A significant American poet and short story writer associated with the late 20th-century minimalism and dirty realism movements, he is known for works such as Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), Cathedral (1983), and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981).
He attended Humboldt State College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He published his first short story collection, Near Klamath, in 1968.
He won numerous O. Henry Awards for short stories such as Put Yourself in My Shoes (1974), A Small, Good Thing (1983), and Errand (1988). His short story Why Don't You Dance was made into the 2010 film, Everything Must Go, starring Will Ferrell.
His first wife, Maryann Burk Carver, detailed their failed marriage in a 2006 memoir. His second wife, Tess Gallagher, was also a poet.
He was influenced by the work of Russian short story writer and playwright, Anton Chekhov.