Dispatches | September 23, 2004

[By Michael P. Kardos]

In 1981 Raymond Carver published a book of short stories called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The stories in this collection cemented Carver’s reputation as the leading practitioner of a minimalist, hyper-realistic style and as an important American author for his approach to writing about Postwar, blue-collar suburbia. The book’s title story begins, “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” Two couples sit in the kitchen, drinking gin and telling stories that raise such fundamental questions as What is love? and Why are love and pain so closely intertwined? They sit and drink and talk as the afternoon turns to evening, until all the gin is gone and the narrator reflects, “I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a first-rate story, the kind to be read again and again, and its title perfectly conveys how we humans choose indirection and diversion when our deepest emotions are at stake.

Probably there was a small window of time when a scholar could have written an academic article of some sort and, wittily, titled it similarly to Carver’s own title. John Alton did precisely this in 1988 when he published “What We Talk About When We Talk About Literature: An Interview with Raymond Carver.” And the title of W. M. Verhoeven’s 1995 article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Raymond Carver; or, Much Ado About Minimalism,” if not radiantly droll, is at least fitting and mildly clever. A little harder to justify is the title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Hemingway,” which in 1997 appeared in The Hemingway Review. Granted, a great deal about Carver’s prose style can be traced back to Hemingway. Moreover, the article concerns the “talk” of students in the college classroom. Still. We are stretching things. And what about an article published the same year called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ebonics”?

Trysh Travis’s 2000 article “What We Talk About When We Talk About The New Yorker” makes a bit of sense given Carver’s place in that magazine’s literary history. But what about the philosophic/scientific article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Causality” or the article titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Spirituality and Recovery”?

Or Salon.com’s coverage of Jennifer Love Hewitt, titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Breasts”?

Has Jennifer Love Hewitt even read Carver? Have her breasts?

My favorite example of Carver’s title stretched beyond all sense of sense is a 1993 essay published by the good people of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers called “What we talk about when we talk about Technical Communication.”

No. My favorite is a 2001 book—a book!—about the U.S. economy titled The Greenspan Variations: What We Talk About When We Talk About Alan. (Shockingly, the book is out of print.)

A 1997 dissertation from the University of Amsterdam is titled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Knowledge Accessibility Effects.” What department would that even be?

A quick on-line search brought up the following: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Tenure”; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Music”; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Football”; “What We Talk About When We Talk About Property Rights.”

The worst offender, though—worst because these people ought to know better—has to be the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s January, 2000 article “What We Talk About When We Talk About Discourse.” Dear people of the Chronicle of Higher Education: You can’t make the word “discourse” exciting. Even talk about Jennifer Love Hewitt’s breasts, when described as discourse, is a yawner.

Raymond Carver has been blamed posthumously for writing stories that appear deceptively simple, thus causing many writers to pen “Carveresque” fiction that lacks his particular complexity and intelligence. It isn’t fair to blame the deceased writer for this phenomenon. No, if you’re going to blame Carver for something, then blame him for coming up with such a catchy, catch-all title, which scholars from across the academic galaxy have swooped in and appropriated for their own unrelated ends in feeble but ultimately doomed attempts at meta-cleverness.

After two decades, Carver’s collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is as vital as ever. The title, however, should be left alone already. As far as I can tell, there is exactly one use left. Were you to write an article that specifically analyzes either the short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” or the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, then you have my full blessing to title your article “What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

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