Reading into a Writer’s Life: James Carver wants to set some things straight about his brother Raymond

Any literary magazine that names itself after the famous and revered writer Raymond Carver can’t fail to notice the in-depth biographical essay making the rounds of the internet (here at Electric Literature). The essay is part remembrance, part celebration, but it also in large part seeks to clear up what James Carver calls significant “misconceptions” about his brother Raymond’s life. In essence, it is an attempt to separate the man from the myth, if that is even possible to do.

We here at Carve champion what we call “honest fiction” — a testimony we proclaim in all-caps right beneath our name on the cover of the magazine, and while there’s a shred of the oxymoronic embedded in that motto, it seems like the perfect time to consider such a tagline in light of James Carver’s desire to correct his brother’s fictions and tell the definitive truth about the author’s life and their shared childhood. And so we are prompted to ask, how can a thing (or a story) be both a falsehood (fiction) and yet true (honest) at the same time?

In the bulk of the first half of the essay, James Carver builds up a case that their childhood was essentially a stable and happy one, in contrast to many of the Raymond's own statements over his lifetime (Raymond Carver died in 1988). James emphasizes their clean and pressed clothes, their mother’s good grammar, and idyllic fishing trips as evidence that they did not come from downtrodden, rough-and-tumble beginnings:

“All one has to do is look at the hundreds of photographs taken of him, especially the ones when he was very young, at the time when our parents were their poorest, to see how well cared-for he was. You won’t see a better-dressed child.”

As if appearances were all that mattered in family dynamics. What this line of reasoning fails to consider, however, is the possibility that their childhoods may have been incredibly different from one another without the other one being aware. Anyone who has seen the famous movie Rashomon, which explores multiple, contradictory perspectives of the same incident, knows that perception does not equal reality. That James may have enjoyed a happy childhood and that his older brother Raymond may have endured a troubling one are not mutually exclusive.

I recently (just this past week, in fact), had just such a reckoning with my own sister, who is incidentally also five years older than me, same as Raymond was to James. I had published a short story that week and mentioned offhand on social media that some of the stranger fringe details of the story were actually true from my own life. In particular, the protagonist was a daycare provider whose husband was a limo driver who was also in prison for some sort of monetary crime (I was in kindergarten at the time my own daycare provider was in this predicament). My sister expressed extreme skepticism regarding the veracity of that particular detail, implying that I must have made that part up — she would have remembered something so outlandish. I didn’t particularly care if it was true or not — I was writing fiction after all — but I did come to doubt my own memory given her reaction. I decided to check with my mother, who confirmed that the woman’s husband had been a banker and went to prison for embezzlement, and he became a limo driver when he got out of prison. When I reiterated the facts to my sister, all she could do was shake her head in astonishment and say, “Where was I?” But she was ten and I was five and we occupied entirely different spheres; we might as well have had different parents for the very different life stages of theirs we experienced. While I was in our backyard woods making leaf-and-acorn tacos for imaginary friends, my sister was doing her bangs with a curling iron and listening to Bon Jovi in her bedroom. Sure, we lived at the same address, we ate some meals together each day, we spoke — even played — on occasion, but that was about it. We might as well have been neighbors to the degree that our intimate lives overlapped.

All writers of both poetry and fiction steal bits and pieces from "real life" to use in their work, and when certain thematic elements reoccur, readers might be tempted to consider them autobiographical. But this conflates a writer’s preoccupations with his experiences, a steep and slippery slope to traverse. In the essay, James eventually takes to pointing out the untruths in his brother’s writing, especially the stories that were supposedly inspired by real people or life events, intending for us to take these falsehoods (or more accurately, inconsistencies) as proof of the writer’s own tendency to embellish and flat-out lie about his own life:

“Many of his stories were based on personal experiences and the characters were drawn from people he knew, including his family. However, little of what he wrote was factual. He would alter details to make the story suit his own creative purposes.”

And the writer in me thought: Yes! The man wrote fiction! When we try to read into and interpret an author’s own credibility or overall honesty relative to his tendency to omit or modify specific information in a story based ostensibly on “real life,” we utterly negate the potential for art-making as the writer's primary motive. Sure, writers write to explore our beginnings, but they more often write to transcend them. Writers also write to contemplate the horrors that might have been or almost were.

James also writes that one biographer in particular, Carol Scklenicka, is the only one who got it “right” about his brother, but a cursory look at her book Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life also reveals similar attempts to extrapolate the author’s life story from his fictional writing. She writes of Carver's late poem, “The Kitchen,” and claims that in it Raymond imagines an explicit scenario of his father with another woman. She goes on to quote and analyze some lines from the poem, and finally she concludes: 

“Evidence of [his father’s] extramarital life may be impossible to come by, but one thing is clear: the very idea of his father’s infidelity and his mother’s violent reactions to it invoked treacherous images and feelings for Carver.”

It’s true that the poem is in the first person in the perspective of a child walking in on his father with another woman, but why must we assume that the speaker is young Raymond? Since when has poetry become entirely autobiographical, and since when has the first person speaker of a poem always been interpreted as the author? In his essay, James claims that his brother Raymond was a terrible father and had several extramarital affairs during his first marriage. Why not assume he wrote this poem from his own child’s point of view walking in on him? Ms. Scklenicka cites no interview in which Raymond explains his motives for that poem, so we can only assume those conclusions are her own. I am a mother who sometimes writes fiction about children, and sometimes the stories are tangentially inspired by my children, sometimes they are tangentially inspired by my own childhood, and many times they are inspired by no one I’ve ever met — that’s what imagination is for. If writers could only write about their own experiences, stories (and poems) would be terribly narcissistic and terrifically dull, literary navel-gazing at its worst.

And so what are we at Carve trying to get at when we say we are fierce advocates of “honest fiction”? James writes in the latter part of his essay,

“Ray embellished his childhood in interviews as well as in writings. He misrepresented facts, making our home life seem worse than it was. Perhaps he wanted to make his climb to fame appear more remarkable, or perhaps alcohol abuse clouded his memory.”

Of course, I have never met the man and couldn’t weigh in one way or another. I have no stake in what is “true” here, but perhaps there is a different possibility. Perhaps Raymond Carver didn’t share the happy childhood his brother remembers. Perhaps the arguments and slights and alcoholism happened behind closed doors, out of sight and earshot of young tender James. Perhaps the adults did those things while James was out riding his bike and Raymond was in his bedroom with his nose in a book and his ear to the wall, thinking about how he’d work all this into a story someday, though he’d probably have to tweak it to make it a little more interesting, a little more true to life.

That’s honest fiction: Stories that take us where we ourselves haven’t been, where maybe we don’t even want to go, but the author has done the work and gone there for us — maybe really and truly, or maybe only in his mind — and then returned to tell us what he’s seen.