Saturday, March 5, 2011

Raymond Carver and Stephen King

I presume you are familiar with Raymond Carver, short story and poetry specialist, darling of academe.

Raymond Carver died of lung cancer at the age of fifty about twenty years ago. Now, finally, as I lay upon my lily pad sunning myself in my own obscure backwater, multiple scraps from the past have drifted, whirled lazily by with Raymond Carver's name upon them. All of a sudden, it seems, I am to be made aware of Raymond Carver.

Carver, like almost every writer and certainly every poet, was unable to support himself by writing. After a life of odd jobs, a certain amount of fame attached itself to his name and eventually he was at least able to teach writing. In that capacity he seemed to move around every year or two.

In a shining coincidence of luck and fate, I found a collection of his stories at the local library.

Carver writes in Standard Prose; you know, what was left after Hemingway et. al. stripped the silliness out of the nineteenth century stuff. Standard Prose is almost always better than any other kind of prose except that written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen and other such literary luminaries. Carver's prose is perfect in that it commits no sins. If he had submitted a story to me for a dose of the machete and the gas can (I do lean, just ever so slightly, toward my criticism), I would be forced to return it without a mark.  Mind you, the luminaries commit no sins either; they're just better.

Carver writes about ordinary life. In ordinary prose. (I must admit that my own prose is rather ordinary, though perhaps not quite as good as Carver's.) I wonder what all the fuss is about? But I do, honestly and unreservedly recommend him to any student of writing. Maybe that's what all the fuss is about.

I had cast a wide net at the library and came away with a book on writing by that master of popular fiction, Stephen King. Where Carver died early and broke, King is still with us and made immensely wealthy by the product of his pen. For the ardent student of Reader Psychology, the pull is irresistible. (And even King mentions Carver.)

I must confess at the outset that I have never read any King. King is a popular writer (and I am a snob, surely - and unwisely), and he writes books that could easily double as door stops. I was sufficiently deterred. I have since at least sampled King's prose and found it entirely serviceable. I shall be forced to read one. (Something manageable I hope.)

Kings advice on prose is entirely within the confines of that standard on writing, Strunk and White. Strunk and White do offer credible advice which boils down to: don't confuse the reader, eliminate redundancies, avoid the passive voice and avoid sentence inversions. To their credit, Strunk and White offer guidelines and not rules. Every student of writing should peruse it at least once. (I have no doubt you are thoroughly familiar with it.)

King believes there are four kinds of writers: bad, competent, good and great.  He believes that bad writers cannot be made competent and that good writers cannot be made great.  He does believe that a competent writer can be made good  (by Strunk and White?). Who knows.

King says that plotting doesn't work for him. The result is stilted. He just let's the characters and story carry him along; he's never certain where it will end up. (Perhaps this accounts for the rather thick books.)  I sympathize with him; I have written more than one piece in just that manner - letting the characters decide what happens next. I have also had some success in writing summaries first. This let's me emphasize theme more fully. Whatever works.

He has some interesting advice on themes and symbols. He always grinds out his first draft as quickly as possible so as not to lose character and story. He then edits this draft (essentially a Strunk and White edit). While he's doing this edit he notices if anything looks like theme or symbol and tries to take advantage of it by reinforcing it in the next draft.  

He shows this second draft to his circle of readers. King is slightly sensitive to the criticism that he lets his readers drive how he writes. (Hell, Dickens avidly followed the readers in his serializations and made use of it to change them on the fly! Dickens was no fool. King mentions Dickens, but not in this context.) Kings says that if a writer isn't writing for his readers he may as well be quacking at the moon. He writes for what he calls his Ideal Reader which is his wife, Tabitha. (Hopefully, Tabitha King did not study at the machete and gas can school of criticism.)

King had a few words to say about writing classes and workshops. He studied creative writing at university and subsequently taught high school English (poor bastard!). He says that in both cases, the students/writers are expected to show excerpts of work in progress for the rest of the class to comment on. He holds that this is not an especially good thing. He doesn't let anyone see his stuff until after the second draft to keep his vision uncompromised (otherwise, he may give up on it - my surmise). He also says the comments are almost without exception vague and useless. By this account, it would appear that those who cannot make a living at writing are at the least complicit in keeping the students of writing from making any progress. Poor Raymond Carver.

King had more to say and I've probably left out something important.

I sincerely hope that I do not have to undertake a study of Reader Psychology by way of popular trash. I have read some and it isn't pretty. Then again, I have read stuff the critics raved about and come away disgusted.  Hmmm. On reflection, I may have spoken too quickly. I bet popular trash - for that very reason - is a gold mine.

Still lost in words.

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