Perhaps the best way to take a writer’s measure is to assess his influence on other writers, but if that’s the yardstick, one feels compelled to make an exception of the late Raymond Carver (1938–88), who probably wrote the single most influential—and overrated—short story collection of our time, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). This is the sacred text of “minimalism,” a loose literary movement that turned whole shelves of stories and novels by a generation of workshop-trained writers into an attenuated series of hints, shrugs, and murmurs. At his best, writing about his banged-up, hard-drinking, sweet-souled dramatis personae, Carver could startle and move a reader. But less is not always more, and thanks to his spell, an appreciable chunk of the now-past century went underchronicled by some of our potentially best writers.
More isn’t always more, either, and John O’Hara (1905–70), an altogether different realist, could have practiced more portion control when it came to filling up such hulking novels as From the Terrace (1958). But when he forced himself to work short—the novella was his perfect form; see the three in Sermons and Soda Water —he was unsurpassed as a documentarian of speech, social gradation, and fashions (in morals as well as clothes). Not always wise, but never less than knowing, this once well-regarded writer—now the deadest, whitest, malest of them all—is arguably the most underrated writer on (no, off) the syllabus. We tend to dismiss skills we can’t duplicate, and American literature has yet to find O’Hara’s equal when it comes to eye and ear and smarts.