Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka
All art mirrors life to a certain extent, but to what degree is examining an author’s life and experiences crucial to gaining insight into their work? In the case of Raymond Carver, who drew directly from his life for writing material, having the details of this life/literature correlative thoroughly hashed out—thanks to Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustive research—makes for engaging reading. However, far more insightful is being able to bear witness to the sacrifices Carver and his family (particularly his first wife, Maryann) made in pursuing his writing career. Alcoholism, violence, neglect, poverty—all were a part of Carver negotiating his life as a writer. Carver made many destructive choices out of desperation, choices that not only undermined much of what he’d worked for but, at times, nearly destroyed his life and those closest to him. He privileged his writing over the needs of his family, and, yet, when it was a question of first getting published, Carver willingly compromised his voice and vision. (The detailed, complex saga of his relationship with the editor Gordon Lish is one of the more fascinating aspects of this book.) Living such a life of contradiction ultimately propelled him straight to the bottom of a bottle.
But this is also a story of redemption, at least somewhat. Carver manages to finally quit drinking, and it’s hard not see the immense success that follows—both in terms of fame and the quality of his writing—as a reward for this struggle. In the last decade of his life, Carver often counted his blessings, acknowledging that he’d been incredibly lucky. It’s tempting, then, to view his life’s story as a triumph, and, in many ways, it is. But Sklenicka reminds us that many of those that sacrificed tremendously for Carver were, in significant ways, left behind. In the end, it’s Maryann’s life that mirrors those of Carver’s characters far more closely than his own.
Returning to the initial question: how does all of this affect the reading of Carver’s work? Often, when discussing art, the reasons for/against a work depend far too much on the character of the artist. In Carver’s case, where art and life are particularly intertwined, it is easy to let his personal successes and failures color our views of his writing. I’d argue for a more nuanced reading, appreciating, first and foremost, the quality of his craft. One can do this without condoning Carver’s actions, and his work really is deserving of our continued attention. But it’s also important to admit that art does not exist in a vacuum and that some of the greatest works arise from personal conflict and hard won experience. Realizing this can add meaningful context to the work and offer a much deserved understanding and respect for the labor and sacrifice of everyone who played a role in Carver’s journey as a writer. Sklenicka’s biography offers just such an opportunity to more fully examine Carver’s life and work.