Three Raymond Carver Stories, Read by Richard Ford, Anne Enright, and David Means

Raymond_CarverBeloved of 80s MFA stu­dents and New York­er fic­tion edi­tors, Ray­mond Carv­er belonged to nei­ther world. He suf­fered and drank his way from work­ing-class obscu­ri­ty to lit­er­ary fame like anoth­er under­dog poet and writer, Charles Bukows­ki (though Bukows­ki nev­er had, and maybe nev­er want­ed, Carver’s cachet). Carv­er pub­lished his first col­lec­tion of grit­ty real­ist sto­ries—Will You Please Be Qui­et, Please?in 1976, when short fic­tion was large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by the baroque exper­i­men­tal­ism of writ­ers like Don­ald Barthelme and John Barth.

But while Carv­er per­haps lacked the imag­i­na­tive exu­ber­ance, and ear­ly edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, of a Barthelme, his fic­tion gave read­ers some­thing they craved, maybe with­out even know­ing it. A Publisher’s Week­ly review­er of the first col­lec­tion not­ed that Carv­er voiced the “inar­tic­u­late worlds of Amer­i­cans,” the dim ache in the non­de­script lives of aspir­ing stu­dents, down-and-out­ers, din­er wait­ress­es, sales­men, and unhap­pi­ly hitched blue-col­lar cou­ples. Carver’s approach to qui­et des­per­a­tion is poet­ic, eschew­ing flashy post­mod­ernist con­trap­tions for pow­er­ful­ly direct and evoca­tive images. As writer and crit­ic Bri­an A. Oard puts it:

The Carveresque image allows the read­er to glimpse the ter­ri­ble waste of his char­ac­ters’ lives (some­thing the char­ac­ters them­selves can some­times feel but rarely see) and forces the read­er to recon­sid­er the entire sto­ry in the image’s dark light.

In the audio at the top, you can hear Carver’s friend, writer Richard Ford, read “The Student’s Wife,” from Will You Please Be Qui­et Please?, as part of The Guardian’s short sto­ry pod­cast. Ford describes the sto­ry as “spare, direct, rarely poly­syl­lab­ic, restrained, intense, nev­er melo­dra­mat­ic, and real-sound­ing while being obvi­ous­ly lit­er­ary in intent.”

“Fat,” anoth­er of Carver’s sto­ries from his first col­lec­tion, con­flates two arche­typ­i­cal images of dis­qui­et in the Amer­i­can psy­che: obe­si­ty and bad mar­i­tal sex. In a sto­ry about excess and long­ing, Carver’s min­i­mal­ist restraint lends these com­mon­places near-totemic sta­tus. Above, lis­ten to the sto­ry read by Irish author and mem­oirist Anne Enright.

Carv­er, a man of self-destruc­tive appetites, under­stood the crav­ing of char­ac­ters like Rita, the wait­ress in “Fat.” His own desires drove an alco­holism that near­ly killed him. Sev­er­al of his char­ac­ters share this flaw, includ­ing Wes in Carver’s sto­ry “Chef’s House,” read above by cel­e­brat­ed short sto­ry-ist David Means. Pub­lished in The New York­er in 1981, “Chef’s House” marks the begin­ning of Carver’s long rela­tion­ship with the tony mag­a­zine.

In 2007, The New York­er also broke open the myth of the hyper-min­i­mal­ist Carv­er, inspi­ra­tion to thou­sands of cre­ative writ­ing stu­dents, by show­ing how his stream­lined prose was per­haps as much the prod­uct of Alfred A. Knopf edi­tor Gor­don Lish as of the author. The mag­a­zine pub­lished Lish’s edit of Carver’s “Begin­ners,” which became in Lish’s hands the sig­na­ture sto­ry “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

I do not think lovers of Carv­er need be too dis­mayed by these rev­e­la­tions. Sev­er­al well-known works of lit­er­a­ture are close col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts between edi­tor and author. See, for exam­ple, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which we’d nev­er know by that name with­out Ezra Pound (the famous foot­notes were not Eliot’s idea either). And the glit­ter­ing sen­tences of Fitzger­ald would not shine so bright­ly with­out edi­tor Mal­colm Cow­ley. But as The New York­er alleges, Carv­er felt forced to accept Lish’s edits. Once he had gained more con­fi­dence and suc­cess, his prose took on much more expan­sive qual­i­ties, as you can see in the 1983 sto­ry “Cathe­dral.”

The read­ings above can be oth­er­wise found in our col­lec­tion of Free Audio Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Audio: John Stein­beck Reads Two Short Sto­ries, “The Snake” and “John­ny Bear” in 1953

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Andrew says:

    Carv­er did eschew the post mod­ernism of the day but to my mind he strict­ly applied the Hem­ing­way pro­to­col to “write what you know” and “to use sim­ple lan­guage that every­one uses.” This does not dimin­ish his val­ue as an artist: thank good­ness some­one was doing it! I loved his short sto­ries as a teen and often find them com­ing to mind. His title What We Talk About When We Talk About Love seems to be some kind of meme — a now famil­iar con­struc­tion applied to var­i­ous sub­jects besides love.

  • Bruce says:

    The audio will not work for me… what is the for­mat?

  • David says:

    I could only hear the audio when using Inter­net Explor­er. No sound at all in Safari or in Fire­fox.

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