into context, and yet she did so in a way that makes me feel comfortable with drawing my own parallels between his life and his work. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 5, 2014 |
This biography was written twenty years after this renowned "Chekhov of middle America" (as some have called him) died at age fifty. And, I waited a couple, three years, after buying the hardback to get around to reading about one of my favorite writers. To be any kind of an honest reflection of this man's troubled life, I knew that it would be extremely bleak at times, and I couldn't bring myself to get into it before. Now I've finished it and I'm the richer for it. I also now know more of how a person's art can take over an artist's life. I also know that his life was the "stuff" of his art—the "oil" of his "canvas"—so to speak. At times, Carver was unwilling, or unable, to see how making public the people closest to him, could embarrass and hurt these people. Yet, so much about Carver's work was a brutal honesty. Things weren't pretty, neat and tidy, or, most of the time, very easy, for the characters portrayed in his short stories and poems.
His personal life was everything his work was, and it was hard on him. His drinking, and that of those around him, was legendary. Hard-drinking and writing are almost expected of writers in our culture. Bizarre behavior and wild stories of writers abound. Sklenicka did bring up a cogent observation, many of these extreme stories of wild goings-on are relayed to the general public by those who were there to witness them, AND in most cases, these were famous fiction-writing friends, or young, striving-to-be-noticed writing students. Are these the type of people we should expect to give us the cold, honest truth, without any embellishments? Yet, in fact, his drinking did almost kill him several times. While at times his drinking was boorish, others times he was hilariously and very entertaining. And then, there was another habit, the constant smoking, that directly lead to his death.
I won't bore you with a summary of his whole life, but it was a long, painful process that took a toll on everyone around him. His first marriage to Maryann was a bond that lasted his entire life, yet she sacrificed so much to make the development of his writing craft possible. Carver's life wasn't all suffering, there were some very, good times with his many friends, and there were some years of good money and fame. Because he grew up with little, and struggled for many years trying to establish himself as a writer, once money came his way, he had a good time and was proud of it. He liked his money and what it could do, and was fairly generous with his money once it came his way.
Maybe the part of the Carver story that interests most readers, is the editing process, and how influential that was in his success. The name of his long-time editor and friend, Gordon Lish, will always be linked to Carver and his writing. Carver's most famous collection of short stories—and the one that signaled his arrival as a name writer in this country—What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was reduced by almost half, as in almost 50%, by Lish's editing. Once Carver became aware of the severity of the editing, he asked Lish that the volume be held up at the presses. That did not happen. I have a British volume titled Beginners, that contains the unedited stories, but it wasn't published until 2009. There is a richness and a variety to the stories in Beginners that breathe a little deeper than the shorter versions in What We Talk About. Would he still have made such a splash with the longer, less minimal versions, no one can know for sure, but the stories in Beginners are impressive to this reader.
The medical problems leading to Carver's death, and the money scrambles after he passed, make up the end of the book, but the story of this writer's life, and death, are fascinating to anyone who's read Carver, or is interested in writers. He lived a full life in his fifty years, and most he definitely lived it totally dedicated to the written word...his was a writer's life. ( )
  jphamilton | Jul 1, 2013 |
When I started this book, I hadn't read any of Carver's work, but had only seen Short Cuts, the film Robert Altman had made of a clutch of his stories and one poem. While reading it, I read a couple of books worth of his short stories and one book of poems.

This is the story of the redemption of a man. The son of an alcoholic, he marries Maryann Burk, the love of his life, and they have two kids. He doggedly pursues his dream of being a writer, and until the age of thirty or so, makes steady progress. By the late sixties he has carved out (no pun intended) a name for himself. It is at this point that he is captured by the myth of the hard-drinking writer, and allows alcohol to become his "muse". A long, slow slide downward begins. Maryann follows him into alcoholism. There is domestic violence, parental neglect, and the work slows down to a crawl as Carver's body and mind deteriorate. Through it all, he retains his gift for friendship, surrounding himself with other drinker/writers who respond to the big, boyish lug. He moves frequently, shows a distressing ineptitude with money, and fails at several prestigious writing workshops and teaching posts.

Through all this, his editor, Gordon Lish, is instrumental in what success he manages to cobble together. Lish attacks his prose with a heavy hand, abbreviating the stories, increasing their ambiguity and their unsettling effect. As a result, Carver becomes known as the father of a new minimalism, also called "dirty realism". This stylistic label may have more to do with the reshaping Lish did on the work than with the stories as originally written.

In the late seventies, Carver bottoms out, hits AA, and finally quits drinking, although he still smokes prodigiously (both tobacco and marijuana). Although Maryann quits too, they separate and never manage to totally repair their relationship, although they remain important to one another. Ray takes up with writer Tess Gallagher, who becomes the companion of his last ten years.

These ten final years are charmed. Ray gets out from under the editorship of Lish, sheds the stylistic labels that he resented, repairs his relationship with his kids (although certain fictionalized aspects of these relationships cause hurt feelings, as do some confessional essays and poems), attains the recognition he always wanted, does a lot of fishing and spends time with his many friends. When he is eventually hit by terminal cancer in the late eighties, he never falls into self-pity, but enjoys the "Gravy" of his final days. "Gravy" is a poem he wrote about this attitude of his. If you can, pick up any collection of his poetry from the eighties to see a portrait of a man who has come to an ability to enjoy the now; to savor every moment. The collection [b:Where Water Comes Together with Other Water: Poems|11443|Where Water Comes Together with Other Water Poems|Raymond Carver|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1166476707s/11443.jpg|13896]is almost an instruction manual on enjoying life.

Unfortunately, Tess Gallagher comes off in the book as greedy and grasping near the end. Gobbling up all the rights to Carver's work from Maryann and Carver's children. She saw him through his final days, though, and that's something. But Maryann was Ray's true protectress, the lioness who sacrificed everything and worked hard through Ray's dark days to enable his writing career. ( )
  EricKibler | Apr 6, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
All in all, Sklenicka has done Carver and literary biography a great service with this volume.
Carol Sklenicka questions little in her biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. Her nearly six-hundred-page account buckles under a relentless accumulation of close-up detail; the biographer of this master of minimalism is a maximalist, ever ready with a histrionic flourish.
added by Shortride | editBookforum, Matthew Price (Dec 1, 2009)
Exhaustive and sometimes exhausting
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A profile of the late short-story master analyzes the myths and controversies attributed to his character and covers his struggles with alcohol, the role of a zealous editor in shaping his first collections, and his ability to portray the challenges of ordinary people.

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