The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new kind of fiction, best exemplified by the short story collections of Raymond Carver.
In 1981 his best-loved collection was published. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ recorded the almost dreary lives of middle America, in language that was frugal and yet commanding.
The metafictions, magic realism and doorstopper Great American Novels of the 1960s and 1970s had been challenged.
Writing was now about minimalism – all show and no tell. Creative writing students on both sides of the Atlantic worshipped at the altar of Carver, pruning and condensing in their attempts to imitate his style.
And then, in 2009, Carver’s wife, Tess Gallagher, published ‘Beginners’ – the original manuscript versions of the 17 stories that make up ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. The true extent of editor Gordon Lish’s cuts to Carver’s work was revealed. The bible of minimalism was apparently the work of two authors – writer and editor.
Minimalism was not a style that dripped so easily from Carver’s pen.
A minor literary tempest followed. The original of the collection’s title story was published in The New Yorker – with Lish’s edits. Creative writing classrooms around the globe quivered with excitement: perhaps the struggle for that perfect, showing sentence was not so unattainable. God had been made man; we could all relax.
Kemanis’s ‘territory’ is the American middle class; in this collection, specifically the white-collar, middle-class family (her previous collections have concentrated on ‘women’ and ‘misdemeanour’). And her style is neither minimal nor simple.
‘Dust of the Universe’ sees people on planes, in cars, at home and at work, struggling with the emotional pulls, conflicts and trials of family life. Her characters, most often women, sit at the centre of these domestic dramas, trying, with varying degrees of success, to cope with exterior events while tuning into and processing their interior reactions.
Material then for the minimal treatment. No ground-breaking incidents, magical happenings, or self-referential meta-narrative here. Quiet, limpid prose would appear to be the perfect vehicle for Kemanis’s stories.
Kemanis herself, however, professes an enjoyment of ‘the beauty and intricacy of language’. This certainly shows: she chooses an elaborate style to tell the stories of her ‘everyday people experiencing joys and sorrows’.
Is this wrong? If so, why?
Is it successful? If not, how could it be improved?
Literary fashion since Carver remains minimal. The early twentieth-century modernists and the experimentalists of the 60s and 70s provided the raw material for the blooming fields of literary, critical and cultural studies. Literature that discussed literature – and pulled in psychology, linguistics, politics and sociology – gained a strangle-hold on academia and, crucially, alienated a reading public. No wonder that readers were attracted to Carver’s straight-forward story-telling, his focus on character, incident and dialogue, and apparent lack of pre-occupation with any kind of ephemeral ‘discourse’.
So when one reads a story such as Kemanis’s ‘Nothing Intentional’, in which a middle-aged lawyer contemplates an extra-marital knockback and his position in the world, it feels rather over-written. Is this because of fashion – is this because one expects such a story to be revealed through quiet imagery and language? Or is it because Kemanis is a self-published writer – albeit an experienced one? Does this story need a Lish-style edit, cutting it back to its bare, white bones?
A comparison with another story in the collection provides some insight: ‘The Zephyr’ records the turmoil an eight-year old girl feels in the face of her reconfigured family situation. Staying alone with her mother in a motel named The Zephyr, and visited on weekends by family members, new and old, she develops a powerful fear of the creature she believes the zephyr is, conflating it with the prematurely developed daughter of the motel manager.
This is probably the best story in the collection. It is the most moving, thematically and symbolically the best integrated, and is executed with great success. What marks it out from Kemanis’s other emotionally astute tales is the difficult literary trick Kemanis manages to pull off: she writes an adult story using the eight-year-old Debbie’s voice.
Writing in a child’s voice does not entail writing childishly or even with Carveresque simplicity; writing from a child’s point of view can be both subtle and sophisticated. In ‘What Maisie Knew’ Henry James sees everything through Maisie’s eyes, but, choosing to write in the third person, he is able to map refined, urbane language onto undeveloped thought patterns. The title of the novel indicates both the novel’s subject matter and its status as a technical exercise; James, creative genius and master technician, combines the two in one of his best works. And anyone who has read a single James sentence knows he is perhaps the ‘anti-Carver’.
Writing from the first-person point of view of an eight-year-old girl is even more of a challenge, but in ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis manages to avoid both any kind of jejune tone and any overly sophisticated commentary. The author is present, but the reader is only very faintly and pleasantly aware of her because of her choices of observation and image.
Kemanis has achieved this by giving her own work a strong edit. And she has done this, perhaps, without even realizing it – rather, her choice of voice has demanded such precision. In an interview with the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway famously said ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector’. In ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis’s point of view choice has turned her detector up to eleven – any sign of age-inappropriate language, analysis or view is absent. She has been her own Lish.
Perhaps then, for the self-published writer, the absence of a sensitive agent and a hard editor means being your own Lish and turning up the volume on your shit detector are essential skills.
Kemanis manages this in a number of her stories. To make this a truly good collection, she needs to sharpen her blade and carve out from her quantities of promising material the ideal forms of the rest.
In the title story of ‘The Dust of The Universe’ – a brief, heart-wrenching piece of writing – we do not need to know that Kip is ‘still hard-muscled from workouts at the gym’, only that he is big and his is his wife’s tucked position in bed is un-natural to him. Neither does Kemanis, once she has described Kip seeing ‘thousands of white specks danc[ing] about like atoms at boiling point’ under the covers, need to mention in the next paragraph the ‘boiling atomic particles’. Taking her knife to her prose in this way would increase the power of her imagery and make it serve her subjects even more effectively.
Not every writer can or should be Carver. Not every editor can or should be Lish. Lyrical, indulgent language is part of the pleasure of reading – and writing – but to adapt Lish himself, five lush, beautiful words can, by their clarity and precision, be better than fifteen.
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A big congratulations to VS Kemanis: ‘Everyone But Us‘ is currently a deserved semifinalist in the short fiction category of the 2013 Kindle Book Awards!