Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Carver by Name ...


[6 - Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (2009)]

The question is, can you over-edit? The exhibit, Beginners, the first draft of the book eventually published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), by Raymond Carver.

It was a largely academic question until the inclusion of both collections in Carver's Collected Stories in the magisterial Library of America series earlier this year. Most readers had never had the chance to compare the two before, and the discrepancy turns out to be pretty remarkable.

Carver's close friend and editor, Gordon Lish (who liked to refer to himself modestly as "Mr. Fiction"), cut the text of his draft by an estimated 55%. Most of the stories lost substantial amounts of text, some lost over half of it. In one case in particular, "A Small, Good Thing," over 75% of Carver's words hit the cutting-room floor.

And this was no subtle Ezra-Pound-carving-a-new-poem-out-of-Eliot's-Waste-Land-drafts business, either. This was Carver's second major book of stories, not his first - and a good many of the stories in it had already appeared, or were slated to appear, in major periodicals.

Nor was Carver exactly overjoyed when he finally got around to examining Lish's revisions in detail. He wrote him a letter - reprinted in full by the Library of America editors [pp. 992-96] - which is among the most anguished literary cris-de-coeur I've ever come across. He said:

I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here. I don't want to sound melodramatic here, but I've come back from the grave here to start writing stories once more ... Now, I'm afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that 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.
...
I'm confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid, yes, of the consequences for me if the collection came out in its present form. So help me, please, yet again. Don't please, make this too hard for me, for I'm just likely to start coming unraveled knowing how I've displeased and disappointed you. God Almighty, Gordon. ...

But then he also said:

I see what it is that you’ve done, what you’ve pulled out of it, and I’m awed and astonished, startled even, with your insights.

In any case, Lish paid little attention. "My sense of it was that there was a letter and that I just went ahead," he said in an interview long afterwards. He knew he was right (as Anthony Trollope might have put it). So the book appeared as he wanted it to, not as Carver did. And the rest is history. It's worth noting that Carver never allowed Lish to do much more than correct accidentals in his subsequent books, though. Also that he insisted on reprinting something closer to the original text of "A Small, Good Thing" in his next collection, Cathedral (1983).

The hero-editor is, of course, a familiar figure in American letters. Carver even refers to the most famous example, Maxwell Perkins, editor to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, in his letter to Lish ("You are a wonder, a genius ... better than any of two of Max Perkins, etc. etc."). Hero-publishers certainly exist in the rest of the English-speaking world (Allen Lane, Victor Gollancz, Peter Owen), even hero publisher's readers (Edward Garnett, T. S. Eliot), but not so much editors. I think perhaps that the rest of us assume that writers can, by and large, write. They may need some guidance in the timing and direction of their work, and certainly in matters of marketing, but for the rest I think we like to feel that (with a few exceptions) they have at least some overall sense of what they're doing.

And that, by and large, seems to be the way the story is being written in the various reviews of Collected Stories (and its UK counterpart, Beginners, an edition of the first-draft stories on their own, with an introduction by Carver's wife and literary executor Tess Gallagher). "When Good Editors Go Bad" is the title of one of the most forthright of these pieces, but by extension it could cover most of the rest - poor simple alcoholic Ray was deceived by a wily New York editor into putting his name to a book he never wrote.

I have a rather higher opinion of Carver than that. In fact, I suppose my interest in this issue follows on naturally from my fascination with him. I wouldn't call myself an obsessive collector of his work, but purely for practical reasons I've been forced to acquire quite a number of books simply in order to read him in full. For so short-lived and late-blossoming a writer, he does seem to have left behind an unusually tangled literary legacy.

Here's a (partial) list of the books I've had to gather to date in order to make some sense of it all:

[2 - The Stories of Raymond Carver (1985)]


  1. Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. 1985. Harvill. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

  2. Carver, Raymond. The Stories of Raymond Carver: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; Cathedral. 1976, 1981 & 1983. London: Picador, 1985.

  3. Carver, Raymond. Where I’m Calling From: The Selected Stories. 1988. London: The Harvill Press, 1993.

  4. Carver, Raymond. All of Us: The Collected Poems. 1996. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.

  5. Carver, Raymond. Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Prose. Ed. William L. Stull. Foreword by Tess Gallagher. 1996. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.

  6. Carver, Raymond. Collected Stories. Ed. William L. Stull & Maureen P. Carroll. The Library of America, 195. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2009.




[3 - Raymond Carver: Where I'm Calling From (1988)]

The crucial exhibit here is no. 2: The Stories of Raymond Carver, a never-reprinted and now virtually-unobtainable British reprint of the full text of his first three major books of stories (with the exception of the small-press Furious Seasons). Since 1988, when Carver's selected stories (no. 3) appeared, most people have been reading that text instead, supplemented by the extra material included in no. 5, thus obscuring the nature and integrity of the actual collections which appeared during his lifetime.

William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, the editors of Carver's Collected Poems (no. 4), his Uncollected Fiction and Prose (no. 5), and now his Collected Stories (no. 6), have made the interesting decision not to repeat the small revisions (largely, they say, of accidentals and nomenclature) included in the 1988 Selected Stories. Instead, they reprint (for the most part) the major collections, though sometimes (especially in the case of Furious Seasons) with excisions to avoid repeating material included in the three main books.

So what? you say. Who is Raymond Carver that we should pay so much attention to the dates and circumstances of his work's appearance? Well, it does make a difference, I'm afraid. The evolution from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976), also edited by Gordon Lish, to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love [WWTAWWTAL, for short] is very marked, but it's largely obscured by the complete rearrangement of the material in Where I'm Calling From. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that it was the 1981 book that made him a star- not that the lustre didn't reflect backwards and forwards onto the rest of his work - and that it was the brutal, uncompromising terseness of the stories included in WWTAWWTAL that had the greatest effect on his contemporaries.

[Robert Altman, dir.: Short Cuts (1993)]

Take the 1993 Carver-based movie Short Cuts, for instance. The very title gives us a clue as to how Robert Altman, at least, interpreted Carver's stories. And his opinion was an influential one, given the subsequent appearance of a book reprinting the stories on which the film was based, together with an introduction by the director. Would that movie ever have been made if Carver had had his wish and published, instead of WWTAWWTAL, some lightly-edited version of the book Beginners? Permit me to doubt it.

That's not to say that Lish was justified in performing such radical surgery on Carver's book without the author's permission, but it is important to note just how desperately obscure, depressed and terminally alcoholic Carver looked at that moment. To put it mildly, he didn't seem in the best state to make meaningful decisions about his future. That's how Lish saw it, at any rate, and - until now - posterity has largely confirmed his judgement. The fact remains that the book did make a sensation, and that sensation was at least to some extent due to the stories' refusal to resolve and flesh themselves out in a conventional way.

Carver, to be sure, went on developing as a writer. He gave full rein to the more sympathetic, Chekhovian side of his art in Cathedral (1983), probably his best book, and the one which represents him most fully. But by then he'd cleaned up his act, was in a new relationship, a successful, internationally-feted author.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Lish's editing processes shouldn't be scrutinised carefully. Nor am I sorry that Stull and Carroll's meticulous new edition has given us the tools to do so. I just feel that this controversy should not be over-simplified. Beginners, I feel - and it can only be an opinion - would not have seized the attention of critics (and other writers) the way WWTAWWTAL did. It would not have given rise to "dirty realism" or "minimalism" or whatever you want to call the literary movement which Carver's work was said to have inspired.

This is, I believe, a debate which could (and perhaps should) run and run. How much cutting and editing is too much? How long is a piece of string? No single, universally-applicable answer is possible, hence the usefulness of test cases such as this. I'd hate to have Gordon Lish on my team, to tell the truth, but having your collected stories officially declared "classics", part of the permanent record of your national literature, within a scant twenty years of your death is no mean feat. Denying Lish his part in that triumph would be churlish - worse, it would involve falsifying the true nature of Carver's legacy.

The poet in Raymond Carver will continue to be read and loved, I'm sure - but the landscape of his stories remains as stark as the surface of the moon. They'll always be a hard pill to swallow. Lish was, I feel, correct in seeing a "peculiar bleakness" in them. His gift to posterity lies in helping us to see there was something there we needed - something, finally, we just couldn't do without.


[5 - Raymond Carver: Call if You Need Me (1997)]

4 comments:

Giovanni said...

Great post sir... I have less than zero interest in the artist's own creative process, but editorial interventions, now those are interesting. I wish I knew a lot more for instance about Grazia Cherchi, who is credited with having had a significant influence on a number of prominent Italian authors.

Giovanni said...

Actually, I do have an anecdote about her mentor, Romano Bilenchi, who upon receiving a manuscript told the author: "First of all, get rid of all the adjectives. Then get rid of the rest."

Jack Ross said...

Yes, I agree, Giovanni. People's "process" is their own affair - the end result of it all is what we need to concern ourselves with.

Btw, your post about the twin towers and the falling man is one of the most fascinating pieces of writing I've come across this year. If the comments page hadn't been so full of cogent and interesting responses, I would have left a little note of admiration to match some of the others already there.

Giovanni said...

Thank you, Jack, you're very kind. I'm still going to need a few more notes like yours to offset the number of people who pointed out what an awful, contemptible person I am however :-)