On Christmas Eve, 2007, The New Yorker published an article entitled “Rough Crossings,” about the relationship between the late Raymond Carver and his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Gordon Lish. The story was strangely published without a byline, and perhaps with good reason: It included some relatively disturbing and incendiary news for many people in the literary world, news that could have been damaging to the reputation of one of America’s most beloved writers of short fiction, and news that ultimately led to confusion and disappointment for the many people who had defined Carver by his minimalist style. Raymond Carver, the article claimed very definitively, had received so much in the way of editorial support from Gordon Lish that several of the stories in his first two collections could easily have been called collaborations. Very notably, Lish’s hand dramatically altered one of the most widely read and referenced pieces of modern American short fiction, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. In the collection at large, Lish cut vast amounts of description, changed titles and names, changed or truncated nearly every ending, and, by the time he was finished, sliced about fifty percent or more from most of stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In effect, the article exposed the fact that it was actually Gordon Lish who was responsible for Carver’s famously imitated laconic style, and that Carver, whose actual writing voice was perhaps of the more generous, hopeful, and delicate variety we see in Cathedral, dealt with a great deal of depression and anxiety over it, to the extent that he felt his very sense of self, both as a man and as a writer, being stripped from him.
It is clear from reading Carver’s correspondence with Lish (which is, thankfully, included as part of the online publication of the article) that he felt powerless to stop him. Carver believed he was indebted to him; for, in his eyes, and this may very well be the actual case, it was due to the help of Lish that he had become the well-loved and well-known writer he was at the time. It is clear, as well, that Carver loved and respected Lish. He repeatedly thanks him, calls him “brother,” and even admits the edits Lish made to the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love positioned them “closer to works of art than the original[s]”. Yet, Carver, who was, at this point, a newly sober alcoholic with a fragile sense of self, very definitely tied his worth into the work he created, as all writers, no matter their state, do. It is apparent from these correspondences, and from comparing Carver’s original final manuscripts to Lish’s edited ones, that what happened to Carver’s stories was so exceptional and deep, nearly surgical, (Carver himself calls them “amputated”) that he almost couldn’t bare to live with it.
The questions that remain here are plentiful, especially for someone who, like myself, so admires Carver’s pared-down, minimalist style and brutal honesty. How do we come to terms with the editorial hand taken to Carver’s work? Can we still think of it as specifically his work? And what do we do when it comes to light that perhaps the author we believed to be most brutally honest was dishonest about the brutality of his work? How ethical was Lish’s hand, and how ethical was Carver’s public response to it? Did Lish, a fiction writer himself, overstep his bounds as an editor? Did Carver have much of a choice insofar as his acceptance of the edits? We know that he initially agreed to the edits, and then nearly had a breakdown before their publication; that he pleaded with Lish to stop the book by any means necessary, and that later, when asked about the extreme minimalism within it, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, unable to tell the truth lest he be seen as something less than he was.
It is hard to imagine, as a writer, being so heavily edited. I can believe (and I have proof in his letters) that it pained Carver a great deal to release a book of stories under his name that he did not completely feel were his. I know also, that as an editor, I always try to remain especially aware of the fact that the work I am editing belongs to someone else. I try to be delicate, to add my opinion only on the matters that I feel are essential to the work’s overall clarity.
I do think that it is easy to view authors with an air of infallibility, absolute genius (or conversely, narrow-mindedness), or insularity. But the fact of the matter is, there is always an editor. There are, more times than not, many editors, and the works that come to us perfected, pared-down, grammatically clean and precise; those works involved the minds of many people, and, more often than not, not just the person whose photograph ends up on the back cover. Furthermore, it is true that Lish had a lot of power in the literary world at the time, and he was a damned good editor. Though Carver already had a collection of stories and several books of poetry, in many ways he was still finding his foothold in the literary world, and he may have felt he didn’t have much of a choice but to accept Lish’s changes. Perhaps it’s true that in our romanticization of the author, we fail to realize the whole picture of how it is great works of literature are bound up and delivered to us. That we would think less of great stories because, as it turns out, the writer was involved in the same collaborative effort all published writers are, at turns, involved in is something to think about. It is neither a good nor bad thing; it simply is. In this case, both Carver and Lish suffered over what happened. Lish was not recognized for his efforts, and Carver lived with a great amount of guilt and self-doubt.
I suppose what makes access to this information, and to Carver’s unedited stories, such compelling stuff is the secrecy with which the information was held. Beyond that, to know the secrecy behind it caused Carver such pain adds a level of humanity and delicacy to the matter. In one of the last correspondences he sent Lish (on August 11, 1980, concerning the collection, Cathedral) he wrote:
“… one thing is certain—the stories in this new collection are going to be fuller than the ones in the earlier books. And this, for Christ’s sake, is to the good. I’m not the same writer I used to be. But I know there are going to be stories in these 14 or 15 I give you that you’re going to draw back from, that aren’t going to fit anyone’s notion of what a Carver short story ought to be—yours, mine, the reading public at large, the critics. But I’m not them, I’m not us, I’m me. Some of these stories may not fit smoothly or neatly, inevitably, alongside the rest. But, Gordon, God’s truth, and I may as well say it out now, I can’t undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads of hair sticking out. My heart won’t take it otherwise. It will simply burst, and I mean that.
I love your heart, you must know that. But I can’t write these stories and have to feel inhibited—if I feel inhibited I’m not going to write them at all—and feel that if you, the reader I want to please more than any, don’t like them, you’re going to re-write them from top to bottom. Why, if I think that the pen will fall right out of my fingers, and I may not be able to pick it up. . .”
Carver chose to keep writing, and made the difficult decision not long after he sent this letter to drop Lish as his editor. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that Carver’s work after What We Talk About was much different, much denser. It has to be said, though, and I’m going to say it: The edited version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, no matter how it came to be, is one of the best collections of short fiction ever published.
Personally, I like Carver’s original version of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the story he called “Beginners”. I find it hopeful and delicate, descriptive, generous, and kind. Though it is certainly more sentimental than the version after Lish’s edits, it is still a strong and poignant story. I also like that it is available for me to read against the edited version. I like that they both exist, and that I, as someone who holds Carver in the highest regard, can read it and decide the pros and cons for myself.
The pros and cons, however, weighed against each other, seem tantamount. I like “Beginners,” of course I do, but it wouldn’t be right if I lied about the fact that there’s definitively something about Lish’s edits that make the story more significant, stronger. There is an honesty, brutality, mystery, and beauty to the stories in the edited stories of What We Talk About, and Lish, though perhaps he overstepped his bounds as an editor, elevated a great deal of Carver’s work to the realm of something higher reaching, something classic. It is interesting to have both versions, now that we do, and to consider as we read them what editing is, what writing, and publishing is, and, consequently what art is in relation to the artist.
Read the original article, correspondences between Lish and Carver, and the unedited version of “Beginners” here:
If you love Carver, I recommend you check out the entirely uncut, unedited edition of What We Talk About, titled Beginners, which his second wife, poet and novelist Tess Gallagher, fought Knopf to release in 2009.
Here it is at Powell’s online:
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