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BOOK BIZ — An American literary legend explores life and love

Acclaimed short-story writer and poet Raymond Carver created a world in his writing that was much like his own hard Oregon upbringing: sparse and challenging, sparing no one heartbreak. Heavy drinkers and disillusioned people making bad choices fill Carver’s work. Credited with helping launch a resurgence in the modern American short story in the late 70s/early 80s, he died of lung cancer in 1988 at age 50, but left behind a towering literary legacy.

His second short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, published in 1981, is a slim volume of about 150 pages. With tales of love and woe, everyday life and the sometimes-unbelievable weirdness of it, and men and women locked in battle with each other and with themselves, the book would garner Carver resounding praise at the time and create an army of creative-writing-student devotees.

One of the most striking things about the collection is its economy of phrase; you get the feeling that not a single extra word dare show itself. Carver’s writing here is lean, spare, and cool. Characters react to one another with passion, but there’s a distance between them and Carver’s rendering of their world that became part of his signature style. Crisp and unemotional, his work set a tone for modern American fiction that many still try to emulate today.

His short stories have also found their way onto the big screen, inspiring creative adaptations including director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts in 1993, which was based on nine of Carver’s stories from across several collections. More recently, the title story for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was featured in 2014’s Birdman, as the basis for the main character’s attempted Broadway production.

Birdman, which starred Michael Keaton, won the most recent Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as the awards for Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Undoubtedly, Carver’s work got a boost from Birdman’s success.

Interestingly, thanks in part to efforts from Carver’s widow, unedited versions of the stories from this collection have been published in the last decade. There are some significant differences between what Carver actually wrote and what his editor Gordon Lish published. Unedited, Carver wrote much longer and much lusher prose, with more evident emotion. This revelation has created questions about his so-called signature style.

Don’t let this dissuade you, though. I read the edited versions as well as a few unedited and enjoyed them both. You can find Carver in them all.

— LouAnn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

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