Born in 1938 in small-town Oregon and raised in the state of Washington, Raymond Carver grew up watching his father struggle with alcoholism, an affliction that proved to be hereditary and would eventually claim Carver as well. His father worked at a sawmill, and his mother worked as a waitress. When Carver was eighteen, he married his pregnant high school girlfriend, Maryann Burke, with whom he’d have a second child by the time he was twenty-one. After high school, Carver and his family moved to California, where he worked a variety of odd jobs, which would later provide inspiration for the down-and-out, blue-collar characters of his stories. In 1958, Carver discovered his interest in writing when he began taking classes at Chico State College under the instruction of writer John Gardner.
While still working odd jobs, Carver began writing poetry and short stories and published his first poetry collections, Near Klamath and Winter Insomnia, in 1968 and 1970, respectively. He published his first short-story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, in 1976. The collection has since become one of his best-known works. His poetry and fiction received much critical praise, and he began teaching writing at the college level.
Carver suffered from acute alcoholism, which eventually supplanted any kind of productive work. He was hospitalized several times but failed at his attempts to quit. Finally, in 1977, he stopped drinking and took a break from writing so that he could simply work at staying sober. When he started writing again, he went on to publish several more short-story collections, including What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), Cathedral (1983), and Elephant (published posthumously in 1988). Two compilations of Carver’s stories have also been published: Where I’m Calling From (1988) and Short Cuts: Selected Stories (1993). Hollywood director Robert Altman made a film version of Short Cuts in 1993.
Carver is known for his minimalist approach to prose, and for this reason he’s often compared to Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekhov. His short stories focus on middle-class, often blue-collar people who are struggling with hard truths, disappointments, inertia, and small glimmers of hope in their ordinary lives. Along with writers such as Ann Beattie and Tobias Wolff, Carver is considered a writer of the “dirty-realism” school. Carver’s short stories are also recognizable for their abrupt endings, sometimes called “zero endings,” which do not seem to tie up the story neatly, if at all. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is one of Carver’s most famous stories and often regarded as the epitome of the dirty-realism school.
Carver and his wife divorced in 1982, and Carver married his longtime girlfriend, writer Tess Gallagher, in 1988. They were married for only a few months before Carver died from lung cancer at age fifty. After his death, his editor, Gordon Lish, claimed that he edited Carver’s work so heavily that he should be considered a coauthor of the stories. Carver’s widow, Gallagher, similarly claimed ownership of Carver’s stories and said Carver had borrowed story ideas from her own work. Such accusations, however, have not tarnished Carver’s legacy, and he remains one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century.