On “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Program Era”

by vinnyhaddad


Raymond Carver’s famous short story collection “What We Talk about When We Talk About Love,” one that is credited with “putting him on the map,” so to speak, lies at the intersection of a number of literary issues that I find fascinating: book history, affect theory and periodization. To the first, D.T. Max’s 1998 article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles” unveils the extent to which editor Gordon Lish contributed to Carver’s success (and his name being synonymous with “minimalism” itself); “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fix-It” was cut by seventy-percent, while the infamous  “Tell the Women We’re Going” (and my personal favorite) was altered so dramatically that it didn’t appear to be the same story:

Written by Carver in the late 1960’s or early 70’s, the story was unusual for him, one of the few in which the violence implicit in his characters becomes explicit. The story first made an appearance as ”Friendship” in Sou’wester, a small literary magazine. By the time it appeared in the ”What We Talk About” collection, Lish had retitled it — and cut it by 40 percent. The story is set near the town in which Carver grew up, Yakima, Wash. Bill and his tougher friend Jerry take a break from their wives at a barbecue and drive off looking for action. They find two teen-age girls bicycling along the road and try to get their attention. Things go awry. After a tense pursuit full of strange pleas and laughs, Jerry rapes and kills Sharon — a scene that Bill, who has dropped behind, arrives in time to witness. He cries out, asserting in that moment the horror that the reader feels, too.

What’s noteworthy about the story is the way Carver makes a boring afternoon build to murder. Lish didn’t care about this. He was after more abstract effects. He made cuts on every page. Bill becomes just a passive companion to Jerry. The pursuit is eliminated: the violence now comes out of nowhere and is almost hallucinogenic. ”[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock,” Lish wrote in. ”Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” The story ends right there. One wonders how Carver must have felt when he saw that.

Then, predictably, tension began to bubble between Lish and Carver (Lish feeling undervalued and Carver feeling that his credibility might be shattered if the truth was found out).

”Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand. . . . I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this. . . . I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility [sic] in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me.” In the same letter, he wrote imploringly, ”[M]y very sanity is on the line here. . . . I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story.”

But what is most revealing to me is the letter Max cites written by Don DeLillo to Lish when Lish begins to toy with the idea of taking public ownership of his contributions:

The fact is: there is no exposing Carver. . . . Even if people knew, from Carver himself, that you are largely responsible for his best work, they would immediately forget it. It is too much to absorb. Too complicated. Makes reading the guy’s work an ambiguous thing at best. People wouldn’t think less of Carver for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they’d resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories…In the meantime, take good care of your archives.

What this observation by DeLillo illuminates is the relationship between Carver’s reputation and the uncomplicated reading experience, the way in which a situated author figure facilitates or primes a mood that allows for the affects that we might “generally” concede to the form itself, but is actually more complex. Minimalism, as this awkward editor-author relationship amplifies, makes the beatification of shame into a teachable, imitable craft that would be taken up by many aspiring writers in the recent historical past and present.[1]  Carver, as avatar of Hemingway, enabled a “literary school” that would be one of the major bellwethers for what Mark McGurl calls “The Program era.”

McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing has been one of the most influential contributions to my thinking on contemporary fiction. His chapter “The Hidden Injuries of Craft: Mass Higher Education and Lower-Middle-Class Modernism” offers a unique take on the minimalism/maximalism binary (as emblematized by Carver/Joyce Carol Oates). Lower-Middle-Class Modernism is one in a tripartite schema of postwar fiction, along with technomodernism (the “postmodern” genre that focuses on communication of information) and high cultural pluralism (or something more analogous to  multiculturalism). Lower-middle-class modernism “is preoccupied more than anything else with economic and other forms of insecurity and cultural anomie.”

McGurl, through an emphasis on the forms homologous relationship to the creative writing program, positions this binary of minimalism and maximalism at the nexus of a dialectic between shame and pride of whiteness itself: whereas Oates saw whiteness as integrally tied to shame and therefore a loss of the socio-historical self (as evidenced by her letter to Toni Morrison congratulating her on the Pulitzer Prize in 1988), Carver saw whiteness as the metaphorically desirable “status” to achieve for the lower-middle-class worker. The shame/pride dialectic functions analogously with the rise of higher education because of its application to creative-writing classroom itself (fiction pieces being critiqued by peers and instructors [shame] before they reach the level of publication [pride]). This is a simplification, of course, as the dialectic is interrelated and the manifestation of one emotion (pride) is accompanied by, and contributes to the production of, the other (shame).


Fredric Jameson has an interesting riff on this tripartite schema:

For it is the fate of any third term to linger precariously on the margins, disabused of any ambition to become the synthesis between the two already in place, and thus condemned to struggle to displace one or other of its opposite numbers to find its own proper place in the binary system. What McGurl has called ‘lower-middle-class modernism’ is always on the edge of proletarianisation, slipping back down into mass culture and the genres still available as Literature to the nobler modes of technomodernism and high cultural pluralism in the form of pastiche.

The lower-middle-class mode cannot hope for that distinction, and so in it the two great tendencies of minimalism and maximalism fight it out to exhaustion, the former producing Carver, the latter Oates. Of the two, it may be said that minimalism carries the palm by way of a genuine high-literary invention – the rebirth of that quintessential writing-program form, the short story.

Jameson’s quibble over this third-part as not exactly a proper Hegelian synthesis between technomodernism and high cultural pluralism seems more adjacent  than disruptive to McGurl’s payoff in this chapter:

Minimalism is valuable to us in its very ‘colorlessness.’ Unredeemed by proud communal attachments except to the occupational category of ‘writer,’ it lays bare itself. It reveals the dependence of postwar American writing on the university, first and foremost, but it also lays bare the general condition of subjection of the majority of the postwar U.S. labor force, white and nonwhite, which owes its mobility, such as it is, to a system of mass higher education built to the specifications of the market. Whatever its disadvantages, political, aesthetic, or otherwise, the beauty of literary minimalism is in its artful unwillingness to conceal the concealment of its own dependency and weakness, which infuses it with an exquisitely shameful reflexivity. As an ‘embarassingly’ programmatic product of the program and unable, for all of its skills at understatement, to hide the fact from anyone very well, minimalism has the ironic advantage of revealing the systemicity of creativity in the Program Era in its starkest form. In doing so, it lays bare the recruitment of that creativity to the inhuman ends of the economic order we serve. (320)

McGurl does not weigh the negatives against the positives of the creative writing program, but instead unveils the ways it is dialectically symptomatic of the postwar literary marketplace. What McGurl (and Max’s account of Gordon Lish) show is that minimalism is anything but simple sentences and concealed emotions. More on The Program Era to come.

[1] As David Foster Wallace points out, this imitability produces some of the most mundane and debilitating fiction, but it is not limited to minimalism as a form itself: “After the pioneers always come the crank-turners, the little gray people who take the machines others have built and just turn the crank, and little pellets of metafiction come out the other end. The crank-turners capitalize for awhile on sheer fashion.”