19 January 2008

Taking a Pencil to the Stories

The 24-31 Dec 2007 issue of The New Yorker contains (in addition to Caleb Crain's article on post-literacy) a peek at the working relationship between author Raymond Carver and his frequent editor, Gordon Lish (shown here, courtesy of Phillips Academy Andover).

I read the letters between the men with interest, not that Carver is among my favorite writers. When I took college writing courses in the 1980s, his short stories were the latest model in literary fiction, and we young hopefuls were implicitly urged to adhere to the "minimalist" style he represented (though he disclaimed that label). The New Yorker material promised some of the story behind those stories.

I also looked at the correspondence between Carver and Lish from the perspective of a book editor. In my experience, as an editor you adjust your methods to the needs and likes of every author. Sometimes you write in pencil on the manuscript. Sometimes you use stickies. Sometimes you send a memo delicately cajoling certain small improvements. Sometimes you send a whole rewrite. And the tone and content of your editorial feedback has to vary, too.

Even editing two different manuscripts from the same writer can be significantly different because each project comes with its own demands. Sometimes the topic or genre is different. Sometimes the author is in a different place. Often those demands are external: publishing schedules, market pressures. And, much as editors try to avoid it, their moods and workloads are factors as well.

Much of the attention to this New Yorker has focused on Carver's long 8 July 1980 letter, in which he complains about the changes Lish made in the story "Beginners." Lish had cut it by more than a third, composed a new final paragraph, and retitled it "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Carver objected, in part because some of his writer friends had seen "Beginners" and would figure out that Lish had made the new changes.

My editor's eye went to the letter just before that one, the one that apparently accompanied the manuscript. In that 10 May letter Carver wrote:

For Christ's sweet sake, not to worry about taking a pencil to the stories if you can make them better; and if anyone can you can. I want them to be the best possible stories, and I want them to be around for a while. . . . So open the throttle. Ramming speed.
This is not a letter any writer should send to an editor if he's going to be sensitive about whether his friends will spot changes in the text.

By that date, Lish had been working with Carver's manuscripts for years. He had bought Carver's first major magazine publication, at Esquire in 1971, and had urged McGraw-Hill to publish Carver's first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? He had edited many of the stories in that volume, and finally as a book editor at Knopf had signed Carver up for the collection they were working on in 1980.

Obviously, when Lish had gotten Carver's 10 May letter urging him "not to worry about taking a pencil" to the manuscript, he went at it with gusto. Perhaps he misjudged what Carver was ready for. Perhaps Carver's expectations had changed (he had made significant changes in his life since the two men had started working together, and developed a reputation to protect). Perhaps Lish, who had literary ambitions of his own, really did impose his own artistic vision on Carver's manuscript.

Whatever the case, given Carver's May invitation, Lish must have been surprised to read the long 8 July letter suggesting they cancel the whole book. I can imagine him quickly trying to recalibrate his feedback in letters, faxes, or phone calls (not published in this New Yorker). By 14 July Carver was again "thrilled about the book," ready to defer to Lish's advice on some decisions, and (most important) focusing on specific changes rather than all the changes as a whole.

To my tastes, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" is a better story than "Beginners"--tighter, sharper, less sentimental. Not that either version grabs me, or that my tastes aren't shaped by broad fashions (and college education). It's notable that Carver himself included the edited "What We Talk About..." in his final collection, Where I'm Calling From, though he had the chance to return to "Beginners."

Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, has now published the first versions of his stories and his correspondence with Lish. And I've reached a clear conclusion: Lish made Carver into a significant, award-winning writer. Without Lish, we would never have heard of Raymond Carver. Maybe we should call the published work "Carver-Lish." Carver was probably right in saying he wasn't a minimalist, but Carver-Lish was, and Carver-Lish became the author we young people of the 1980 were told to emulate.


Anonymous said...

Tess Gallagher was married to Raymond Carver? She taught a couple weeks of poetry writing to the classes I was in during fifth and sixth grades. I've always remembered her and have been excited to run across published poems of hers in the decades since. But this fact was new to me.

J. L. Bell said...

Yep. Neat connection.