“Please do the necessary things to stop production of the book.”
October 17, 2007 8:51 AM   Subscribe

"“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.” The New York Times reported today that Raymond Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, is pushing to republish the stories in Carver's acclaimed 1981 breakout collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," in their original, unedited form.

Carver's editor at the time, Gordon Lish, is acknowledged to have aggressively edited many stories this collection almost to the point of "a wholesale rewrite." The two examples provided of endings before and after the Lish edits [pdf; see pgs 5-7] raise unsettling questions.
posted by sock it to me monkey (25 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Oh Yoko.
posted by gwint at 9:05 AM on October 17, 2007

Astonishing. I had no idea. One of the pleasures of reading through Carver's oeuvre chronologically is feeling the almost claustrophobic minimalism of the early stories break out into the rich humanism of his later works. I will never forget the joy I felt the first time I read "A Small Good Thing". My pleasure as a reader encountering for the first time a well wrought tale was compounded greatly by the feeling that I was sharing, with Carver, in a sort of artistic and emotional breakthrough. To find out that this may have been the product of editorial artifice and Carver's own struggle for aesthetic autonomy...well...it changes things somewhat. I will be chewing on this for a while, I think.
posted by felix betachat at 9:07 AM on October 17, 2007

Yeah, I'm not sure what to make of this, either. I have really admired Carver's succinct portrayal of love, rage, anguish, and the like, and I have always thought of him as a writer who could hit the bullseye with a single, short phrase. I suppose that I would want to see the original, restored versions too, for comparison. And I would also not want to see them.

Jeez, this gives me the queasy feeling that I get when I read some of Carver's stories.
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 9:19 AM on October 17, 2007

Oh wow. Felix, I agree entirely, though I also quite enjoyed the minimalism of the early stories. I hope she's able to republish (and I suppose I'll be pulling down my New and Selected Stories and doing a little comparison myself...
posted by Barmecide at 9:24 AM on October 17, 2007

Strange. Carver is one of my favorites, and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is one of my favorite short story collections ever. This opens a whole paradox for me. I'll probably buy the book anyway, though.
posted by tiger yang at 9:46 AM on October 17, 2007

There seems to be conflicting stories all around, Mary Ann Burke, Carver's first wife wrote in her bio, What It Was Like, that Carver, much to her distress and disagreement (she supposedly called him a "Whore"), allowed Lish to heavily edit stories in the beginning. Carver's justification was that if it was what was needed to get them published than he didn't see much of a problem with it and that ultimately they were still his stories, and once he was established, he could have them reprinted in their original form.

But she also states that Where I'm Calling From is the definitive version of those stories as authorized by him.

I'm sure Tess Gallagher has Carver's best interests in mind and I suppose Prof. William Stull who worked on a selection of uncollected fiction and prose, Call if You Need Me , but it's hard to know who to believe. It's confusing that his later editor Gary Fisketjon would be opposed to the matter, but then again he's probably looking out for the interests of Knopf.

I think Knopf or an overseas publisher should publish the "original versions" and let readers decide. Also, another resource in the matter should be the back issues of the many many prestigious literary journals that printed his work before he got picked up.

Anyhow I don't much care for this sort of splitting of hairs so whatever happens happens. The Knopf collections are great and I still hold the man responsible for some of the best short stories ever written.
posted by Skygazer at 9:47 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been edited by Gordon Lish. He accepted a story of mine for his magazine The Quarterly, which promptly went under. We had a long, somewhat difficult phone conversation in which he told me which three-quarters of my story needed to get cut. He was right.
posted by escabeche at 9:56 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm conflicted. One of my favorite works is Eliot's The Waste Land, and if you examine (as I did in a graduate seminar) the annotated facsimile version of the original manuscripts, which were heavily -- one might say ruthlessly -- marked up and in some cases reorganized or redacted by Ezra Pound -- you see what an editor can do for a writer in making an almost-great work into a masterpiece.

This is not to say that every editor is of the caliber of Pound, but I have been skeptical ever since of the unfiltered "artist's vision" (or "director's cut", if you will). There are so many writers today who could use a good editor.

I am not as intimately familiar with Carver's work. In cases such as this one, I guess I would prefer that the value were seen in terms of examining the artist and his work in context, rather than one of discovering the "true" artist. If there is truly a line that List crossed in taking credit -- the way Woody Allen's editor once took credit for shaping Allen's messy filming practices into narratives -- that should be addressed specifically.
posted by dhartung at 10:02 AM on October 17, 2007

I'm sure Te$$ Gallagher ha$ Carver'$ be$t intere$t$ in mind, too
posted by matteo at 10:04 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not much hairsplitting in at least some of these stories--check out this excerpt comparison from the pdf file linked:

Raymond Carver's ending:
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.
“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.
It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.
“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”
“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.
The ending as edited by Gordon Lish in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.
He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”
But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

Given Carver's reputation as a groundbreaking minimalist....coupled with the fact that he was apparently quite upset by the extent of Lish's edits (and in fact ultimately broke with the editor over these kinds of issues), I find the whole thing very disturbing, as a Carver fan (or a Carver-Lish fan?).

Carver's warmer, more expansive work in his later years ("Cathedral", etc) was often credited to the personal and spiritual transformation he supposedly underwent after giving up the bottle and settling in with Gallagher. Now it seems like that may have been more of what Carver had been writing all along.
posted by sock it to me monkey at 10:23 AM on October 17, 2007

Here's the long piece from the New York Times Magazine from 1998 about Carver and Lish
posted by gwint at 10:19 AM on October 17

...That's actually the second link in this FPP (different web address, same article).
posted by sock it to me monkey at 10:27 AM on October 17, 2007

Whoops. Didn't look past "donswaim.com" My bad.
posted by gwint at 10:30 AM on October 17, 2007

I have really admired Carver's succinct portrayal of love, rage, anguish, and the like, and I have always thought of him as a writer who could hit the bullseye with a single, short phrase.

There's a moment at the end of Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes (near the beginning of Where I'm Calling from) that breaks my heart every time I read it. A boy and his father have just returned from a neighbor's house where, following a dispute among the boys about a stolen bicycle, the father gets into a fistfight with the neighboring man. They return and he's tucking his son into bed:
The boy rolled onto his side and watched his father walk to the door and watched him put his hand to the switch. And then the boy said, "Dad? You'll think I'm pretty crazy, but I wish I'd known you when you were little. I mean, about as old as I am right now. I don't know how to say it, but I'm lonesome about it. It's like—it's like I miss you already if I think about it now. That's pretty crazy, isn't it? Anyway please leave the door open."
It didn't resonate with me at all when I first read the story as a young man. Now, as the father of a daughter, I can't even think about it without crying. And I don't know why.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 10:36 AM on October 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

If no one is allowed to publish the "original" versions, I wonder if someone could get around the copyright laws by publishing a diff between the published and original files, and letting people reconstruct the original on their own.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:58 AM on October 17, 2007

The pre-Lish drafts of Carver's stories are a legitimate part of American Letters. That they haven't been released or published until this point is a mere matter, and if it wasn't Gallagher it would have been his estate or some literary sleuth at some other point in time. It isn't that it's not an emotional matter--Carver made casual readers into ardent ones, ardent readers into aspiring writers, and launched a distinctly American short story style that has been derivative in the hands of some and made new and wonderful in others. Carver's influence has necessarily woven into our understanding of it a certain mythology about the man and his work; I feel it is the editing of that mythology, not the actual release of alternative drafts of his works or of the work itself that rankles.

Mostly I am thinking, "what a gift." To have access to a complicating layer of Carver's work to learn from, to discuss, and to work with is a rare and soon to be completely missing treasure of belles letters. Contemporary writers seldom save their digitized drafts or exchange real letters with their editors. From the electronic desktop, previously worked ideas and earlier products die on email servers and in storage updates.

Just because it is hard, just because it is easy to hold a widow (who is an accomplished and important writer in her own right, and knows what's she's doing) in contempt, and just because we like to naively think that among the greats there were no collaborations, just manly geniuses, should not make this release a conversation about "should she or shouldn't have she?" Instead, let break the binding and dig into the work we, now, have in front of us.
posted by rumposinc at 10:58 AM on October 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

Lish excised Carver trying to talk about love to get to arrive at what we talk about when we talk about love. Or at least the New York editor's - and probably many readers' - idea of what the working class talks about. The sense of resignation that is reinforced in the edited versions always worked for me. The audience probably wouldn't have accepted Carver in the way we have if we were first introduced to his characters making a lot of small fruitless gestures rather than the stark reactions to frustration that I remember his stories for. Sure, after he became a celebrated writer people would accept more modulated treatments, but perhaps he would have been initially tuned out and forgotten if it hadn't been for the way his editor presented his voice.

I always liked the story - it's a short one, probably radically edited - in which the divorced guy puts all his property out on his driveway and when a young couple stops to look it over the man goes outside, puts a record on his stereo and has the couple dance in his driveway.
posted by TimTypeZed at 11:11 AM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does anybody not think that the Lish-edited version is not the better of the two that sock it to me monkey quotes, by far?

I think the stories in Cathedral are great, too, but I wonder if Carver could have written them without the lessons in reticence he got from Lish.
posted by escabeche at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2007

sock it to me monkey, depending on the complete text of the story (One More Thing), I could easily see that edit as being, if not "hair splitting" than at least justified. The final sentence is so key in Carver stories, and RC's original, comes across as over stated and mawkish. The Gordon Lish edited ending lets the reader in much more and underscores the emotion of the scene better. Also look at what Lish has done there, he hasn't changed the story at all, no matter how big an edit it seems word count wise. He's taken the intent and atmosphere and language and fine tuned it. It's like an assistant sculpture fine tuning a work and keeping an eye out on the big picture.

As a writer it's weird for me to be taking the side of Lish, but here's another thing. Lish brought decades of editing and publishing experience to bear on Carver's genius, to help actually sell great and beautiful literature, it's probably the reason a lot of us even got a chance to read him and I say if an editor can get a brilliant writer read, while still respecting the integrity, and language and intent of the work, than more power to him or her. As much as we want to think of writers as these autonomous self realized beings, it's not the case. Writers tend to be a little to inwardly directed sometimes. Where would Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Wolfe have been without a Maxwell Perkins who had to persuade the last of those greats to cut 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel. I would give my left nut for an editor like Perkins or Lish or Fisketjon.

Every single writer in existence has had someone or other who's given them feedback and help. It's part of the process. Probably even Shakespeare had an editor at some point or at least a favorite reader.

If only more Publishing houses like Knopf were willing to give great writers a chance at a mass audience the state of literature might be much better off. But as it stands, most publishing houses won't touch a wroter like Carver with a ten foot pole. They'd rather publish pap about celebrities.
posted by Skygazer at 11:35 AM on October 17, 2007

Does anybody not think that the Lish-edited version is not the better of the two that sock it to me monkey quotes, by far?

Yes, yes!! Missed your comment, but that's what I just wrote.
posted by Skygazer at 11:36 AM on October 17, 2007

Does anybody not think that the Lish-edited version is not the better of the two that sock it to me monkey quotes, by far?

Yes, night and day.
posted by maxwelton at 12:00 PM on October 17, 2007

Shorter is better.
posted by william_boot at 12:01 PM on October 17, 2007

Um, crap, I too need an editor. I was trying to say that I, too, prefer the Lishized version.
posted by escabeche at 12:03 PM on October 17, 2007

I've actually never read Carver, but I quite like Lish's novels (Extravaganza for choice). No idea about the Carver connection. I think I need to check out the edited versions.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 2:06 PM on October 17, 2007

Good post. I would of course be interested in reading the stories in their unedited form but one should keep in mind the role that editors played in influencing Carver's style throughout his career, notably Lish but also John Gardner. Casting Gordon Lish, who has had a long and storied career as an editor of many many excellent writers, as a perverter of Carver's literary legacy (especially when their working relationship carried on for so many years), somehow seems inaccurate. Ultimately the responsibility and credit for these timeless stories rests on Carver's shoulders.
posted by inoculatedcities at 4:01 PM on October 17, 2007

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