Influences of Feminism and Class on Raymond Carver’s Short Stories

Topics: Working class, Feminism, Social class Pages: 25 (8556 words) Published: September 25, 2013
The Raymond Carver Review 2

Influences of Feminism and Class
on Raymond Carver’s Short Stories
Vanessa Hall, New York City College of Technology, CUNY
Class—economic circumstance; problems of
being in the first generation of one’s family
to come to writing—its relationship to works
of literature: the great unexamined.
—Tillie Olsen, Silences 288
In the essay “Fires” (1982), Raymond Carver writes about the difficulty of “pin[ning] down with any…certainty” the influences on his writing, even as he recalls the diverse nature of these influences: influences that include the more traditionally discussed literary influences such as writing mentors and favorite authors; important but transient encounters that became grist or “suggestions” for his writing, like a menacing phone call or a terse remark; and finally, the “ferocious years of parenting” that he believed were the greatest influence on his writing (28, 34). Carver struggles to describe why he believes parenting itself—it’s notable here that he doesn’t mention poverty, alcoholism, or even marriage—is the center of gravity around which many of his creative efforts will be flattened for years. That he figures his greatest influence as negative, and that he figures parenting largely as an absence, as a series of deprivations and distractions, provides a potentially productive inroad into an examination of the relationship between one’s creativity and life experiences, as embedded in a unique social and cultural context. Years before Carver published “Fires,” Tillie Olsen published the essay “Silences” in Harper’s Magazine (1965, originally delivered in 1962), an essay about

Vanessa Hall: Influences of Feminism and Class 54

The Raymond Carver Review 2
how the circumstance of most lives preclude artistic creativity. She later included this essay in a collection of creative essays; this became the feminist classic Silences. This collection explores the nature of literary silences, extensively documenting the experienced agony of work interrupted for various life circumstances, even amongst the most esteemed writers. An essential part of Olsen’s argument is that creativity is an integral part of human identity, which scars and stultifies human growth when interrupted or silenced. Particularly invested in answering the question of why women are so underrepresented in literature, Olsen posits that women are “traditionally trained to place others’ needs first,” thereby lacking the necessary self focus to create time and space to cultivate their writing (35). Lack of confidence, or belief that one has anything worthwhile to say, or the right to say it, are part of the lacking inner “needs of creation” (46): Olsen reminds us that “Chekhov (a first-generation) [and one of Carver’s greatest writer-influences] called becoming a writer, ‘squeezing the serf out of one’s soul’” (288). Class, as Chekov and Carver attest, as well as race, as Olsen also argues, are also obstacles to creativity. Being a member of the nondominant class, race, or gender means one rarely has access to the time and resources necessary to cultivate creativity, or is able to find validation of a “different sense of reality” and the confidence to express one’s own perspective” (88). Although his writing and educational needs came first in his relationship with Maryann Burk Carver, 1 Carver’s class—both his and his wife’s need for employment—prevented him from being comfortably cushioned from the demands of daily domestic life, the “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction” he found almost unbearably frustrating (33).

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The Raymond Carver Review 2
While Carver’s representation of working-class characters is lauded in discussion of his stories, both critical and popular, it is notable that his writing is never examined in relation to the writing of one of the most visible literary figures of his time who also became renowned for her...

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