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Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
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A Writer’s Life

A-RaymondCarverBiographer and literary critic Carol Sklenicka’s previously published D. H. Lawrence and the Child (1991) examined the English novelist’s influence on child psychology and children’s literature in the 19th century. In Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, the first comprehensive biography written about Carver, she sheds new light on the brilliant but self-destructive American master and his stories.

The Topic: Dubbed "America’s Chekhov," celebrated short story writer Raymond Carver once confided that, in literature, "everything we write is, in some way, autobiographical." The ambitious son of a working-class family, Carver mined his own tormented life—plagued by alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence, infidelity, and depression—for inspiration. "He would learn to use stories as a tool for emotional survival," explains Sklenicka. The act of writing would become "a means for negotiating the terrifying waters of his own psyche." Sklenicka painstakingly maps out his short, hard life—from his childhood in Yakima, Washington, through his struggles to regain artistic control of his work to his death by lung cancer in 1988 at the age of 50—using his experiences as a springboard to understanding his oeuvre.
Scribner. 592 pages. $35.00. ISBN: 9780743262453

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] superb biography of the late 20th century’s most famous and imitated short story writer. … [Sklenicka] spent 10 years on this compassionate, riveting, page-turner of a biography and it shows with its fluent prose, meticulous research and multitudinous interviews with Carver’s hundreds of friends." Ron Hansen

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Carol Sklenicka’s meticulously researched, sharply analytical biography never denies Carver his talent, but it also sheds ample light on larger literary forces that shaped his career. … Carver’s is a redemption story, but Sklenicka wisely resists sentimentalizing it, neither damning Lish nor deifying Carver." Mark Athitakis

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s as a chronicle of Carver’s growth as a writer that Sklenicka’s book is invaluable, particularly after his career path crossed that of the editor Gordon Lish, the self-styled ‘Captain Fiction.’ Any readers who doubt Lish’s baleful influence on the stories in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ are apt to think differently after reading Sklenicka’s eye-opening account of this difficult and ultimately poisonous relationship." Stephen King

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Sklenicka goes well beyond connecting dots between incidents in Carver’s life and his stories: She analyzes the connection as a way of understanding the man and his work. … It’s to Sklenicka’s credit, and a testament to the credibility of her book, that regardless of who did cooperate with her research (and the list is astoundingly complete), the biographer doesn’t play favorites." David Wiegand

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Sklenicka succeeds in detailing Carver’s life with a prose that is spare, but mostly effective. Her book works best when she explains the links between Carver’s life and work, and she makes her reader want to reread Carver, looking for more clues." Charles R. Cross

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Sklenicka belabors the framing of Carver’s life with explanatory primers on popular history or the nature of alcoholism as a disease—passages that informed readers will want to skip—she also illuminates the fiction with the life." DeWitt Henry

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The damage done to his family and finances by those decades as a drunk is a far lengthier focus of Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life than the stories for which he’s best known." Susan Comninos

Critical Summary

"Not merely a great biography, but often an astute critical assessment of Carver’s writing as well" (San Francisco Chronicle), Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life breaks new ground by tying the significant events of Carver’s life to his stories and then using those connections as a means of studying both the man and his work. Though the Christian Science Monitor took issue with Sklenicka’s focus on the unsavory details of the author’s private life, critics were generally satisfied with Sklenicka’s scrupulous research and analysis, recognizing that these same details informed the better part of Carver’s luminous fiction. Without diminishing Sklenicka’s astute examination, this incisive and "grimly compelling" (Seattle Times) biography’s greatest achievement will be sending readers back to the bookshelf to rediscover Carver for themselves.

Supplemental Reading

Cathedral | Raymond Carver (1983): Generally considered to be Carver’s best collection of short stories, Cathedral will reacquaint readers with such masterpieces as "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I’m Calling From."