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The American Short Story and Realism: Raymond Carver

The second half of the 20th century was a time of innovation in the short story genre, and techniques such as brevity or imagery were elevated to the maximum. These writing tools helped short stories become a more complex and relevant literary genre. This article will focus on the figure of Raymond Carver and explain how he innovated the way short stories were told; Carver took said techniques to the extreme in his 'dirty realism' short stories and in their topics. The article will show examples of Carver's use of these writing tools, especially minimalism, by analyzing some texts from his collection of short stories What we talk about when we talk about love.

Figure 1: Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver is among some of the most significant American short story authors of the 20th century. He was born in Oregon in 1938, started writing in 1958, and published his first story in 1961. His characteristic writing style and choice of crude topics in his texts gave Carver's works a method for immediate recognition.

Carver's text could be cataloged as realism, but his style goes beyond that. In the general idea of realism, American realism was based on the imitation of the new genres that emerged in Europe and as a response to romanticism (Tadjibayev, Shegay, Krivosheeva, 2020 p.147), although still being influenced by European authors, American realism moved in other directions. Europe based its realism on Greek and Roman heritage — it could be said European realism was considered a neoclassical movement — but American realism has been based solely on the American lifestyle of the 19th and 20th centuries (Taghizadeh, 2014, p. 1631). As such, Carver's work represents real situations; he is not trying to decorate what he is showing to the reader. He describes things as they are.

Figure 2: Cover of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

There could be further discussion on whether Carver’s technique really helped the genre or if it only complicated it. However, the fact that his texts belonged to the realism genre makes sense as they were written at a time when everyone was trying to improve the arts and searching for new ways of telling stories; consequently, Carver decided to explore minimalism in writing. He showed, in his text, real situations of everyday life; some of them could be crude, or complicated to understand, but still, he represented feelings that everyone could recognize: sadness, loneliness, failure, etc. Raymond Carver explained in his article “On writing” how writers must have a characteristic way of telling the story so as to be recognized and distinguishable from other writers: “A writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking; that writer may be around for a time.” (1994, p.274) Still, there are some elements in Carver's texts that differ compared to other American realism authors such as John Steinbeck or J.D. Salinger because Carver did not search only for the truth in life, but the crudest truth; thus, Carver's style, as aforementioned, was more specifically described as 'dirty realism'. The author Michael Hemmingson described this style as follows:

Dirty Realism showed up in the early 1980s, branching out from minimalism, the stripping of fiction down to the least amount of words and a concentration on the object. The characters are usually run-of-the-mill, every day people - the lower and middle class worker, the unemployed, the alcoholic, the beaten-down-by-life. (2008, p.11)

In his stories, Carver was not only using the common elements of everyday life, but also some of the disturbing aspects of it. A good example of this is in the text Popular Mechanics in which a couple is arguing about their relationship. The conflict rises to a point where they discuss who is going to keep full custody of their baby after their separation. Both of them refuse to give in, so they each take their infant by one arm and pull. The author makes it seem like the baby ends up dead from its parents' abuse, which is why this story is considered one of the author's crudest, but this brutality has a deeper meaning to it. In the case of this tale, Carver is trying to demonstrate how pride can lead someone to do the extreme. In fact, it could be even argued that the reasons for their actions were led by pride rather than love.

Like his predecessors Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver continued to search for a way to tell a story without needing to provide much information. As a result, Carver’s work has been categorized as ‘minimalistic’ writing. His texts show special attention not only to how things can be told with fewer words but also to the importance of the meaning of each word, playing, in this way, with concepts such as intertextuality or the double sense. His collection of short stories What we talk about when we talk about love became an epitome of this new form of writing. However, it was not yet approved by most critics. Although the idea of brevity in storytelling was already well established in the literary world in the second half of the 20th century thanks to the writers who proved it was an effective storytelling method, critics were still resistant to accepting minimalistic writing.

In reference to the previous article of this series about Hemingway, Carver’s texts also make use of the technique "show don't tell", and the reader has to assume their own version of what the author is trying to convey. A good example of this can be seen in the story Why don’t you dance? where the situation may seem odd to the reader, as the characters and the reasons behind their actions are left unclear. There is still a difference between what Carver does in his texts compared to Hemingway as sometimes, due to the aforementioned use of minimalism, there could be multiple pieces of hidden information in the text. In Hemingway´s short story Hills like white elephants, the unknown detail was the reason for the trip of the couple, but in Carver's story, there are multiple unknown facts: why the old man moved all his things to the front garden, why he is willing to sell everything, what kind of relationships they have the young couple, etc. All this conflict creates a more complex atmosphere, which is why critics rebuked minimalism in writing, as they thought that this way of narrating only complicated the reader´s perception.

Short stories base their ideas on how ‘less is more,’ but minimalism was described by the author James Atlas as ‘less is less’ (1981, p.96), which discredits this style of writing and defines it as incomplete, and therefore, unable to tell a story to its fullest. At first, Carver's story may give one this impression of incompleteness, as he used very short descriptions which create a narration that seems trivial, and has the meaning of purpose (Just, 2008, p. 304), but Carver intentionally leaves obvious clues on the table for the reader to recognize without pointing to them directly. At first, this writing style might create confusion in the reader about what is happening in the story. A good example of this issue can be found in Carver´s story Gazebo, which starts with the phrase: “That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window” (1989, p.20). Carver then goes on to explain the reason why a couple is falling apart. This phrase is a good example to show the intertextuality of Carver in his writing; here the word ‘Teacher’ substitutes for whiskey, which is a small detail that might seem unimportant for the plot, but is still relevant for the reader to know in order to fully understand the story. The same issue occurs in the story Popular Mechanics, as to understand the story it is important to know that the title of the text refers to a famous magazine about technological topics. This way, the idea of 'less is less' it is amplified to all levels, taking into account the way that things are said, and the perspective of the reader, showing this way that although this method takes out elements of the text, takes even more into account the elements that are not visible.

Figure 3: The movie 'Birdman' was inspired by the book 'What we talk about when we talk about love'

What we talk about when we talk about love is a revolutionary text that continues to experiment in the field of the 'short stories'. In his text, Carver focused on the feelings the characters are experiencing, and what they are going trough, though most of his stories in this book end with unpleasant situations: in Why don't you dance? the characters end up confused and lonely, in Gazebo a couple is broken up and face unemployment, and in Popular Mechanics a baby ends up dead. Still, Carver's texts are not disheartening because they seem real, the reader is only able to feel empathy for the character and their lives, and even, a bigger recognition of their own feelings and existence.


Atlas, J. (1981). “Less is Less.” Atlantic, 96–98. Carver, R. (1989). What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories (Reissue ed.). Vintage. Carver, R. (1994). On Writing. In C. Edward May (Ed.), The new short story theories (pp. 273–277). Ohio University Press.

Hemmingson, M. (2008). The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver on the Aesthetics of the Ugly (Vol. 70). Wildside Press LLC. Just, D. (2008). Is Less More? A Reinvention of Realism in Raymond Carver's Minimalist Short Story. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 49(3), 303-317 Tadjibayev, M., Shegay, A., & Krivosheeva, G. (2020). The development of realism in American literature. European Journal of Research and Reflection in Educational Sciences, 8(10), 145-150. Taghizadeh, A. (2014). A theory of literary realism. Theory and practice in language studies, 4(8), 1628-1635.

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1 Comment

It is always interesting to find out how even the literary tools we now use regularly had seen some push-back from critics. Carver had a clear vision of what he wanted his works to portray, and he stuck to this vision vehemently.

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Maialen De Carlos

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