Today I noticed the headline on the front page of the Globe and Mail: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Cottages." What grabbed my attention, aside from the fact that such a calm and inward-looking piece should be front page material, was that the "What We Talk About When We Talk About" schtick has become so ubiquitous that a national newspaper could reference it on the front page. The unspoken message seems to be "If you get the Raymond Carver reference you are going to like this article." This seemed an improbable idea to me at first but the more I thought about it the more fascinated I found it to think of the journey this quirky sequence of words has taken in the last three decades. I simply had to explore the question: How has the title of a Raymond Carver collection of short stories published over thirty years ago managed to become a recognizable turn of phrase?
It all began back in 1981 when Raymond Carver, the acknowledged living master of the American short story, (a title which, alas, brings about as much fame and fortune to the one it is bestowed upon as does the title of World's Greatest Fooseball Player) wrote a story called "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Undoubtedly this would have made no impression on the general public except that the collection in which this story appeared also bore the same name. There is something so good about this title - the rhythm is almost hypnotic and it forces the reader to slow down and really think about the meaning of the sentence: that we are going to get to the truthful heart of the subject that we have, until now, only been talking around. That the subject is love makes it all the more compelling. It is an undeniably great title and one that sticks in the mind for a long time.
Carver wrote in a style often labeled "minimalist" or "realist" or, if you are really into labels, "minimal realism". In short, he has a writer who didn't use two words where one word would suffice and this produced an effect that everything in the story mattered—there is a concentration in the style that demands the concentration of the reader. He was also a remarkably consistent writer—the level of excellence in his early stories was pretty much equal to his later work. You can pick up any of his books and find yourself reading superior fiction. There are no bad Carver books but if you are looking for a place to start why not check out the book we are talking about?
Carver was a critic's darling and his work was much admired by other writers and students who wanted to impress people with the quality of fiction they read (I was just such a student in the 1980's) but he didn't make a deep impression on the general public. His books sold moderately well, but his chosen form—the short story—was terribly out of fashion. It still is. He made a great impression on the generation of writers to follow not only in America but all over the world. One such writer who openly sites Carver as a model is the superstar of world literature Haruki Murakami. At first glance the surrealistic fiction of Murakami bears little resemblance to the realism of Carver, but Murakami was a very impressed with the obvious craftsmanship of Carver's writing. In fact Murakami was such a big fan of Carver that he felt compelled to translate some of his idol's stories into Japanese. In 2008, when Murakami needed to come up with a title for his non-fiction book about running it seemed natural that he should settle upon "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running." The Murakami title not only pays homage to Carver but it hints at the connection between running and writing and this connection is the main theme of the book. In fact you don't have to be a runner at all to enjoy this excellent book.
Last year Nathan Englander released a collection of short stories titled "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." This title neatly sums up a lot about Nathan Englander; he is both an "intellectual" (hence the Carver allusion) and a smarty pants (hence the way he uses the allusion). Nathan Englander is not afraid to offend and is willing to be controversial to make a point. Not only does he borrow Carver's title, he follows the plot of the Carver story in his own version. In the original Carver story two couples are disscussing the topic of love while drinking gin. As they all get increasingly less inhibited (drunk) they let more and more deeply gaurded thoughts and feelings escape until, inevitably, it goes too far. In the Englander version the two couples are Jews living in Florida and the topic is not love but who among their Christian friends would save them if there was an American Holocaust. I confess I have not read this collection yet but I did read his earlier short story collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" and can recommend it to anyone who is not easily offended.
Just last month saw the release of a book By Noah Richler called "What We Talk About When We Talk About War." I have not read this book yet, but it seems to me that the title is meant to be completely un-ironic. Like the original Carver title, it is simply meant to imply a "cutting through the bologna" and getting to the heart of the matter. In this case Richler is examining the long held idea that Canadian troops are "peace keepers" rather than "war makers."
This "straight up" use of the Carver title signals that the whole phrase is now part of the common lexicon we all use. Don't be surprised to hear people start saying "What are we talking about when we talk about hockey?" or "books" or "freedom" or just about any topic in which we need to cut through all the noise and get to the truth.