The gist is simple enough: two married couples down some gin and dish about love over the course of an afternoon in late summer or early fall.
What they talk about though is anything but simple.
In addition to giving us a few spare doses of the hearts-and-flowers variety of love, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" tosses violence, hatred, depression, and alcoholism in our laps, all in an effort to suss out what love is, and why we bother. See? Anything but simple.
What makes Raymond Carver's dark yet heartwarming story even more interesting is that there are two versions of it (and the other stories in the collection) floating around. This 1981 story was heavily edited and cut by Carver's editor Gordon Lish, and much of these changes were against Carver's will.
In a letter to Lish, Carver begs him not to publish the edited versions. He says,
Now, I'm afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that's how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being…
Please help me with this, Gordon. I feel as if this is the most important decision I've ever been faced with [...]. (Source, July 8, 1980 letter.)
Luckily Carver did survive the publication of the collection in that form and went on to write more and more stories. But the point remains: he was willing to give back his advance money and scrap the whole book deal, rather than have his stories published in the form we are mostly likely to see them in today.
That makes us ache for him a little and also makes us super curious about the original version of the story. As master of horror Stephen King argues in his essay on this controversy, it's up to each reader to decide which version of each story is better.
Lucky for us, there's a Library of America volume that includes both versions of most of his stories.
So why the controversy in the first place? We like to think it might have something to do with the very nature of Carver's story, which is that we're all beginners at love, and therefore, we can't ever really understand what we talk about when we talk about love. We can try as we might, but love is elusive, confusing, and messy messy messy. Good thing there's gin involved—for all you 21-and-overs.
Because you want to know what we talk about when we talk about love. Come on, who doesn't?
Romantic love, that mysterious thing that puts butterflies in our stomachs and makes our hearts beat too fast and too slow, all at the same time, is front and center in Raymond Carver's short story. And you care about love, don't you?
Of course, if you care about love, you could just drive your butt to the nearest movie theater and watch whatever rom-com the studios have most recently churned out. You'll get the same old story: boy meets girl, boy messes it up, boy gets girl back.
But if you're headed for Carver territory, you're headed for rougher waters, deeper seas. That's because in this story, what we talk about when we talk about love isn't all hearts and flowers. It's ugly at times—dark and depressing. It's not always uplifting, and there's no big movie kiss at the end.
Still, no matter how many times we've seen You've Got Mail (and trust us, it's a lot; we here at Shmoop are suckers for Meg Ryan), we can't help but think that there's a messier, more gin-soaked side to love that we're missing. And if you want to see that messier side, look no further than "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."