Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot. 

Influences - OK, Carver

Raymond Carver's influence on the modern short story form is undeniable, and his ghost still haunts the current creative writing classroom, although from what I can glean from the all-mighty interwebs, his influence in literary circles is perhaps on the wane.

For those unfamiliar with Carver's work, he is a short story writer whose dominant years were the late 70s through the late 80s. Carver only wrote short stories, and he typically used the Pacific Northwest as his backdrop. He is most often associated with the term 'minimalism' which is both a problematic term and a faulty literary movement. But let's say that most of his fiction, under the influence of his editor Gordon Lish, attempted to show as much about its subjects through what was not on the page as the words that were printed there.

Minimalism is the literary equivalent of a painter using negative space to create an image, if that makes sense. 

My own intersection with Carver's works began when I studied under Richard Cortez Day while attending Humboldt State University. Carver too studied under Day before Carver migrated with his family to Chico State where he apprenticed under John Gardner. As a beginning writer, I was presented with Carver's stories as exemplary artifacts of the short literary form. That Carver was a 'native son' increased his significance.

The problem is that bad Carver is really bad, and for all the writing contests that try to mimic for laughs what we'll call 'Bad Hemingway' there could be just as many contests for 'Bad Carver.' His style almost demands mockery.

The shameful reality is that Carver himself was as hemmed in by his own growing literary legacy as the rest of us. In her excellent biography of Carver titled Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, Carol Sklenicka unpacks the complicated Carver/Lish relationship and portrays Lish as the proponent (perhaps even culprit) of a minimalist style that sometimes pared so much of Carver's text away, meaning was lost. My personal favorite passage from the book is this quote from writer Charles Baxter, who kept a copy of the Lish-dominated What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on his desk as "an example of what I did not want to do....I loved the book. But I hated it too."

Baxter was brave enough to articulate what readers and writers alike feel when taking in the early Carver stories: there's something off about them. A quality that to me almost smacks of cheating. As if Carver didn't quite do all the work. It's not that excess verbiage was cut away, it's that the essential soul of a given piece was brutally hacked off. We know how much Carver struggled to get his work done, what with his family commitments and his alchoholism, and we know that he at least fantasized about writing novels and other longer works, but some of the early stories feel undone, incomplete, dashed off, and there's this Emperor's New Clothes aspect where as the reader you feel like you are agreeing that a given story is great because that's what your professors and fellow students are telling you to feel.

Reservations aside, Carver is a great writer, and his literary reputation is deserved. There is no denying that he had his share of masterpieces: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral, Where I'm Calling From,  Errand. These are works that can stand with the best stories ever written, and they are the stories I reflect on as influencing my own development as a writer. When an artist can pair kitchen-sink realism with the transcendent, as Carver does with wonderful grace in Cathedral, well, that's all I need as both reader and writer.

I just wish, and I know that I'm not alone in this, that he we had gotten so much more from Carver before his death in 1988.  The works he did leave us are not enough.