Beginners, by Raymond Carver, Vintage, 224 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0099540328
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, by Carol Sklenicka, £13.04, Scribner, 592 pp, 978-0743262460
On April 20th, 1981 – just over thirty years ago ‑ Raymond Carver’s second major-press collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was published in the United States. The book was an immediate commercial success: within a few months of its appearance sales figures were impressive enough to warrant additional printings and Vintage had paid $20,000 for paperback rights. More significantly, it was instantly recognised as a seminal literary work; critics and fellow writers alike were quick to acknowledge it as a significant step not only in Carver’s own career but in American literary culture.
The collection was Carver’s first to be published in Britain, and his international reputation soared in tandem with his stature in the US. His influence would, in fact, last long beyond his own early death from cancer in 1988. What We Talk About remains his most enduringly popular and widely read work: it was described by Tim Adams of the Observer as “probably the most influential story collection of the past 30 years” and a recent New York Times article suggests that it is still among the most widely shoplifted books in US bookstores.
Upon its release, the book immediately established Carver as one of the major writers of the 1980s. Fellow writer Jayne Anne Phillips described the stories as “fables for the decade”, and reviewers rushed to acclaim the author ‑ in The Nation Robert Houston detected the influence of Kafka, Beckett and Hemingway but nevertheless praised the stories as “importantly innovative”, while Michael Wood, in the New York Times Book Review, called Carver a “delicate stylist” and a master of the short story genre. Critics tended to agree that the author’s intense and deliberately limited prose style gave the stories in What We Talk About much of their power, with one observing that “Carver obeys the linguistic limits of his subjects: no metaphor, no elegant variation, no allusions, nothing to learn or recognize or see through” and another noting that “There are no detailed descriptions of objects or places, no stylistic embellishments, no complicated plots, no analyses of motivation or historical background.” On the whole, critics agreed, less seemed to be more.
The word minimalism soon came to be a key one in any critical discussion of Carver’s work; critics rushed to praise the sparse, elliptical quality of the stories. What We Talk About was seen as the culmination of a literary aesthetic that prized economy of expression above all else. Houston noted the “relentlessly minimal” description, while another reviewer memorably claimed that “the prose is as sparingly clear as a fifth of iced Smirnoff”. Fellow fiction writer Tim O’Brien claimed that Carver “uses the English language like a whittler’s knife, carving stark and unadorned prose-objects, paring away everything but the core of human emotion”. He noted the link between style and subject matter:
The prose is almost primitive in its directness, its lean condensation, its repetitive use of the declarative sentence, its heavy emphasis on nouns and verbs. Like the best stories of Ernest Hemingway, Carver’s fiction is reductive both in content and form, boiling down the lives of its characters until nothing remains but a pure, elemental residue – love, anger, desperation, loneliness, hopelessness.
While most reviewers acclaimed Carver, there were some who lamented what they saw as his excessively dry and stylised language. Reviewers tended either to disparage his monotonous, “deadeningly sparse” and “impoverished” language, or to praise the “stunning inarticulateness” and “careful starkness and understatement” of his “minimalist masterpiece”. For many critics, minimalism seemed to be a method limited not only in stylistic range but also in emotional and philosophical scope: one lamented what she saw as the sense of nihilism in the “human wasteland” of Carver’s stories, while James Atlas, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, complained that the author’s “eschewal of feeling” and spare style ultimately became tiresome.
In any case, the collection would soon come to be used as a blueprint for minimal fiction, and by all accounts its author’s methods were soon being slavishly replicated by student writers in workshops across the land. Carver’s influence spread so rapidly throughout American fiction in the years following the publication of What We Talk About that he came not only to be acclaimed as the foremost living practitioner of the short story but was credited by many with almost single-handedly reviving the form in the US. Carver’s name itself was soon being taken as a signifier for the suddenly ubiquitous style: by this stage, the adjective “Carveresque” was a standard one in reviews of “minimalist” fiction, and in the late 1980s literary editors were known to claim that nearly half of the short fiction they were receiving bore Carver’s prints.
One critic, in fact, claims that What We Talk About “is Carver at his most Carveresque”, quoting the writer’s own words in a 1985 interview: “Everything I thought I could live without, I just got rid of, I cut out, in that earlier collection. I felt like I’d gone as far in that direction as I wished to go.” The quote demonstrates just how problematic Carver’s tag as a minimalist writer is; on the one hand, Carver ostensibly resented the description, claiming that it made him uncomfortable, while on the other he assumed credit for the stylistic method that earned him the tag. His interviews from this period can in fact be read as master classes in misdirection, evasion and outright dishonesty. In one, he agrees with the interviewer’s observations on the use of ellipse and deletion, and discusses the motives behind the “revisions” of some of the stories from What We Talk About which appeared in subsequent years, saying of the versions in the original collection: “Sometimes I might have taken out too much.” He agrees with his interviewer that “Cathedral”, published in 1983, is the first of his stories in which “people make contact”, and that it represents a “jump” in his style, and nudges the interviewer towards a biographical interpretation of this supposed change: “But my life has changed and I think it’s fair to say I’m becoming more optimistic. So I hope that’s what you’re detecting in the work.” Nowhere in the interview is the name of Gordon Lish, the editor of the book, mentioned.
Two recent publications, however, throw new light on the book’s history and make the notion of a “Carveresque” story a little more intriguing. Over the course of several years (and, reportedly, several behind-the-scenes struggles with publishing giant Knopf) Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, endeavoured to bring the manuscript version of What We Talk About into print, and in 2009 this was eventually published under its original title, Beginners. In the same year, the first comprehensive biography of Carver – Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustive Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – appeared. Now, readers can finally see just how much more complicated the reality is. The role of Gordon Lish, it transpires, is a central and complex one. Lish had first edited Carver as early as 1969 and went on to develop an increasingly close working relationship with the young writer in the subsequent decade; he spent years acting as both friend and editor in his efforts to help the impoverished, alcoholic author towards publication, and gradually came to act as Carver’s mentor and ally as well as his literary broker. In short, it emerges that Lish ‑ by now a senior editor with Knopf ‑ assumed a direct and often extreme editorial role in the creation of the final version of What We Talk About. Journalist DT Max first brought the matter to wide attention in a 1998 New York Times article entitled “The Carver Chronicles” when, following up on persistent rumours in literary circles, he examined the manuscripts of Carver’s work which Lish had donated to the Lilly Library in Indiana. His verdict on the extent of Lish’s editing was unambiguous, as he concluded “For better or worse, Lish was in there.”
Beginners bears out Max’s verdict. In a “Notes” section at the rear of the book, the editors (William Stull and Maureen P Carroll) detail the volume of cuts in percentage terms for each story and the figures alone give an insight into their drastic nature. Eight of the seventeen stories were cut by fifty per cent or more, and fifteen were cut by twenty-five per cent or more. Two stories – “Where is Everyone?” and “A Small, Good Thing” – were cut by an astonishing seventy-eight per cent. Lish changed not only the title of the collection, but of ten of the stories. He regularly renamed characters, and in one case even halved the number of a hotel room from 22 to 11 (as if to reflect the shortening of “Gazebo” by almost half). He wrote in lines and passages absent from Carver’s original manuscript. Max describes the visual effect of the Lilly manuscripts: “There are countless cuts and additions to the pages; entire paragraphs have been added. Lish’s black felt-tip markings sometimes obliterate the original text.” It was a process Carver would, in a subsequent letter to Lish, describe as “surgical amputation and transplantation”.
Carol Sklenicka describes the process of the publication of What We Talk About as follows. Carver delivered the original manuscript ‑ version A ‑ to Lish, who informed Carver that he would edit and publish the stories and seek a contract from the publishers, Knopf. In response, Carver wrote Lish letters expressing thanks for their past friendship and telling him to edit the manuscript as he saw fit, urging him to “put more muscle in the stories” if necessary. Lish then sent back a newly edited version of the book ‑ version B ‑ in which he made the first round of edits and changed the title. Carver accepted the changes, and fatefully signed and returned his publishing contract straight away without consulting a lawyer or attorney, despite the fact that he had yet to receive the final typescript based on Lish’s editing.
Shortly after, Version C – the version readers know as What We Talk About – arrived on Carver’s desk. The differences between B and C amazed Carver. The task of tracing the development of the manuscript through its various stages has proven to be almost impossible, and Sklenicka concludes that “little archival evidence of the differences between versions B and C has become available to scholars”. What is clear is that these differences were great enough to cause Carver enormous anxiety: after a day and night of close comparison, he wrote a remarkable letter to Lish – reprinted in full in the recently-released Collected Stories ‑ in which the newly sober, insecure and desperate author attempts to persuade his editor to reverse the changes and claims to be on the verge of breakdown. Worried by the fact that several of the stories had already been viewed in their unedited form by other writers and editors, Carver declared himself to be “confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid, yes, of the consequences for me if the collection came out in its present form” and announced: “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here.” Veering between apologetic explanation and urgent supplication, Carver begged Lish repeatedly to arrest publication: “Please do the necessary things to stop production of this book.”
Carver’s pleas failed – “My sense of it was that there was a letter and that I just went ahead”, Lish told Max in 1998. Another letter written two and a half days later shows a dramatic change of heart, with Carver proclaiming himself to be “honored and grateful” for Lish’s attention to the new script. In his subsequent letters, Carver reverted to the meek and grateful role he had previously adopted towards Lish, who had spent years acting as both friend and editor in his efforts to help the impoverished, alcoholic author towards publication. He now accepted the changes almost entirely, although he did argue for the restoration of certain specific details. In relation to “The Bath” and “If It Please You” (cut by seventy-eight per cent and sixty-three per cent respectively) Carver had the following to say:
I want that sense of beauty and mystery they have now, but I don’t want to lose track, lose touch with the little human connections I saw in the first version you sent me. They seemed somehow fuller in the best sense, in that first ed. Version … please give them another hard look.
However, few of Carver’s requests seem to have been granted. Tess Gallagher has claimed that a phone conversation took place after Carver’s first letter, in which Lish told Carver he would not reverse his edits. Various possible reasons for Carver’s acceptance of the changes have been mooted, but the precise sequence of events and their causes remains unclear; the crucial fact may simply be that Lish, in Gallagher’s words, held the “power of publication access”. In any case, Version C ultimately became the published version of What We Talk About and is the version which literary scholars have accepted as the single, definitive edition.
The relationship between Lish and Carver had been a long one by the time of the publication of What We Talk About. As editor of Esquire, Lish had been the first to publish Carver and had worked hard to shape his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? ‑ often in several stages as many of the stories had been published in magazines over the preceding years. However, these edits had been made over a number of years and, crucially, they had been made with Carver’s consent and final approval. What We Talk About represented a new step. This was the first time Carver had presented an entire book-length manuscript of stories to his editor: Lish not only edited more severely than ever before but made all of his edits in quick succession, ensuring a uniformity of tone and purpose. The ensuing breakdown in the pair’s relationship shows how seriously the matter was viewed by both: Carver insisted that Lish edit his next collection very lightly and later abandoned the working relationship entirely, while Lish ‑ as Max discovered ‑ felt aggrieved that his contribution to the work had gone unnoticed.
In order to trace the eventual break between writer and editor and to understand its importance in literary terms it is useful to return for a moment to the word minimalism. The term came to dominate the American literary landscape in the 1980s, becoming so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. Author and critic John Barth was one of many who attempted to define it, and his 1986 essay entitled “A Few Words About Minimalism” (which mentions Carver by name several times as well as coining the playful label “post-Vietnam, post-literary, postmodernist blue-collar neo-early-Hemingwayism”) lays out some of the ways in which the phrase “less is more” can apply to fiction:
Old or new, fiction can be minimalist in any or all of several ways. There are minimalisms of unit, form and scale: short words, short sentences and paragraphs, super-short stories … There are minimalisms of style: a stripped-down vocabulary; a stripped-down syntax … stripped-down rhetoric … a stripped-down, non-emotive tone. And there are minimalisms of material: minimal characters, minimal exposition …minimal mises en scene, minimal action, minimal plot.
Minimalism, therefore, relies to a large degree upon what is left out, and leaves gaps which the reader is obliged to fill in. In a discussion of Kafka’s short stories, David Foster Wallace describes the powerful effect on the reader of their radical compression and ellipses; the stories, he claims, “depend on what some communication theorists call ‘exformation’, which is a certain quantity of information apparently removed from, but evoked by, a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of an explosion of associative connections within the recipient”. Tim O’Brien’s review presents What We Talk About as a deliberate incarnation of this strategy:
… by leaving so much unsaid, Carver both invites and challenges the reader to participate in these stories. He asks us to perform acts of imagination and deduction, to read between the lines, to fill in the blank spaces.
We can see some of these “blank spaces” in the title story to the collection (Carver’s original is entitled “Beginners”), which provides some of the clearest illustrations of Lish’s work. The plot is indeed minimal – a pair of couples sit for several hours drinking and reflecting on their painful experiences of love and end up in silence, physically and emotionally exhausted. The story ends in a darkened room, a claustrophobic settting suggesting the psychological and spiritual gloom of characters defeated by their struggles. The final paragraph ends thus:
“I’ll put out some cheese and crackers,” Terri said.
But Terri just sat there. She did not get up to get anything. Mel turned his glass over. He spilled it out on the table.
“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.
Terri said, “Now what?”
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.
It is an austere and abrupt ending: the blunt, monosyllabic and Beckettian question of “Now what?” is lent a stark existential terror by the sudden cut of the conclusion, and the final lines leave a stylised, theatrical impression, as if the lights have gone out on stage.
These final lines are, in fact, entirely absent from Carver’s original manuscript. Lish cut Carver’s original text, according to the editors of Beginners, by fifty per cent, changing the names of two prominent characters, deleting the last five pages and changing the title. In “Beginners” only the first sentence of the aforementioned paragraph is present, and the story continues for several pages in which a tearful revelation brings the characters closer together. The story ends with a lyrical and expansive scene of nature, and the final lines show the narrator moving towards openness and escape:
I kept looking at the women at the table. Terri was still crying and Laura was stroking her hair. I turned back to the window. The blue layer of sky had given way now and was turning dark like the rest. But stars had appeared … I knew I had to keep still a while longer, keep my eyes out there, outside the house as long as there was something left to see.
Readers of Carver may recognise the note of emotional release from the later “Cathedral”, in which the prejudiced narrator experiences a revelatory moment while being taught to draw by a blind man – “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything” – and whose ending also suggests a redemption of sorts in which the boundaries of the “house” of identity are at least temporarily transcended. The story allows its characters a glimpse of the world outside, and the chance to connect with one another. None of this, however, makes it past Lish’s editing, and the tone of the story is dramatically altered.
One of the stories cut by seventy-eight per cent would prove to be one of Carver’s most celebrated: “A Small, Good Thing”, retitled “The Bath” by Lish. The story depicts a couple whose son is hit by a car on his birthday and follows them through a lengthy and emotionally devastating hospital vigil by his bedside. Meanwhile, they begin to receive threatening, enigmatic phone calls, which turn out to be from the baker of the boy’s birthday cake, ordered by the mother before the accident and never collected. After the boy’s death, the grief-stricken parents drive at midnight to the bakery to confront the man. When they explain what has happened, he asks them to sit down and bakes cakes for them, confessing his “loneliness, and the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years”. He apologises for his behaviour:
I’m sorry for your son, and I’m sorry for my part in this. Sweet, sweet Jesus … I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling. All I can say to you now is that I’m sorry. Forgive me, if you can.
The story ends with the couple eating the baker’s bread and listening to him speak, an unlikely scene of reconciliation and human connection that offers a measure of comfort to the traumatised characters. In the final lines, the couple break bread with the baker, hearing his story and taking what comfort they can:
They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the window, and they did not think of leaving.
The contrast with “The Bath” is remarkable. In Lish’s version, the story ends as the threatening calls begin, and we are not told whether the child lives or dies. The mother returns home from the hospital to take a bath, and the tale stops abruptly in an ending of overwhelming confusion and menace:
The telephone rang.
“Yes!” She said. “Hello!” she said.
“Mrs Weiss,” a man’s voice said.
“Yes”, she said. “This is Mrs Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.
“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes”.
As Max observes, the “the story’s redemptive tone” is altered to “one of Beckettian despair”. Author Stephen King sees “The Bath” as the prime example of Lish’s “baleful” influence on the collection, arguing that Carver’s original version “has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart”. Another fellow writer, Haruki Murakami, uses a similar analogy to describe the violence of the changes: “‘A Small, Good Thing’ is certainly the superior work … but ‘The Bath’ has its own special flavour. The truly bleak impression it leaves, as if it has had its head lopped off for no reason, is not to be found elsewhere.”
Murakami sums up the prevailing critical view ‑ “The overwhelming majority of Carver’s early works deal with loss and despair, but later an element of redemption enters in” ‑ pointing to the contrast between the two stories as evidence. The story has been held up by several commentators as evidence of their author’s own progression towards an aesthetic that allows for the possibility of renewal and regeneration (a progression conveniently linked to Carver’s emergence from alchoholism over the same period), and have seen a moral dimension to the dramatic shift in tone from the shadowy, solitary world of “The Bath” to a place where warmth, light and sympathy can lead people to a shared connection.
In fact, critics have long puzzled over the fact that What We Talk About represents an extreme and almost anomalous stage in Carver’s fiction writing; many have noted the discrepancy between Carver’s public distaste for unnecessary experimentation and some of the “postmodern” techniques used in his stories. Beginners solves this riddle – here formal experimentation is largely absent and the characters confess to each other, share secrets and connect, if only for a little while. The critical assumptions of chronological textual progress are shown to be false, and Carver’s supposed “moral shift” to be an illusion. William Stull, a long-time critic of Carver’s work, describes the excitement of discovering that the editorial work he performed on Beginners “quickly overturned erroneous assumptions that underlie nearly all past and present studies of Carver’s writings … In effect, stories written by the ‘more generous’ Carver of Cathedral (1983) predated the ‘minimalistic’ Carver of What We Talk About.”
Carver subsequently published “The Bath” in its original form and under its original title in his next collection, Cathedral, and it is thus one of the few stories long available to readers in different versions. However, critics have uniformly accepted Carver’s claims that the chronology of its publication reflected that of its composition, and that the alternate versions of some of the stories in What We Talk About published after 1981 were revisions of ones whose potential he himself had failed to realise. One such claim – revealing in hindsight ‑ came in a 1984 interview:
I went back to that one, as well as several others, because I felt there was unfinished business that needed attending to. The story hadn’t been told originally; it had been messed about with, condensed and compressed in “The Bath” to highlight the qualities of menace that I wanted to emphasize – you see this with the business about the baker, the phone call, with its menacing voice on the other line, the bath, and so on. But I still felt there was unfinished business, so in the midst of writing these other stories for Cathedral I went back to “The Bath” and tried to see what aspects of it needed to be enhanced, redrawn, reimagined. When I was done, I was amazed because it seemed so much better. I’ve had people tell me that they much prefer “The Bath”, which is fine, but “A Small, Good, Thing” seems to me to be a better story.
Some clues to the development of what came to be known as a “Carveresque” story can be seen in Lish’s own fiction, which he has been publishing since the 1970s. Lish’s fiction is compressed and reflexive in the extreme: Max states that “reading his stories is like looking at the gears of a clock that’s missing a face”. The very titles of Lish’s works display a self-conscious, postmodern sensibility: examples include “How to Write a Poem” and “Wouldn’t a Title Just Make it Worse?”. Many of the stories in his first collection, What I Know So Far, (published in 1977), are no more than five pages, and are thus closer in length to Hemingway’s early stories than many of the ones in Beginners. They often take the form of short, elliptical monologues presenting surreal and sinister situations; the characters are rarely given names, but are instead referred to using terms like “the wife”, “the husband”, “the woman”, or “the rapist” (the characters in one story are denoted simply by the letters X, Y and Z). Details are scarce and often seem to be deliberately withheld so as to discourage readerly empathy. Fear recurs constantly, both as an underlying mood and as a theme in itself: one story is called “Fear: Four Examples”, and characters, even when named, often exist more as threatening presences than as humanised individuals.
An atmosphere of mystery and menace is ever-present in Lish’s fiction, and as an editor he consistently insinuated this atmosphere into Carver’s work. Grace Paley and James Purdy were at the time powerful influences upon Lish, and Sklenicka notes (quoting conversations with Lish) that he took these writers as models when he began to influence the style of Carver’s stories in the early 1970s, and that he particularly admired Purdy’s sense of “the dark, the unexplained, the uncanny”. A reading of Purdy’s fiction bears this out, his stories often characterised by inconclusive, mid-air endings, violence and an atmosphere of menace. Some of his characters indeed seem at times to experience a sense of speechless paralysis akin to that suffered by some of the protagonists in What We Talk About, like the husband in “Don’t Call Me By My Right Name”:
He did not know what to say. He felt anything he said might destroy his mind. He stood there with an insane emptiness on his eyes and lips.
The moment is strikingly similar to the final lines of Lish’s edit of “One More Thing”, which closes What We Talk About. The story shows an aggressive, alcoholic character impulsively leaving his home, wife and daughter. Before he goes out the door, he turns to face his family, saying “I just want to say one more thing.” The narrator’s final line is blunt and unmerciful: “But then he could not think of what it could possibly be.” The ending of Carver’s original version, however, grants the character a much more articulate and even epiphanic moment:
“I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you both 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 … “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.
Lish, as he does throughout the collection, strips away the character’s self-awareness and makes him less sympathetic.
On the inside flap of Carver’s first collection, Lish added a blurb that demonstrates the extent to which he was attempting to position Carver’s literary “brand”:
Here is the short fiction of a literary artist of the first rank, a maker of stories that deliver the dark of the American heart … In the sunless, post-speech world that Raymond Carver sees, apprehending the grossness of our fixed destinies amounts to a kind of triumph, a small but gorgeous prevailing against circumstance.
Lish’s blurb, acting as an official introduction to readers, presents Carver as a sort of gloomy national prophet depicting a murky and inarticulate world. He seems to have acted almost as an agent from the start of Carver’s career ‑ Sklenicka’s biography, for example, prints a photograph of Carver taken by Lish for inclusion in a 1969 story anthology, with an accompanying caption informing us:
Aiming for a tough-guy look, Ray borrowed a denim shirt from Lish and left the top buttons undone. A couple of months later, Lish became the fiction editor at Esquire magazine.
The photograph serves as compelling evidence for Lish’s position as approved co-creator of Carver’s literary image, in a very literal sense; here, we can see the author not only asking his editor to take a carefully staged and deliberately macho photograph, but actually wearing his editor’s clothes.
One effect of Lish’s influence on Carver’s work has been to complicate questions of literary lineage – namely, who were Carver’s influences, and in what critical tradition should he be placed? As we have seen, critics have repeatedly returned to Hemingway for comparison: however, Lish exaggerated certain aspects of Carver’s work in order to position him as Hemingway’s inheritor. In fact, several stories in Beginners seem closer to the traditional short story model in which an action or situation leads to a sense of crisis or epiphany, and in some cases links with literary forebears become significantly clearer in the manuscript stories. The overtly religious imagery in some stories – like the impromptu “communion” between the parents and the baker in “A Small, Good Thing” and the redemptive prayer at the end of “If It Please You” – predates the Christian symbolism of the later “Cathedral”, and the narrative arc of both stories and the epiphanic moments experienced by their protagonists seem to place them closer to classics like Chekhov’s “Easter Eve” and Joyce’s “The Dead” (the final lines of “If It Please You” explicitly echo Joyce’s masterpiece) than to the fiction of Purdy or Paley. Carver’s original stories often sit more comfortably in the twentieth century short story tradition than the edited versions and his work has arguably been taken by many critics to be more radical and “postmodern” than he intended it to be.
Lish’s editing also raises more fundamental and troubling questions about the nature of authorship. In his much-quoted essay “On Writing”, Carver espouses the primacy of the individual artistic vision and identifies the most important aspect of writing as
A unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking … It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other.
This is, in the context of Beginners, a remarkable claim. DT Max, in fact, argues that certain stories in What We Talk About should be considered the product of two minds. Lish, it is evident, sees himself as co-creator of the work: Max reports that in conversation, Lish “was still embittered, he said, by the biting ingratitude of ‘this mediocrity’’ he had plucked from obscurity”, while according to Sklenicka, Lish “believed that his editorial work on Carver’s stories was a creative act in its own right for which he deserved acknowledgement”.
Lish’s career seems to have been characterised both by his ambition and his aggressive approach to editing. Sklenicka relates how, as editor of Esquire, he edited a novel by Vladimir Nabokov for possible serialisation in the magazine. Nabokov, reading the proofs in Switzerland, is reported to have held several pages up in disgust and asked: “Who is this fellow Gordon Lish and what is he doing?” Lish, who referred to himself in internal memos as “Captain Fiction”, had also ghostwritten a novel at the this point (Jim Garrison’s 1976 The Star-Spangled Contract), and was accustomed to having his own way as editor.
It seems simplistic, though, to view the work simply as the act of a bullying editor taking advantage of a struggling writer; the evidence suggests that Carver actively sought Lish’s input throughout his early career and considered much of his work to have been improved as a result. Editing itself is hardly a new phenomenon and has a noble place in literary history – Max Perkins’s paternalistic assistance was crucial to the careers of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, for example (were it not for Perkins’s insistence, The Great Gatsby could have been called Trimalchio in West Egg), and the many fierce but friendly tussles between Frank O’Connor and New Yorker editor William Maxwell over the former’s short stories are recorded in the pair’s published letters. This kind of back-and-forth is not unusual in publishing, and is an accepted (and by many writers, valued) part of the creative process.
Indeed, Max takes a familiar literary example for comparison, noting that Ezra Pound
did for T.S. Eliot something of what Lish did for Carver. He made liberal cuts to the poem …(and) found a voice ‑ not necessarily the voice Eliot intended ‑ and honed it brilliantly. He helped make him a modernist cause célèbre. Eliot acknowledged the debt obliquely, praising Pound as “il miglior fabbro” (‘‘the greater craftsman’’) in his dedication.
In Carver’s case, of course, we must note that he not only failed to acknowledge the debt but implicitly denied it in subsequent interviews. The upshot was that elements added to Carver’s style by Lish were taken to be inherent aspects of Carver’s individual vision. Moreover, the power dynamic between Lish and Carver and the uncompromising finality of Lish’s stance make this an extreme and rather dubious example of the editor’s art.
A relevant analogy for Lish’s editing might be found in the world of music, where a record producer would – usually by mutual agreement ‑ determine the context and tone of work performed by the musicians. James Campbell asserts that “Carver was the singer but Lish was his producer, and the mood of the sessions is largely his creation”. Sklenicka makes a similar observation about Lish’s work on Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?:
As a sound recording engineer might bring up one instrument and play down another, Lish eliminated details that give characters a defining personal history or make settings specific and intimate. Sometimes he changed the emphasis of a sentence and, substituting a few words, made the stories louder and brassier. In others, he enhanced the tones of loss and menace…
The musical analogy is perhaps revealing, since the role of producer can often be fraught with similar tensions, even – perhaps especially – when the artists involved have considerable talent themselves. The Beatles’ relationship with George Martin, for example, was famously testy – their gratitude for Martin’s expertise turned to resentment over time, worn down by moments such as John Lennon’s discovery that Strawberry Fields had been changed without his knowledge. A case in point is Phil Spector’s final mix for their final album, Let It Be, a chart-topper which divided critics and left Paul McCartney feeling that several of his best songs had been irreparably ruined. The boundary between assistance and usurpation is easily crossed.
It is difficult, therefore, to fit the work that Lish did into established models of writing – should it come under the heading of collaboration or appropriation? Reviewers seem as divided over this question as they are in their verdict on the results. In The Irish Times, Eileen Battersby characterises the editor’s approach as butchery ‑ “Lish emerges as a schoolmaster who decided how Carver should write” ‑ and laments the failure of the artist to assert his own vision: “Why did Carver allow his editor to meddle, to change the plots, alter dialogue, insert a literal and heavy-handed crudeness …Whose stories are these? …Carver was a creative artist, but where was his artistic courage?”
However, Tim Martin of The Daily Telegraph asserts that “as even Carver well knew, Lish’s versions were frequently cleaner, more vigorous and more memorable than his originals”, while in the New York Review of Books Giles Harvey agrees: “Beginners is twice as long as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love … and about half as interesting.” A personal view is that Carver’s originals tend to be more nuanced and expansive as individual stories – many of Lish’s edits seem deliberately clumsy and reductive – and more varied and wide-ranging as a collection. Taken as a whole, though, Lish’s edits present the reader with something bleak and shocking, a collection with a consistency of mood that leaves an unmistakably powerful mark on the reader. The Lish-edited collection can be read in an hour, making the stories seem more interlinked and enhancing the “unity of experience” that Edgar Allan Poe found so essential to succesful short narrative.
A question that arises is: was Carver, unaided by Lish, a considerable writer? The answer is surely yes. His subsequent (lightly edited) collections were rightly acclaimed by critics and he wrote several undeniable classics after severing ties with Lish (such as the elusive, strangely touching “Feathers” and the fictional account of Chekhov’s final hours, “Errand”, Carver’s final homage to the master). However, it seems unlikely that his writing could have reached the culturally canonical position it did without Lish’s intervention, and one could argue that he may never have transcended the relative obscurity of his early career without the older man’s guidance and patronage. A more difficult question to answer is this: how can we determine what Carver, unaided by Lish, would have written? The relationship developed over many years, and must have thrived both on some sense of a shared vision – the exhilaration of common purpose and interplay of ideas without which much collaborative art would surely not come into being – and a desire on Carver’s part both to impress and learn from his mentor.
There is a link to be made here with the American fiction workshop tradition, in which students would present their stories to a class (usually led by a published fiction writer) for criticism. The explosion in creative-writing programmes in the latter half of the twentieth century was of huge importance to the development of postwar American fiction and arguably constituted a large-scale change in the manner in which fiction was written; one critic describes it as an ambitious, wide-scale attempt at introducing collaboration and “systemic creativity” to the writing process. This analysis is instructive when applied to Carver, who took workshop classes in Iowa and became a university professor himself in his later years. Carver was, after all, a product of this system and this world, and he never entirely relinquished its assumptions. Interestingly, novelist Jay McInerney recalls how as a teacher, Carver treated his students’ stories to the same rigorous editing process that his own work had undergone:
Fortunate students had their stories subjected to the same process he employed on his own numerous drafts. Manuscripts came back thoroughly ventilated with Carver deletions, substitutions, question marks and chicken-scratch queries. I took one story back to him seven times; he must have spent 15 or 20 hours on it. He was a meticulous, obsessive line editor.
Seen this way, Carver’s relationship with Lish was, in Max’s words, “an apprenticeship to be transcended”. The social aspect of the act of writing here is undeniable, as the text goes through multiple alterations under at least two hands. The craftsman works relentlessly towards the creation of the object, and perhaps without regard to the “authenticity” of his relationship to the work. Lish sums up this belief in the power of the finished object:
What I cared about as I worked was the making of the beautiful things …Which has the greater value? The document as it issues from the writer or the thing of beauty that was made? What remains is an artefact of power.
The very concept of “craftmanship”, of course, complicates the notion of solitary authorship, since this inevitably involves learning and assimilating the practices and ideas of others. The thing of beauty, according to Lish, “is made”, and herein lies the fundamental issue in the editing process; the cognitive dissonance between the competing claims of authorial integrity and textual integrity surely goes to the heart of the matter. Which should take priority – the process or the product?
Since the 1960s, literary criticism has, along with work in other disciplines, sought to challenge the notion of individual, solitary subjectivity and the simple, unproblematic categories of “author” and “text”. Barthes famously called for the “Death of the Author”, claiming that “The author is a modern figure, a product of our society”, while Michel Foucault argued for a “radical shift” in the way texts are viewed. Despite these shifts in theoretical perspective, though, the notion of individual authorship is deeply ingrained in literary culture. Don DeLillo noted as much in his correspondence with Lish, stating that while he sympathised with Lish’s feeling of resentment, he felt that the extent to which readers expect a simple correlation between authors and “their” work would make it impossible to make the matter public:
But the fact is: there is no exposing Carver … Even if people knew, from Carver himself, that you are largely responsible for his best work, they would immediately forget it. It is too much to absorb. Too complicated. Makes reading the guy’s work an ambiguous thing at best. People wouldn’t think less of Carver for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they’d resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories.
Max ultimately comes to the same conclusion: “this is a culture in which we want a single name on the front of the book”. This may be especially true in the case of the short story, a form thought to depend for its success on individual vision and scrupulous exactitude of execution; the archetypal image is of Gustave Flaubert spending a solitary week bent over one page in painstaking pursuit of le mot juste. In this light, it is easy to agree with Sklenicka’s suggestion that Lish’s influence on Carver’s work was “a kind of Faustian secret for Carver”. Gallagher echoes the suggestion in a recent interview: “At a certain point Ray began to accept what had become a fiction in his life, and that fiction became a kind of truth he had to live.” In a genre in which so much emphasis is placed on craft, how damaging would it be to be exposed as collaborator instead of craftsman, sketcher rather than sculptor?
The question of which is more important ‑ the “document” of the author’s work or the “thing of beauty” existing at the end of the process – is crucial to critical discussion of Beginners, as the discrepancy between the two is unusually wide. Since the collection was published posthumously, the question is more acute and indeed raises the further question: which version best represents the author’s intention? As we have seen, evidence exists for both sides. Tess Gallagher claims that she helped Beginners into print out of a desire to show “the connective tissue” between it and What We Talk About, but perhaps lets slip a different motive when she describes the process of its publication as a “restoration”. However, Carver’s later editor Gary Fisketjon of Knopf (who edited Carver’s own selection of his stories Where I’m Calling From, published in the year of his death), describes the new book as a betrayal of Carver’s intentions:
When we put together Where I’m Calling From, these were the stories that he handpicked from his work to live in posterity in the versions that he wanted them to live in … If that is not the end of the story, I don’t know what that would be.
In one sense, this seems beside the point. While the publication of Beginners has caused seismic shifts in Carver studies ‑ necessitating a wholesale revision of every aspect of his work ‑ the wider culture has already made up its mind. Once a work enters the world it cannot be taken back – the reception of the work informs expectations of it and perhaps even enters the work itself. Carver’s name will forever be linked with the term “minimalism”, and sales of Beginners are unlikely ever to approach those of What We Talk About, a book that has long since acquired the decisive advantage of having defined a literary moment. The attempt to reclaim the integrity or authenticity of a work long since enshrined in popular culture seems as doomed, in both commercial and mass-cultural terms, as Paul McCartney’s endeavour to release the original mix of Let It Be more than thirty years after the Beatles had broken up.
However, the puzzle remains. Beginners fascinates because it poses a series of unanswerable questions, and cannot be read without consideration of these questions. How does literature, and indeed all art, come into being? Who owns the work? Who owns the legacy? What happens to work once it enters the public domain? The fact is, it is impossible at this remove to tell what Carver ultimately wanted, and this conflict of intentions seems emblematic of his ambivalent relationship to his own work. Carver, after all, believed in the importance of the individual vision and also in the necessity of craft for the writing of a successful story, and the tension between these claims was one which he was unable, at least publicly, to resolve. In his essay “Fires”, he himself confesses to being finally unsure of whether writers are “made as well as born”: “There are apprentice musicians and composers and visual artists – so why not writers?” Elsewhere he quoted Ezra Pound’s dictum that “It’s immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them”, seeming to settle the matter for himself. However, the murky business of the creation of his own work suggests otherwise. The questions, for anyone who has ever read Carver, will continue to linger.
Tim Groenland, a graduate of University College Dublin, recently completed a Masters thesis on Raymond Carver’s Beginners.