The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Fiction from Mexico City

Less is More: A Literary Essay on Raymond Carver

By Raul Bravo Aduna, Mexico (Published in Issue 3)

 

Without a doubt, there is often a pejorative animosity toward the concept of “minimalist literature” within the literary world. Raymond Carver, a distinguished pioneer of the genre, even lamented: “somebody called me a `minimalist' writer. But I didn't like it. There's something about `minimalist' that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don't like.”

[1] “Carver's contribution to the American short story has been widely recognized, yet his literary image seems still somewhat stigmatized by the negative associations that have come to resonate with the category of ‘minimalism’."[2] In spite of this narrow interpretation of the concept, which is no more than an irrelevant and critical debasement, minimalism speaks to a more profound truth: less is more. The economic use of language is an expression of greatness, able to “transform the presence of words into semantic absence and unloosens the grammar of consciousness.”[3] One of the best examples of this linguistic brevity is Carver’s short story “Little Things”.

The plot of this narration is quite simple: a married couple is embroiled in intense discussions, the man is prepared to leave as their argument evolves to encompass everything; although it is most contentiously focused upon whom should take their child. Beyond their troubles, there is nothing but a brief and blunt closing. Nevertheless, the content and implications found within Carver’s words are rather weighty, even tremendous. He begins with a petite introduction to the events: a murky depiction of the atmosphere in the streets and of the bleak weather that “turned and the snow was melting into dirty water.” Carver constructs the image of a (natural) process of decay, symbolically reflected through the metaphor of a crumbling marriage. “But it was getting dark on the inside too”, Carver’s allusions announce an internal storm; and then, the bombing. A series of disturbing impressions accost the reader. The fight, the nausea, the disruption of common life, everything gets mixed in a blender. The words flow, almost unstoppable. Carver chooses, in a quite precise manner, each word and its accompanying syntax, in order to demolish the reader’s mind (along with everything else in his created universe).

            Carver had a particular, very peculiar way of seeing life, which consequently affected his conception of writing. In his essay “On Writing”, he widens these notions. Carver declares that writing a short story or a poem means to “[get] in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”[4] Furthermore, he mentions that he always took into consideration some words written by Ezra Pound: “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.” Carver explains that he cares about literary perfection, and that “this is done through the use of clear and specific language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader.”[5] He accurately concludes: “the words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.”[6] Carver justifies his literary work by making a defense of the economic use of language, which pervades his short stories, including “Little Things.” Understanding Carver’s ideas on writing is the first great step on the road to comprehend his works.

            Damon Runyon alleged that Carver’s stories were “Post-Alcoholic Blue-Collar Minimalist Hyperrealism,”[7][8] An admirer of Carver’s works, Susanne Rubenstein, states: “his fiction speaks the truth, because the people who fill his pages and the problems they face are real, though sometimes we wish they weren’t.”[9]; and she is right: “Little Things”, as its title suggests, or rather screams, is real, and we wish it were not. It uncomfortably explores something that happens everyday, and this is the point in which Carver’s greatness resides: he takes the common struggle of life and mutilates it until it turns into a disgusting picture, a brutal and revealing critique of humanity’s dark capabilities. because his “words point inward, at other parts of his texts, and this is not something we expect from realism.”

            Scarcity of words is precisely what allows Carver to provoke such deep-seated, honest emotions within the reader. What speaks the loudest, are those things that go unsaid, or remain below the surface, mute.[10] The story stares at the reader, as if in expectation, corroborated by Runyon’s “claims that Carver is a “self-reflective metafictionalist who leaves” the issue of his metafictionality “to the reader to decide”.”[11] Raymond Carver’s works likely lend insight into his own unvarnished and rigid search for authenticity: “His eyes would move away but find you again, as if he were testing something.” [12] This narration thrives in that sense: it is testing the reader in a capacity that it is impossible to fully unveil. “Little Things” proves that sometimes less is more; that there is a way, just as Arthur M. Saltzman proposed,[13] of seeing a world in a grain of sand.

 


[1] Cynthia J. Hallett.  “Minimalism and the Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33 (1996).

[2] Günter Leypoldt. “Raymond Carver's ‘Development’.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer, 2002): 317.

[3] Michael Trussler. “The narrowed voice: minimalism and Raymond Carver.” Studies in Short Fiction, (Winter 1994): 14.

[4] Raymond Carter, Fires, United States of America, Vintage Books, 1989 [1968]: 22. Carver also asserts that “Back in the mid-1960’s, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it.” The proceeding quotation makes profoundly clear that the writing/reading experience must be concise.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Idem.

[7] Arthur F. Bethea, Technique and sensibility in the fiction and poetry of Raymond Carver, United Kingdom, Routledge, 2001: 267.

[8] Idem.

[9] Susanne Rubenstein, Raymond Carver in the Classroom: “A Small Good Thing”: National Council of Teachers of English, 2005: 4.

[10] From the author’s words: “What creates tension in a piece of fiction […] it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth […] surface of things.” Cf. Raymond Carver, op. cit.: 26.

[11] Arthur F. Bethea, op. cit.: 268.

[12] Richard Ford, “Good Raymond,” The New Yorker (October 5, 1998). http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1998/10/05/1998_10_05_070_TNY_LIBRY_000016521?currentPage=1 (accessed October 11, 2009).

[13] Arthur M. Saltzman,  “To See a World in a Grain of Sand: Expanding Literary Minimalism.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 423-433.