Carver's reputation has continued to grow since his death. His characters - beleaguered, inarticulate and weary - are living against the tide: they struggle to exist in the present, away from the future worries and past regrets that threaten to destroy them, but it is always a losing battle. And yet, no matter how chaotic the lives he delves into, Carver's work has a dazzling lucidity. He exposes the most telling details with a surgeon's precision and sureness of touch, and sees straight to the fragile hearts of his characters without ever becoming sentimental. His detractors criticise the strong autobiographical element to his work (alcoholism, poverty and love-turned-sour are recurrent themes), as well as the machismo of his prose style but through his unflinching attention to pain and regret he succeeds in giving the personal a universal application. As Michael Wood said of him in the New York Times, "Carver has done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do. He has invented a country of his own, like no other except that very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world to all of us."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In many of Carver's stories, issues of loss and of alcoholism are a part of the larger issue, which is the isolation and terror of people when a total breakdown of survival systems is at hand. The near-inarticulateness of his characters in the face of this terror and loss is significant and has been a major point of contention among his critics. Some say that Carver's characters are too ordinary, underperceptive, and despairing to experience the philosophical questions of meaning into which they have been thrust. His defenders say that Carver characters demonstrate that people living marginal, routine lives can come close to experiencing insight and epiphany under pressure of intruding mysteries, such as the death of a loved one.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
His "minimalism" in fiction has become really pervasive. Carver was at first the most influential practitioner of minimalism, and then, through the rewriting of his earlier stories, a writer who repudiated the style.
Luckily, Carver's stories can be used to show both the power of the so-called minimalist approach and its limits (the brief (ten-page) story "The Bath," which was the earlier version of "A Small, Good Thing.", is an excellent example of what minimalism does well and can be terrifying and unsettling ).
Another useful approach for showing the nuances of revision at work in Carver's writing is to look at a few other versions of his stories. A particularly illustrative case is a short-short-story of under five hundred words that has been known as "Mine" (Furious Seasons), "Popular Mechanics" (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), and "Little Things" (Where I'm Calling From). The last two differ only in title, but there are significant differences in "Mine."
Carver's stories were published in most of the important slick magazines of the seventies and eighties including Esquire and The New Yorker. All along the way his work also appeared in small literary magazines. David Bellamy called Carver "the most influential stylist since Donald Barthelme." He was writing for writers, for those who appreciated experimental literature as well as for a general, though sophisticated, reading audience.
Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway are the obvious influences on Carver's work. The seemingly simple pared-down style of writing follows straight through to Carver.
Another way to consider Carver's style is to remember that he began writing poetry before he tried fiction and continued writing and publishing poetry throughout his career. He said (in a Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson), "In magazines, I always turned to poems first before I read the stories. Finally, I had to make a choice, and I came down on the side of fiction. It was the right choice for me." Carver's poetry has been compared to that of William Carlos Williams, although I see many obvious differences in their approach, sense of the line, and sense of narrative. His poetry can also be compared to that of James Wright, particularly with respect to the class of people from which the poems and stories are drawn.