Back in 2020, I listed “The Most Important Novels in My Life” (including a couple of short story collections). I stated my goal of re-reading these twenty-five books to discover my top ten. I’ve bailed on ever being able to pick a top ten, but I’ve re-read most of the books on my list and just finished Raymond Carver’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, originally published in 1981. I got lucky enough to snag a copy one day at Dove & Hudson Bookstore in downtown Albany when Owen and I were perusing the shelves.
First of all: Wow, what a title! It’s one of the most famous literary titles of our era. It has been copied by others: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Nathan Englander). What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat (Aubrey Gordon). What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Rob Bell). The expression “What we talk about when we talk about (fill in the blank)” has become a common cultural lead-in.
As long and repetitive as the title may be, the stories themselves are spare and bare, so simple on the surface that after finishing a story, I asked: How did he do that?
Carver’s minimalist style changed the way American short stories were written. His lean prose and understated approach were imitated by writers everywhere, including by yours truly in my nascent years as a writer. (Pro tip for aspiring writers: imitate your best and favorite writers, and from that amalgam your own voice and style can emerge.)
Carver’s stories are often bleak renderings of fractured love, failed finances, and ruined lives among the blue-collar cohort of his native Pacific Northwest. Some critics have called this type of fiction dirty realism. But Carver writes with such compassion for his characters that we can’t help but experience empathy. We are different than them, but we share the same plights. We understand: that life is like this. His themes are universal.
Carver took a nuanced and open-ended approach to storytelling. Endings are often abrupt and ambiguous, worthy of interpretation (so that’s where I get my love of ambiguous endings—See: Stash. Or: In Flight). This lack of tidy closure was new to the short story.
Most of the stories are heavy on dialog and short on plot. The magnificent title story takes place entirely at a kitchen table, with two couples drinking gin and tonics and discussing the nature of love, and finding themselves, despite their endless talk and impassioned attempts, unable to articulate what love really means. It’s one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.