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When I found out that Brian Evenson was writing a book about his “personal and literary” reflections on Raymond Carver — specifically the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love — I was excited. Evenson’s disconcerting, macabre short stories have always resonated with me. While I’m not as well-read in Carver’s work, I’ve long admired his style.
This may seem like an odd combination. Evenson’s genre is horror, while Carver’s is realistic fiction (though, as Evenson explains, this is a gross oversimplification of Carver).
But it’s a perfect match. When it comes to style, both writers share a wry sense of humor and minimalist quality.
If you write fiction, reading a scholarly analysis of an author’s works can help you improve your craft. As you’ve likely discovered, though, these types of texts are usually very dry and tedious. Luckily, Evenson’s take on Carver, as part of the Bookmarked series, is neither. I breezed through the whole thing in a couple of days.
Here’s how reading this book will make you a better writer.
6 Benefits You Will Gain From Reading Brian Evenson’s Reflections on Raymond Carver
1. Discover the dynamic interplay between life and literature
Evenson begins with a harrowing story of his near-death experience due to a collapsed lung. Upon returning from the hospital, he looks at himself in the mirror and recalls a line from Carver’s “The Father:” “He turned around in his chair and his face was white and without expression.”
This recollection shows us how great literature helps us find clarity in our most chaotic and troubling times. While this was certainly a disturbing moment for Evenson, at least he had a reference point for what he was feeling.
So how does that help us as writers? Well, it shows that we shouldn’t just view our stories as a string of dramatic events. Yes, conflict is important. But it’s the small, seemingly throwaway moments that help readers to connect with your story on a more intimate level.
2. Be inspired to challenge your readers
Throughout the book, Evenson talks about growing up in a Mormon community that influenced his perceptions about “acceptable” behavior. He describes the experience of reading Carver’s “Nobody Said Anything” for the first time in a class at Brigham Young University. It shocked him that a professor would risk getting penalized at this religious school by sharing a story that featured profanity and masturbation. Beyond that, the raw nature of the writing shook him up.
The point of this anecdote is not that you should use lots of swear words in your writing or go out of your way to generate controversy.
However, it does show that the best literature is that which makes us uncomfortable on some level. For Evenson, it forced him to reexamine his assumptions about how life is supposed to be.
3. Venture beyond the realms of the known
Evenson writes about how as a Mormon, the experiences of Carver’s hard-drinking, chain-smoking characters were alien to him. Yet he still felt drawn to them. He concludes: “The more more you read, the more you realize that reading is about engaging in an act of translation: that you’re not looking for someone who is involved in the exact experience or life you have.”
Instead, you’re looking for the particulars of how a character reacts to his experiences and what these reactions reveal “about your own, very different experience.”
That’s why the advice “write what you know” should be taken with a grain of salt.
When it comes down to it, a character’s details — his occupation, his hobbies, his background — operate on the surface. Sure, we may be drawn to certain books because the character reminds us of ourselves or what we wish we were like.
But when a book really gets under our skin, it’s because the author has found a way to get inside the character’s head and somehow capture intangible emotions.
It’s why, while Moby Dick takes place in a world that few modern readers can relate to, its cast of lost souls works its way into our hearts. Ishmael with his yearning to uncover the mysteries of life. Captain Ahab and his foil, Pip, who in their insanity and complete alienation from humanity, carry a desperation that has a poetic beauty.
4. Learn how to integrate motifs into your stories
Motifs are recurring plot elements which contribute to a larger theme.
In Carver’s stories, it’s alcohol: “Everybody is either drunk, desperate for a drink, or recovering.” There are numerous mentions of a character pouring “another drink.”
Even readers who have no relationship with alcohol can appreciate the universal concepts of avoidance and denial.
As a writer, when you’re combing through your first draft, you should look for common patterns. Then you can emphasize them in later drafts so that these patterns lend unity and coherence to your work.
5. Sprinkle more texture into your writing
If you read lots of reviews, you’ve probably noticed a common sentence: “[Book/movie] is [title] meets [completely different title]” i.e. “Star Wars meets Cinderella.” Sure, it’s a cliche, but it’s because we love seeing disparate elements blended together.
When you’re writing, you can approach this technique from a number of angles such as genre, tone, and style.
Throughout his book, Evenson consistently highlights Carver’s ability to give his writing texture by combining contradictory qualities: “What I admire so much about Carver…is his ability to move so rapidly and seamlessly from the ordinary to the uncanny, from the banal to the destructive or deliberative, and to do it with just a few careful strokes.”
House of Leaves is one of my favorite books because it’s like ten books rolled into one. It’s a horror novel, an adventure, a documentary, a meta novel, a scholarly text…ok, that’s not ten, but you get the idea!
6. Find a good editor who makes all the difference
The last part of the book focuses on Carver’s editor Gordon Lish. As it turns out, the minimalist style that we’ve come to know as quintessentially Carver is largely due to Lish’s extensive cuts.
The lesson? Once you’ve selected a skilled editor, don’t get insulted by all the red marks on your manuscript! Trust in your editor’s ability to see the bigger picture and to shape the story to fit this vision.
By the way, Sorina Fant is an excellent editor if you’re in need! She took my mess of a manuscript with multiple plot holes and guided me toward unity and coherence. Then I actually looked forward to the revision process!
If you’re expecting a scholarly analysis of Carver’s works, this might not be what you’re looking for. What Bookmarked offers is something different. They foreground Evenson’s unique perspective on Carver’s work, rather than simply offering another book about Carver. It certainly helps if you’re a fan of Evenson, as I am.
Not only is reading Evenson’s reflections on Carver instructive, but experiencing his enthusiasm for Carver’s writing is highly inspirational. It reminded me of being back in school when reading and writing fiction were such an integral part of my life. Now I’m motivated me to do whatever it takes to get back to that point!
Have you read any stories by Evenson or Carver? What are your favorites?
You can get the book below: