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Popular Mechanics Short Story Essay Competition

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.


“‘Another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies’—thus the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl describes the situation that arises when the daughter, reacting to her drunken and abusive father, stays out of school for weeks and says that no one can make her go. And thus might most of the stories that make up Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love be described: low-rent tragedies involving people who read Popular Mechanics and Field and Stream, people who play bingo, hunt deer, fish, and drink.

“In this remarkable collection as well as in his first, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Raymond Carver has displayed before us a series of delicately mounted specimens taken from a population—a vast population—that most often eludes or falls through the net of our fiction. Carver’s people are not grotesque or notably eccentric, nor rascally or amusingly loquacious. They have no regional or ethnic characteristics that might catch the eye (or ear) of a Eudora Welty or Bernard Malamud, and, despite their mostly Anglo-Saxon derivation, they have nothing in common with the upper-middle-class WASPs of Peter Taylor and John Cheever. Their ordinariness is unredeemed, their failures and fatalities of a sort that goes unnoticed except, perhaps, for an occasional paragraph in some small-town newspaper.

What are the tragedies that these stories relate? Drunkenness and/or abandonment figure in a large number of them. Since Carver works laconically, skillfully omitting what other writers might regard as essential information, it is often hard to know just what has precipitated a given situation.

“The impact—often stunning—of these brief tales comes partly from our sense that Carver does not cheat, that the situations are ones into which he has fully imagined and felt his way, that his characters have not been merely set up to be knocked down again; in only two stories (‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ and ‘Popular Mechanics’) did I detect an element of gratuitous cruelty in the outcome. But the impact owes at least as much to the pared-down narrative technique that Carver has perfected. The stories thrive on omissions.

“Carver’s sentences, mostly simple and declarative, keep a tight grip on the simple objects and events that they present for inspection. His style is sternly denotative, allowing no scope for metaphor or linguistic exuberance. A certain price is paid, of course, for this asceticism: one misses the sudden bursts of vivid or lurid imagery that light up some of the greatest stories in our literature.

But within the limits he has set, Carver has shown himself to be a very fine artist. I hope this new collection will attract many readers and establish Carver’s reputation as one of the true contemporary masters of an exacting genre.”

–Robert Towers, The New York Review of Books, May 14, 1981

Like this:

Adelman, Bob, and Tess Gallagher. Carver Country: The World of Raymond Carver. Introduction by Tess Gallagher. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Produced in the spirit of a photographic essay, this book contains excellent photographs of Carver, his relatives, people who served as inspirations for characters in his stories, and places that were important in his life and work. The photographs are accompanied by excerpts from Carver’s stories and poems.

Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, 2. A prominent American writer who is considered a leading exponent of the maximalist style of fiction writing defines minimalism in art and concludes that there is a place for both maximalism and minimalism in literature. He regards Carver as the prime shaper of “the new American Short Story.”

Bugeja, Michael. “Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver’s Cathedral.” South Dakota Review 24, no. 3 (1986): 73-87. Discusses the revision of an early Carver story, “The Bath,” which was reprinted in Cathedral as “A Small Good Thing.” The changes made throughout the story, and especially the somewhat more positive resolution, reflect Carver’s evolution as a writer.

Campbell, Ewing. Raymond Carver: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992. An introduction to Carver’s stories that focuses on such issues as myth and archetype, otherness, and the grotesque. Discusses the difference between “early” and “late” versions of the same story, such as “So Much Water Close to Home” and “The Bath” and “A Small Good Thing.” Includes Carver’s own comments on his writing as well as articles by other critics who challenge the label of minimalist for Carver.

Carver, Maryann Burk. What It Used to Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006. Maryann Burk Carver recounts her tumultuous twenty-five-year marriage to Raymond Carver.

Carver, Raymond. “A Storyteller’s Shoptalk.” The New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1981, 9. In this interesting article, Carver describes his artistic credo, evaluates the work of some of his contemporaries, and offers excellent advice to aspiring young writers. The article reveals his perfectionism and dedication to his craft.

Gallagher, Tess. Introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, by Raymond Carver. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989. The collection in which this essay appears, a collection of Carver’s last poems, includes some moving reflections on his life and values as he faced the fact that he was dying of...