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Biographers

It’s not unusual for biographers to take ten years to research and write a book. They are patient and meticulous people who, in my experience, have smaller egos than the writers they are studying. Yet, the books they write often become seminal and long lasting, referred to, with thanks, by subsequent biographers, and glued to the shelves in every literary scholar’s library for as long as the shelves remain standing.

I’ve just finished reading Carol Sklenicka’s outstanding biography of Raymond Carver and went to hear her speak at a Barnes & Noble in New York on January 4th. She began the project ten years ago when she was teaching freshman composition at Marquette University. She liked Carver’s stories and searched for a biography of him, but there was none. And so she got to work. She interviewed everyone still alive who knew him, read all the archival material, and all the extant drafts of the stories and poems.

In a way, it is a miracle that Raymond Carver created a body of work that is so memorable and so important in the history of the American short story. He was very ill with alcohol for much of his writing life and, when he got sober in 1977, he kept himself medicated with marijuana. But he was also driven and disciplined, more so, of course, when he got sober and then met the poet, Tess Gallagher, who became his second wife. They were a productive writing couple to the end of Carver’s too-short life. She now controls his literary estate.

As for the biographer herself, she’s a very good writer. The book is a page turner and reads like a novel. All the sordid details—pernicious alcoholism, abandonment of Carver’s first wife and children in his will, the “usurpation” of Carver’s early stories by his Esquire editor, Gordon Lish—are in the book, as well as a clear analysis of the stories themselves. Was he a minimalist? A dirty realist? No, Sklenicka says, a better word would be “precisionist.”

The collected stories have now been re-issued on acid free paper in a Modern Library edition. I’ve bought it for my “physical” library. Many are the original worked versions of the stories before Gordon Lish appropriated them. I’m reading one a day and savoring their genius. Carol Sklenicka’s book is also by my side, in my Kindle.


http://www.amazon.com/Raymond-Carver-Writers-Carol-Sklenicka/dp/074326245X


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