My sister gave me Raymond Carver's Cathedral for my birthday. It's a terrific collection of short stories which focuses on characters who are not normally the stuff of great literature.
Let's face it: top notch writing usually focuses on characters who lead lives far different than our own. Hamlet is a prince. Ahab, a sea captain. Holden Caufield, a prep school runaway. Gatsby, a gangster. The list of classic characters with colorful backgrounds goes on and on.
Carver, on the other hand, focuses on people who struggle to pay the bills, people who lead humble lives, people who battle endlessly to make it to the next pay check. It's a tough feat to accomplish, yet Carver does it masterfully, again and again and again.
Of course, Carver is mostly famous for writing in a wonderfully minimalist style. The man's ability to make seemingly mundane characters colorful, however, is extraordinary.
Perhaps that's because Carver himself came from something of a humble background. Besides writing, the man was also a sawmill worker and janitor. Successfully battling his alcoholism, he managed to earn acclaim normally reserved for those of more “respectable” backgrounds.
Literature can be a notoriously elitist artistic endeavor. This has especially been true since the 20th century, when the likes of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce made great writing alienating to many who lacked a classical education. Carver repudiated the belief that serious writing should only be available to a select few.
Anyone who feels literature is only for English majors and academics should give Carver a try. Rather than reading like a foreign language, Carver's style is accessible to everyone — and is just as high quality as the best of them.