In Defense of Editors

January 7, 2010 | 5 books mentioned 23 5 min read

For a while now, I’ve tried to think of an apt analogy for the relationship between writers and editors; the best thing I’ve come up with so far is this: writers are to editors as Scarlett O’Hara is to Rhett Butler–the former, passionate to the point of temporary blindness; the latter, surefooted and collected, all the while attempting pragmatism, though it must be passion, in the end, that drives them in the same direction.

covercoverMaybe it’s not a perfect analogy. In fact, in my experience, more often than not, writers are grateful for a second set of eyes committed to improving the work. But as history will have it, the most fascinating of the writer-editor relationships are the most contentious, the boldest edits the most memorable: Maxwell Perkins cut 65,000 words of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel; T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was published at about half of its original length based largely on Ezra Pound’s edits, and the deft opening of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was a result of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s criticism. For all the ego warfare, the three sets of relationships survived, if tenuously. But more notably, works that were deemed “unreadable” (to borrow Perkins’ description of the early Wolfe) and “unpublishable” (to quote Perkins on the first draft of The Sun Also Rises,) emerged as some of the most lasting pieces of 20th century American literature.

Most recently, Carol Sklenicka’s new biography of Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, dredges up yet again what has perhaps become the messiest of all writer-editor relationships, between the Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Prior to Sklenicka’s book, in 1998 the New York Times published D.T. Max’s unprecedented account of Lish’s extensive edits followed by an interview with the embittered editor. What was established in the article and is readdressed in Sklenicka’s book is that Lish did not edit Carver’s monumental collection; rather, he commandeered it. Ten out of thirteen endings were changed, stories were drastically cut, and Lish took liberties with rewriting, to say the least.

coverI first read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the collection most notoriously edited by Lish, nearly twenty five years after its 1981 debut, and despite all the debate over who’s responsible for its brilliance, it remains one of my all-time favorite short story collections. And so during the time I was discovering that Carver wasn’t so much an author of this tremendous book, but an author in the shadow of it, a sense of indignation burgeoned inside of me. To quote D.T. Max: “I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean. He had shown writers the value of measuring your words.”

The thing is, as I’ve gone back to the collection over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on why I’d ever adopted this sense of outrage over Lish’s edits. It’s part human compassion, sure–you want Carver, the once alcoholic janitor, to be the genius his book suggests he is. But why is it upsetting when it’s the editor that was in large part responsible for it? Every writer needs an editor, and if Lish took more artistic license than most, he was doing his job–namely, he was making the changes he thought necessary to make the book as good as it could be. Does it matter that he manhandled the manuscript if it’s better for it? Even Carver, in his letters to Lish published by the New Yorker in 2007 acknowledges that Lish “made so many of the stories in this collection better, far better than they were before.”

His reluctance to have the edited versions published was out of fear that his peers–Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff among them–that had seen earlier drafts would hardly recognize the stories as the ones Carver had originally written. “Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories,” his letter explains, “maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I had sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it.”

As we know now, Lish got his way by ignoring Carver’s pleas. Thus, the point of contention among the old friends: What We Talk About transformed Carver into a darling of the literary world, and despite his last-minute reservations and desperation, he didn’t deny himself the glory the book won him, and he remains one of the most revered writers of the 20th century. From the New Yorker article, a quote from Tess Gallagher, with whom Carver lived after his divorce from his first wife until his death in 1988:

What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?…He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.

coverAs Carver’s celebrity grew, so did his confidence; Cathedral came out two years later, and at Carver’s behest, Lish hardly touched it. If it’s not the monument What We Talk About is, it is his most decorated work, with a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, and is generally regarded as Carver’s “truer” work. While I certainly agree that it contains some masterful fiction, I stand by my preference for What We Talk About. What some critics and peers have called greater “heart” in Cathedral Lish referred to as Carver’s “creeping sentimentality,” and while the subject matter of a middle class in ruins remains undeniably Carverian, the tone takes a noticeable shift–to put it one way, there is optimism in the latter book, where the prior is renowned for its lack of it.

Though Sklenicka’s biography raises the issue of Carver’s true identity as a writer once again, after all is said and done, the fear of his being exposed as a no-talent buoyed by his editor is irrational. It’s been over ten years since Lish’s heavy hand has been revealed, and Carver’s place among the masters of short fiction still stands. On the other hand, Lish has taken something of a beating for it; “I can only be despised for my participation,” he told Max during the interview. He may always be revered as an editor and credited with launching the careers of writers like Richard Ford and Amy Hempel who emerged in Carver’s wake, but in an abstract sense, Lish–or rather, his aggressive editorial approach–is easy to demonize. He expressly went against Carver’s wishes and instead did what he thought was best. He doesn’t seem like a terrifically nice guy, albeit pretty funny (see The Believer interview excerpt.) But niceness is, by and large, irrelevant to art.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that editors ignore their writers’ requests altogether, but in this particular instance, Lish usurped Carver’s work, and with it, some of his identity. It was traumatic at times for both parties, but in terms of art and aesthetic, wasn’t it worth it? There will be those that disagree that preservation of the artist’s vision is secondary to the art itself, but ultimately, art exists to affect, and the greater the affect, the greater the art, regardless of who’s responsible for it.

is the founding editor of Nouvella and the former senior editor of Flatmancrooked Publishing.


  1. Deena’s 100% correct. In fact, writers are always already “edited” by cultural and historical forms and ideas that exist prior to their so-called “originality.” Any work of art is always a team project.

  2. Simple answer to your question, “Isn’t it worth it?” No. It’s not. Team effort? Maybe. If you mean, I read other novels and their ideas influence me, but I don’t credit Dickens or Joy Williams with writing my work. Certainly nothing is “original,” but if it’s not wholesale plagiarism, then I would say it’s as original as you’ll get.

    To claim that Lish made Carver better is arguable, but Deena then shows that Carver did quite fine on his own. Her preference for “What We Talk About” is only some fierce amalgamation of Lish/Carver, or maybe Larver or Clish. Whatever. Point is, it’s what is now popularly called a “mash-up.” And while it’s really Carver’s name on the book, I’d like to honestly see Lish’s name on their as well. Maybe Deena should read more Lish. Personally, I find his work tedious and tawdry. But somehow, the S.O.B. shines when it comes to goofing and tweaking others’ words. He’s an odd one to explain.

    I know editors have a job to do, and sometimes, like the extreme exceptions noted above, they do help birth wonderful art. But to defend an editor, I don’t know. I’d like to think and believe that the writer should be the best editor of the work. Not an outside source. To play devil’s advocate, I’ve never been an editor, so I will concede a certain swathe of ignorance here.

    Fine article all around though. Never disappointed with The Millions. Nor its topics.

  3. For give the typos above. How is it that typos inside a blog comment area are more embarrassing than social foibles?

  4. In my own limited experience, editors are the only ones with any real sensitivity for the life of the writing beyond the author’s desk. My publisher is a businessman so he doesn’t really care beyond the contracts, and my agent is obsessed with money, celebrity, lunch and drinks. My editor, on the other hand, actually reads the work, engages with it and suggests ways to let it breathe beyond the circumference of my head. Without an editor, I wouldn’t always know if I was communicating or merely speaking a private language.

  5. Interesting that you chose a rapist as your metaphor for an editor, particularly in light of the Carver/Lish story that you then tell. Did Scarlett really like it? Should Carver have stood up and pointed a finger at Lish? Interesting questions.

  6. The point about originality is really fundamental. As poststructural theory has shown us, the Romantic conception of the author as “genius” is naive to the extreme. Your ideas and the artistic forms you “choose” are always already in the culture. What we call originality is simply hybridization or deviation from established norms. For example, can you really imagine Carver without Hemingway or minimalism in general? Authors are not born geniuses — they have countless influences, conscious and unconscious. You may think something is yours, but you can never get outside of culture, or more specifically, the historical and intertextual forces that create works of art. Just think of editors as one more force in a countless network of forces that make up the “author.”

  7. An excellent meditation on the subject, but I must take issue with Ms. Drewis’ conclusion that the end justifies the means.

    Lish’s role with Carver was less as an editor than a collaborator. Comparing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Carver-Lish) with Cathedral (Carver alone) is more like comparing any Beatles album with any solo album by any ex-Beatle. The solo work may reveal the individual genius but the collaborative effort remains superior.

    I’m not sure if the Carver-Lish relationship is the best example of the writer/editor relationship. The task of the editor, as I understand it, is to make the work more itself, as it were. To polish the diamond so that its natural light might shine all the brighter. Lish seems to have taken Carver’s work as a raw stone to be recut to his own specification.

    Am I suggesting that Lish should have been a co-author to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love? Maybe. Even Carver seems to have thought so, if not precisely in those terms.

  8. Great post. I too find the Lish edited Carver stories to be vastly superior.

    I do think it would be interesting to see Lish’s name on the cover, though who knows if he would want that.

  9. A wonderful essay and it doesn’t matter how What We Talk About . . . . came about. It is pure genius.

  10. Steven Owen:

    ” For example, can you really imagine Carver without Hemingway or minimalism in general? Authors are not born geniuses — they have countless influences, conscious and unconscious.”

    I must admit I fail to see why “genius” can’t exist merely because all great artists have influences. Why would that preclude genius? It is the way someone synthesizes and reconfigures their influences that makes them genius.

  11. Lincoln. It doesn’t preclude genius — the point is that writers are not born, but made. Does a writer of high “natural” intellect have a greater chance of producing high works of art? Perhaps, but then we get into an argument about what makes genius to begin with, nature or nurture. I think, obviously, both play a role, but I would argue that learning is probably the most important factor.

    The important point to note is that even if genius exists, without learning it would be undeveloped, empty of ideas and forms, and logically impossible for a subject within culture. Hence, the notion of originality, in any sense, is untenable.

    Consequently, why should editors get a bad rap for “altering” something “original” when it has actually been determined by a variety of cultural forces?

    They shouldn’t. Editors are simply good readers, and they try to get outside of that emotional attachment writers develop to a story. That emotional attachment, of course, I would argue, has everything to do with the naive idea that they are a special genius, a notion we have inherited from the Romantics.

    When truly, a work of art is never made by one “author,” but countless.

  12. Steve wrote, “The important point to note is that even if genius exists, without learning it would be undeveloped, empty of ideas and forms, and logically impossible for a subject within culture. Hence, the notion of originality, in any sense, is untenable.

    “Consequently, why should editors get a bad rap for “altering” something “original” when it has actually been determined by a variety of cultural forces?”

    The notion of originality is easily defended: Carver wrote stories that would never have existed had Carver never lived. The stories are original because their composition depended from the unique origin that we call Raymond Carver. Whether his abilities were mostly inborn or learned, or whether you want to call him a genius at all, is beside the point.

    The important point to note is that the stories belonged to Carver, according to copyright law and common sense, and Lish disrespected Carver by altering the stories against Carver’s wishes. That was wrong.

    It’s interesting: the people who prefer the book from which Lish obliterated any sense of optimism for the middle class, those same people seem to agree that the injustice done to the (middle-class) author is unimportant.

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  14. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

    Most of the editors I know (and I think it’s probably safe to say that most editors in general) are writers themselves, which makes for interesting internal conflict during either process. However, to address what Kyle brought up, I agree that writers should certainly be GOOD editors of his or her own work. I think that that’s absolutely requisite to good writing. But with creation comes a proximity that can’t always be transcended. Hence, the role of the editor. And you’re right that Lish is a better editor than he is a writer; that’s very often the case. Writing and editing are a related skill set, but the process and approach are two vastly different things.

    What’s important to keep in mind, I think, is that Carver thought Lish’s edits were for the better. From what his letters show us, his resistance came from wanting to preserve his hold on the stories in the eyes of his peers. Preservation of ego, in other words, which isn’t such an absurd thing amongst artists. So, Lucas, I don’t think it’s fair to project some sort of oppression of the middle class. I don’t think Lish, or people who prefer What We Talk About, are trying to fetishize the bleakness of his stories. That’s a humanistic approach, sure, and I think it’s what we all struggle with ethically regarding the Carver/Lish issue. But art, generally speaking, lasts when it’s great, and Lish made the stories better. Carver went on to have an important, fulfilling career, but who’s to say where he’d be without those heavy edits. You’re absolutely right that without Carver, the Carver stories wouldn’t exist–Lish wasn’t going to write those on his own. Carver deserves credit for being a great writer as much as Lish deserves credit for being a great editor.

    Thanks again, everyone, for all your insight, and for reading.

  15. D. T. Max’s account was not entirely “unprecedented.” I described Lish’s editing of “Neighbors” for Esquire at some length in my 1995 book, It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties, published by W. W. Norton. I also reprinted a page of edited Carver manuscript that graphically demonstrates the extent of Lish’s editing.

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