Mark Twain's famous aphorism, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bugs" can be applied to writers.
The difference between the stories of Raymond Carver and those who write like Raymond Carver is about 4 million volts.He, like Twain, was an American original.
Raymond Carver died from lung cancer at age 50 recently. He left at the top of his form.
In his 50 years Carver went from being an American writer to being a real presence in American literature. But he always lived at the heart of controversy. Some say he single-handedly made short stories respectable again. Others claim his pared down, no-begining-no-ending style corrupted a generation of writers.
Probably both to some degree. The freshest writers scramble all other writing around them.
I've reviewed Carver's books over the years, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," "Cathedral," "Will You Please Be Quiet Please." My feelings about his work have been rather generous, with some serious reservations. One theme runs through all the books, however. Carver's characters tend to take refuge in everything but each other. And the prose was always resilient and fragile as glass.
Back in 1982 the University of Utah brought Carver to Salt Lake City for a reading, and photographer Paul Barker and I spent part of an afternoon with him. Being a Western boy (born and raised in the Pacific Northwest) Carver had an affinity for the region and spoke freely about his life here and his work.
"I really believe in rewriting," he said. "Take a look at the galley proofs of Tolstoy. He was making changes on the galleys right down to the moment of publication. He rewrote `War and Peace' six times. Frank O'Connor rewrites his stories 30 and 40 times.
"I tend to write a whole story out in one sitting, longhand. It takes about 15 hours. I don't want it hanging over my head. Then I shelve it and go on to something else. When I begin rewriting I usually cut. I cut the title story for `What We Talk About . . .' from 40 pages to 22, for instance."
Much of the give and take of the interview didn't get into my notebook. And though I don't remember every specific comment, I remember feeling I was talking to an honest man. He was a writer with a genuine vision. And there are few of those around.
At the time I wished I'd taken a tape recorder. Today I wish so even more. For posterity.
Raymond Carver's stature as an American writer will do nothing but grow.