Carlson was born in Logan, Utah, and grew up in Salt Lake City. He received a masters degree in English from the University of Utah. He then taught at The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where he began his first novel.He became a professor of English at Arizona State University in 1985, teaching creative writing to undergraduates and graduates, and ultimately becoming director of its Creative Writing Program. Carlson currently teaches at the University of California, Irvine.
His short stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, and GQ.In addition to his fiction, Carlson's has also written for The New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
He wrote of his first "good" story: "I did not understand my story; many times you don’t. It’s not your job to understand or evaluate or edit your work when you first emerge from it. Your duty is to be in love with it, and that defies explanation." (Ron Carlson Writes A Story)
The short story "Keith", from The Hotel Eden, was adapted into a film by Todd Kessler (2008). The independent movie starred, among others, Jesse McCartney and Elisabeth Harnois.
He has received a number of honors and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, a National Society of Arts and Letters Literature Award, and the 1993 Ploughshares Cohen Prize.