By definition, editors may be coldhearted blackguards bent on reducing the word counts and crushing the spirits of writers whose only noble intention is to follow their muse. But even by those standards, Gordon Lish, in his dealings with revered short-story writer Raymond Carver, seems to have been a particularly evil genius.
As Carver made his name in the ‘70s by using everyday language to depict the often self-destructive lives of hard-drinking working-class characters, Lish was his principal editor. First, at Esquire, Lish championed Carver’s work when the author was struggling with alcoholism, and he edited Carver’s career-making collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), which earned Carver a reputation as a widely influential “minimalist”, a tag he had no taste for.
In the thousand-plus pages of the Library of America edition of the collected stories of Carver, who died of lung cancer in 1988 at age 50, it’s easy to see why he had contempt for the term. Left to his own devices — as he was in rich-in-detail late story collections like Cathedral (1983), after he broke with Lish — Carver was practically prolix compared with the laconic narratives on which his standing as an iconic writer largely rests.
The severity with which Lish wielded a blue pencil on Carver’s work was first revealed in a New York Times Magazine article by D.T. Max in 1998, which raised issues of literary codependence and primary authorship.
Last year, the New Yorker published “Beginners” a fully fleshed-out version of the “What We Talk About” story in the twice-as-long form that Carver originally intended.
With the blessing of Carver’s widow, the writer Tess Gallagher, Library of America editors William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll go further, publishing the entire 17-story “Beginners” collection as Carver submitted it to Lish.
“Collected Stories” affords the opportunity to revisit many classic Carver stories.
There’s “Neighbors”, in which a man and a woman charged with feeding the cat of the couple next door can’t resist trying on their clothes. And there’s the gravely absurd “Why Don’t You Dance?” about a man who encourages a young couple to make themselves at home amid the bedroom suite he’s set up in his front yard.
Or there’s “Viewfinder”, which begins, “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.” All display what Lish called the “peculiar bleakness” that so many short story writers under Carver’s influence have imitated but fail to match. (The collection, however, doesn’t tell the full story of Carver’s literary output, since it steers clear of the six volumes of poetry he published.)
But the full “Beginners”, plus exacting notes from Stull and Carroll, including an anguished letter from Carver pleading with Lish to restore the stories to their original versions (Lish refused), means that the voluminous volume will be read as a compare-and-contrast exercise between Carver’s versions and the often renamed, significantly rewritten stories that Lish radically cut.
How radically? Carver’s “Beginners” manuscript was cut by 55 percent, and two of the stories were slashed by a whopping 78 percent. Ouch!
Which are better? Usually, Lish’s.
The exception is “The Bath”, about a boy who gets hit by a car on his birthday and a vindictive baker — played by Lyle Lovett in Robert Altman’s 1993 Carver-inspired movie, Short Cuts — who’s annoyed that a cake hasn’t been picked up by the boys’ parents. The savagely condensed Lish rendering conveys menace, but Carver’s version, published in Cathedral as “A Small, Good Thing”, offers a richer, more fully human character study.
As a rule, though, Carver’s “Beginners” stories are weaker for their extra detail. What is merely implied in Lish’s spare edit of “So Much Water So Close to Home”, about three buddies who find a woman’s body on a fishing trip and don’t report it until the weekend is over, is needlessly spelled out in Carver’s original.
In “Tell the Women We’re Going” ,about a pair of young married guys on an ugly Sunday joyride, is all the more powerful because Lish chose to not show us the violence, and completely rewrote a few key lines.
Carver, of course, is the creative progenitor. Lish wouldn’t have had any stories to cut down to size if Carver hadn’t written them in the first place. And there’s plenty of good work in “Collected Stories” that Lish had nothing to do with, from the masterful title tale of “Cathedral” to the essays “My Father’s Life” and “Fires”, which explores the influence of his children on Carver’s writing.
For a Carver loyalist, it’s a tough pill to swallow that so much of the bold, bracing impact of the early stories would have been lost without Lish, and that much of the apparent arc of Carver’s development really was the result of his prose’s no longer being cut back so harshly.
On top of that, there’s the even harder conclusion to confront: that sometimes word-slashing editors have a writer’s best interests at heart, and aren’t so evil, after all.