In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment” in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn’t appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn’t that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn’t think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.”
I didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy.
It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice.
Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win.
Like everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or — more to the point — not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so…well, so similar to his others.
I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off.
I’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend — picture a lazier version of a book club — I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones.
I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like.
Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here:
Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in.
One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’
Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer.
But that sameness — it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump?
Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction?
It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME’s list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy.
Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques.
Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing:
There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver’s first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal…But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel…The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.
The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn’t need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.”
J.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with — because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same.
To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born.
Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do.
The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career.
Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.
Fans of Raymond Carver’s short fiction got a treat last year when the Library of America published the celebrated writer’s Collected Stories. Yet for some of his readers, the book cast a disquieting shadow over his career and work. Editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll included in this new volume a manuscript which they entitled Beginners, an alternate version of the 1981 Carver collection published by Knopf as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Nearly thirty years ago, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish cut this manuscript by some 55 percent, essentially against Carver’s wishes. Though WWTA went on to become a critical success and a watershed in Carver’s career, the extent of Lish’s influence on the book has raised questions about just who is responsible for Carver’s artistic success.
In that regard, the Library of America volume’s inclusion of the complete manuscript of Beginners, all seventeen stories, offers readers a chance to draw their own conclusions about who Carver was as a writer, and about the meaning and worth of these contested stories. What follows are my own conclusions.
1: Just Leave Well Enough Alone?
I do understand the feelings of those who, perhaps without having read Beginners, feel a certain weariness at the idea of it. On the way to a chess match today, I was talking with a student at the high school where I teach. In his English class, he’s reading Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. There’s been some confusion because a number of students purchased a different edition of the novel, one that includes scenes that Warren’s editors removed from the novel for its original publication. Only recently, decades after All the King’s Men has become a modern classic, have these additional scenes been spliced back in. In addition, Willie Stark, one of the central characters in the novel, has had his name changed to Willie Talos, Warren’s original name for him.
For Pete’s sake, I found myself thinking. Do we really need this? Wasn’t the novel great enough as it was? And long enough already? Can’t we just leave well enough alone? Willie Talos?
For those who fell in love with Carver’s work while reading WWTA, I can imagine a similar reaction to the publication of Beginners. There’s a feeling of having been baited-and-switched, perhaps. Or of having received an assignment to re-do work one had already completed. There’s an impulse to just throw up one’s hands and say, “It is what it is, and there’s no turning back time.” Or even to say that Lish was the one who made Carver great in the first place.
I understand these reactions. But having read both versions of this story collection in their entirety, my conclusion is that Beginners is vastly superior to WWTA, and indeed a work of art at least equal to Carver’s subsequent collection Cathedral. I don’t mean to be histrionic, but while reading the two versions side by side, I often felt that Lish’s treatment of Carver’s stories verged on the criminal. In a just world, Beginners would be published as a stand-alone volume to replace the shell that Lish made of it.
2: I See a Darkness
The conventional shorthand is that Lish’s versions are bracing and bleak, Carver’s verbose and sentimental. In actuality, however, many of the stories are more disturbing in their original form than in their eventual published form.
In the story “The Fling,” for instance, a father meets his adult son in an airport bar and makes a long confession about the affair that ended his marriage to the man’s mother. “I’ve got to tell this to somebody. I can’t keep it in any longer,” he tells his son. The son, who narrates the story, doesn’t want to listen, much less to forgive. The encounter ends in further estrangement between the two:
He hasn’t written, I haven’t heard from him since then. I’d write to him and see how he’s getting along, but I’m afraid I’ve lost his address. But, tell me, after all, what could he expect from someone like me?
It’s a story about the human need for reconciliation, the sacramental quality of confession and our inability, sometimes, to provide that for those who’ve hurt us. In the original version, the father’s guilt is compounded by the fact that his affair also led to the ghastly suicide of his mistress’s husband. In addition, he characterizes his first sexual encounter with this woman as a kind of rape. In comparison to the WWTA version of this story, entitled “Sacks,” this earlier version has an even darker view of the human capacity for evil—and concomitantly the father’s guilty desire for forgiveness takes on an even more profound resonance.
The most chilling example of the darkness in Carver’s vision, though, is the story “Tell the Women We’re Going,” which culminates in the rape and murder of a woman by one of the main characters. This story is one of the creepiest I’ve read in my life, right up there with Dan Chaon’s “Here’s a Little Something to Remember Me By.” It’s creepy largely because of the patience with which it builds to its horrifying climax. It follows a pair of high school chums who grow into adults with wives and children, then one Sunday afternoon leave their families to go for a drive in the countryside. They drink all afternoon and then head out toward Painted Rocks and the Naches River, encountering a pair of women on bicycles along the way. Their dealings with these women begin with flirtatious banter, then gradually gain menace, until one of the men is half-chasing (and then truly chasing) one of the women up an isolated rock. The violence is described in awful detail, but what makes it most awful is how understandable Carver makes it: we’re in the murderer’s head, seeing the steps that lead to his terrible acts.
At the same time, Carver also does a brilliant job of distinguishing between the two men, one of whom is reluctant to participate in the back-and-forth with the women, and who has parted from the other woman after nothing more than a brief conversation. At the end of the story, he comes upon the scene of the crime and is horrified by what he sees:
Bill felt himself shrinking, becoming thin and weightless. At the same time he had the sensation of standing against a heavy wind that was cuffing his ears. He wanted to break loose and run, but something was moving toward him. The shadows of the rocks as the shape came across them seemed to move with the shape and under it. The ground seemed to have shifted in the odd-angled light. He thought unreasonably of the two bicycles waiting at the bottom of the hill near the car, as though taking one away would change all this, make the girl stop happening to him in that moment he had topped the hill. But Jerry was standing now in front of him, slung loosely in his clothes as though the bones had gone out of him. Bill felt the awful closeness of their two bodies, less than an arm’s length between. Then the head came down on Bill’s shoulder. He raised his hand, and as if the distance now separating them deserved at least this, he began to pat, to stroke the other, while his own tears broke.
Following an incredibly intense narration of a brutal murder, this passage puts us into the experience of the murderer’s friend: the violent shift in his perspective on his old buddy; the surreal quality of coming face to face with this enormity; and, simultaneously, the recognition of the murderer’s humanity despite his new and unbridgeable differentness.
Compare all of that to Lish’s version of the ending (the pursuit, murder, and reaction, in their entirety):
Bill had just wanted to fuck. Or even to see them naked. On the other hand, it was okay with him if it didn’t work out.
He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.
Lish has stripped the story’s ending of its narrative drive and emotional power and replaced them with a cheap jolt. Both stories are bleak, but only Carver’s version expands our understanding of the world by taking us viscerally into the abyss.
3: Less is Less
The radically truncated stories in WWTA cemented Carver’s identity as a minimalist in many people’s minds. Yet a comparison of the stories in Beginners with their counterparts in WWTA demonstrates how false that label is, and how impoverished the minimalist versions really are.
In one of his letters to Lish about the manuscript, Carver wrote the following:
I’m mortally afraid of taking out too much from the stories, of making them too thin, not enough connecting tissue to them.
His fears were well-founded. Lish took from these stories their rich sense of human possibility—their meaningfulness, to put it bluntly.
Lish altered the title of “Want to See Something?” to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” a telling change. For in Lish’s version, the narrator, an insomniac woman who walks out to her backyard in the middle of the night to find a troubled neighbor at war with slugs, comes away from the story with only the smallest changes in her perceptions about her life. She returns to her husband, hears him snoring, then says:
I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.
I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.
In Carver’s version, the woman’s nocturnal sojourn has given her a new perspective on her life and her marriage. She returns to bed and is moved to talk to her husband about her love for him along with her fears about their relationship:
I felt we were going nowhere fast, and it was time to admit it, even though there was maybe no help for it.
Just so many words, you might think. But I felt better for having said them.
He’s still asleep during all of this, but she realizes that that doesn’t matter, and that, in fact, “he already knew everything I was saying, maybe better than I knew, and had for a long time.” The story is about a dark night of the soul, a revelation, a moment of intense awareness that leads to no apparent solution or change except for the profound internal change in the narrator. Lish’s version gives us only the faintest whisper of such a realization.
Many of these stories, as Carver notes in his letters to Lish, are also deeply connected with Carver’s recovery from alcoholism. “If It Please You,” for instance, is about a former drinker, James Packer, who has overcome his desire for booze by taking up needlework, something that another alcoholic recommends as a way to fill up the time formerly devoted to drinking. It’s an activity he finds satisfying. He also knits things that connect him to others’ lives—“caps and scarves and mittens for the grandchildren,” “two woolen ponchos which he and Edith wore when they walked on the beach,” and an afghan that he and his wife sleep under.
In the end of this story, James is full of bad feelings: anger at some “hippies” who cheated at bingo earlier that night; and fear about his wife, who may have uterine cancer. In Carver’s story, he tries to pray—to take solace in another activity endorsed by AA, which demands belief in a higher power. The story ends with a powerful meditation on prayer, and a real spiritual change for James:
He felt something stir inside him again, but it was not anger. He lay as if waiting. Then something left him and something else took its place. He found tears in his eyes. He began praying again, words and parts of speech piling up in a torrent in his mind. He went slower. He put the words together, one after the other, and prayed. This time he was able to include the girl and the hippie in his prayers. Let them have it, yes, drive vans and be arrogant and laugh and wear rings, even cheat if they wanted. Meanwhile, prayers were needed. They could use them too, even his, especially his, in fact. “If it please you,” he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.
Lish appears to understand or sympathize with none of this. In his version, called “After the Denim,” there’s no prayer at all, and even the knitting is depicted only as an expression of lonely anger, the desperate act of a man on a shipwrecked boat (recalling a photograph James sees earlier in the story):
Holding the tiny needle to the light, James Packer stabbed at the eye with a length of blue silk thread. Then he set to work—stitch after stitch—making believe he was waving like the man on the keel.
4: It’s All Right to Cry
In his drastic cutting of Carver’s stories, Lish evinces a real discomfort with, or perhaps blindness to, the sacramental—moments of transcendent awareness, spiritual awakening, and yearning for reconciliation. His aesthetic is one of surfaces. Perhaps he’s aiming to make Carver’s stories more like Hemingway’s, with only the tip of the iceberg visible and the weight concealed. But mostly what he does is lop off the bulk of the berg, leaving just a floating ice cube.
He cuts out the moments that are most tender and beautiful. For example, in “Gazebo,” a story no less heartrending and sad in Carver’s version, a woman talks with her adulterous husband about a time when she believed that their marriage would last a lifetime:
I remember you were wearing cutoffs that day, and I remember standing there looking at the gazebo and thinking about those musicians when I happened to glance down at your bare legs. I thought to myself, I’ll love those legs even when they’re old and thin and the hair on them has turned white. I’ll love them even then, I thought, they’ll still be my legs. You know what I’m saying? Duane?
It’s a wonderful moment, and a sad one, a moment of palpable love and lost hopes. It’s the type of detail that sticks in your head, that you remember years after reading a story. Lish cuts it.
In “Beginners,” a contemporary version of Plato’s Symposium in which two couples sit around a table with gin and tonic and talk about love, Mel McGinnis tells a story that he thinks illustrates what real love is. In that story, an elderly husband and wife named Henry and Anna Gates are hit by a drunk driver and nearly die. Mel, a doctor, gets to know Henry as he and Anna recover in separate rooms, and Mel is moved by his account of their long marriage. The couple used to be snowed in alone all winter in their country home, and each night they would play records and dance together before falling asleep under piles of quilts. Henry, incapacitated in the hospital, is depressed because he’s separated from his wife. When they are finally reunited, though, the scene brings observers to tears:
She gave a little smile and her face lit up. Out came her hand from under the seat. It was bluish and bruised-looking. Henry took the hand in his hands. He held it and kissed it. Then he said, “Hello, Anna. How’s my babe? Remember me? Tears started down her cheeks. She nodded. “I’ve missed you,” he said. She kept nodding.
As I read this scene, I found myself crying, not only because of the beauty of the moment, but also out of a sadness that this scene was axed from the version of this story that most people know. In Lish’s version, Mel’s story culminates with the rather mundane observation that the husband’s “heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”
This version of the story doesn’t bring us to tears, and maybe that’s how Lish intended it, fearing what he called Carver’s “creeping sentimentality.” But, of course, there’s a difference between sentiment and sentimentality. The point of Mel’s story is not that everyone does or should or can love each other as the Gateses do; Carver even leaves open the possibility that the story isn’t entirely true. But in this contemporary re-working of Plato, the story of Anna and Henry is a kind of idealized vision of love, one that beguiles and inspires the four people in the story, who have been hurt but live on to love again.
Carver himself was hurt by what Lish did to his stories, judging by the letters he wrote him. That hurt must have been complicated enormously by the critical success that the altered stories went on to attain. What’s inspiring, though, is how Carver held on to his own vision: the stories in his 1983 collection Cathedral hew to the model of those in Beginners, and include the story “A Small, Good Thing” essentially in the version originally prepared for Beginners.
In this story, a little boy named Scotty is struck by a car on the day of his own birthday party. He falls into a coma and, after several days in the hospital, dies. His mother had ordered a birthday cake for him a few days before the accident, and the baker who has made it begins calling with nasty messages because Scotty’s parents have not picked it up.
Lish amputates the second half of the story, which he titles “The Bath”: Scotty never dies, and the story ends ambiguously, with Scotty’s mother getting another phone call from the baker.
But in Carver’s version, after Scotty’s death his parents go to the shop and confront the baker. Though he is initially defensive, the baker is suddenly struck with shame. He apologizes and gives the grieving parents hot rolls to eat, telling them that “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” The story ends with another sacramental moment, one of communion between these broken people:
“Here, smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. 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 windows, and they did not think of leaving.
It’s all right to come together in times of sadness, this story assures us. It’s all right to risk being sentimental by entering into the sacramental. It’s all right to cry. And it’s all right to write a story that might make someone cry, that might squeeze someone’s heart with horror or sadness, or with small, good things like eating, dancing, knitting, or prayer.
The subsequent evolution of Carver’s career makes it clear that he realized it was okay to write such stories. The publication of Beginners offers a lavish bounty of them.
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.
Maybe 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.
I 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.
As 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.