How literary minimalism works: reading Raymond Carver’s Beginners

Front cover of UK edition of Raymond Carver's 'Beginners'

Were Lish's edits justified?

Raymond Carver never liked being called a literary minimalist but he was one, at least under the editorial knife of his sometime editor, Gordon Lish. Beginners, Carver’s posthumous collection of the unedited stories that were first published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in a heavily edited form in 1981, goes some way to renegotiating that label.

Because Carver didn’t like the term, it doesn’t mean the stories are any better now that Beginners restores them to their original, less-minimalist state. As you might expect, comparing the new volume with the old we find that some stories are better, some remain largely the same, but some are worse without the would-be villainous hand of Lish.

I hesitate to say Carver didn’t solely produce his own best work. It goes against many of those conventions we hold dear about genius, creativity and authorship in general and about what we – and I, as a scholar of Carver’s work* – believe and trust in particular. Such a claim is best demonstrated through example, so I’m going to do that here.

Much has been said about Carver and Lish and the overall different effect of reading both versions, but I’m going to show how it works in detail through a close comparative reading of the opening passages of a less well celebrated story. In What We Talk About… (WWTA) it is called ‘I Could See the Smallest Things’; in Beginners (B) it is called ‘Want to See Something?’

Here’s the opening from WWTA:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.

And here’s the opening from B:

I was in bed when I heard the gate unlatch. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I had heard that. I tried to wake cliff, but he was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon hung over the mountains that surrounded the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars, easy enough to imagine a face there – eye sockets, nose, even the lips.

I’m going to go through it, picking up the most significant changes. Here’s the first line again:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. (WWTA)

I was in bed when I heard the gate unlatch. (B)

The minimalist enterprise was concerned with paring down sentences by removing words, phrases and so on. This is a good example of that in action. In the minimalist version, the word ‘unlatch’ is removed. The effect is to remove certainty and introduce ambiguity: we know the gate has made a sound but we don’t know why. In some cases, this is preferable and you might argue that knowing the gate had become unlatched is more sinister and troubling than simply hearing the gate. Typically, though, minimalist writers won’t tell you want to think and you can see that even a single word can reveal a specific and clear meaning. This example shows how the minimalist aesthetic invites the reader to participate in the interpretation of the story because there is a paucity of detail: something is missing, so the reader must provide it.

Moving on. Here’s the next significant difference between the texts:

I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. (WWTA)

I tried to wake cliff, but he was passed out. (B)

This example illustrates how small changes in the text affect the ways in which the rhythm of reading works. In the minimalist example from WWTA, the causative ‘but’ is removed and the sentence is divided. It creates a stopping effect, slows the reading down, and in the context of this passage (and story) underscores the feeling of sudden wakefulness or nervous attention. There’s no smooth transition to support from her partner; Cliff (his name itself suggestive of large immovability) remains defiantly unaware of her ordeal. How the story is read, the pace and flow of the text, helps with the minimalist effect.

Here’s the next line:

A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city (WWTA)

A big moon hung over the mountains that surrounded the city (B)

The minimalist technique depended upon inference, elision and ambiguity, so giving the reader too clear a didactic nod would undermine this approach. Typically you find this working in the absence of any kind of interior monologue or access to feelings in many minimalist stories (and in particular, those of Hemingway). Here the effect is the same but more subtle. I like to think that minimalists often describe scenes with the kind of objectivity you find in a photograph. In the example above, the moon was ‘big’ and was ‘laid’ over the mountains that ‘went around’ the city. All of this is detached observation without much of a hint at evaluation.

Carver's minimalist masterpiece

Compare this with the same ‘big’ moon that ‘hung’ over mountains that ‘surrounded’ the city. Both the terms ‘hung’ and ‘surrounded’ are evaluative and don’t sit with their feet inside the hard-minimalist camp (to coin a phrase). For example, the word ‘surrounded’ suggests a kind of siege, which is analogous to how she feels being trapped in her room while. In this case this single word, even though it’s not hard-minimalism, works well to be evocative without overdoing it. (And if you think that’s reading too much into it, then you’re not reading carefully enough – this is what good writers do in general and minimalist ones in particular.) Similarly, the omission of detail in the moon’s face in the first example is typical of the way that minimalist pared back the detail of their writing to hint at more than they told the reader outright.

Now, we know that nothing – including a photograph – is purely innocent, so we might like to say these aspire to this detached, objective condition at such times. But the effect, paradoxically, is very far from detachment. This is the case because often it’s the accumulation of small details working together that create the minimalist approach and its effect. And working together, the ambiguity of being non-specific about which way the gate is opening; the staccato reading of longer sentences divided into smaller, single-clause barbs; and the taming of evaluative adjectives such as ‘hung’ and ‘surrounded’ all work together to pare back the interpretative clues readers have at their disposal, and which invite the reader to find much more in the story than the words printed on the page.

When thinking about the inevitable question about which story (and approach) was better, it depends on how you like your literature. In a crude metaphor, if you’re the kind of person who likes loose ends at the end of the film, who doesn’t enjoy being spoon-fed or manipulated into a precise way of reading a film, if you like the film to make you think a bit, then you might like and appreciate the kind of minimalist writing that made – and sustains – Carver’s acclaim, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Recently, we’ve become increasingly interested in working in collaboration (following ideas such as ‘collective journalism’ or ‘crowd sourcing‘) but we’re not accustomed to thinking of our most prized writing as being written by what we might pejoratively call a ‘committee’. In many other cases, we still adhere to an outmoded version of creativity springing from an individual mind, perhaps more or less troubled and tossed upon the whimsy of genius, sat in isolation, wrestling with no one other than his or her muse. But as this example illustrates, in a stark harsh light, how far this myth fails to capture the reality of writing, and how writers and editors may work together to create more than the sum of their individual talents.

*I’ve written a PhD on literary minimalism, of which Carver occupies a third (alongside Ernest Hemingway and Frederick Bartheleme). You can read the introduction here.

9 thoughts on “How literary minimalism works: reading Raymond Carver’s Beginners

  1. Interesting post Phil. I’m fascinated by the use of language and changes editors make so books read in a certain way. I’m also fascinated because, to me, there’s no wrong way or right way of writing; I either like it or I don’t, and that’s not to say others will agree with me :0)

    • Thanks Robyn 🙂 I know what you mean by ‘there’s no right or wrong way’ of writing. I prefer minimalist writing, but that doesn’t rule other types out. What’s interesting is that despite this ‘relativistic’ approach to what we like, we often agree on which books are the ‘best’ (calling them ‘classics’); and when it comes to what we need to teach, we’ve got to make a choice on what’s in the canon. Literature is all about conventions, and like most others things, is a social construct: despite our feeling we have our own, individual taste, there’s often a consensus on how texts are interpreted or ranked, something we might not think possible or be comfortable with. Stanley Fish is interesting on this:

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  4. Thanks Phil. Interesting. I have just found out about Raymond Carver. Today, in fact. It’s the kind of writing I like. Someone said my emails are a bit Carveresque. But when anyone used to ask who my favourite writer was, I’d always say Jean Rhys. A book of hers: ‘Voyage in the Dark’ is sparely written. It’s as if words are not be trusted. I prefer ‘laid’ to ‘hung’ and ‘went’ to ‘surrounded’. The preferred words somehow threaten to derail the story, which I somehow approve of. It reminds me of the painter Manet – they call him the Godfather of Modern Art – who continued the tradion of painting narrative scenes, but in such a way you never forgot you were looking at paint. I like the story to somehow jolt me into looking at the ink on the page, and carver does this. By using the word ‘laid’ he makes me think more about the moon HANGING there. My eyes don’t so easily gloss over. I probably make no sense. Phil, what if anything do you know of Jean Rhys?


    • Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by. I haven’t read much Jean Rhys – just the popular ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ sometime ago when I was an undergraduate. I will have to look into ‘Voyage in the Dark’ – it sounds interesting.
      Speaking of trusting the words – Ernest Hemingway, one of the writers I’ve written about at length – wrote that the in some cases, such as war, the only honest or trustworthy or ‘true’ words to write were the names of towns, the numbers of houses, the places where the battles took place.
      Your analysis makes sense, indeed – Carver (and of course other writers, non-minimalists and minimalists alike) invited us to look closely at the words they used. When we do that, we enjoy a richer reading experience. My main argument in my book on minimalism is that the minimalists trust the reader to read this closely and in doing so, engage and even ‘re-write’ the stories for themselves as they read.

      • I bought ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ and started reading the one about Bill and Jerry and the rock. Menacing. (Had the feel of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ by the synth duo Suicide). I’m ripping right through them.

        I would love to read your book on minimalist literature. Is it available to buy in the shops?

      • Thanks Chris. My book will shortly be available – I’ll be writing some posts on literary minimalism in the coming weeks on this blog, including details on what’s in the book and how to buy it.

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