Vladimir Nabokov referred to editors as “pompous avuncular brutes.” T.S. Eliot said that many of them were just “failed writers.” And Kingsley Amis, that laureate of cantankerousness, spoke of how the worst kind
prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for any phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage.
Raymond Carver, at least to begin with, was on altogether better terms with his editor, Gordon Lish, to whom he once wrote, “If I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you.” Elsewhere Carver acknowledged his debt to Lish by saying simply that his editor held an “irredeemable note.” This brief, eloquent tribute is paid in the essay “Fires,” which Carver wrote during a stay at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in upstate New York, in the summer of 1981. He had every reason to be feeling grateful. A few months earlier his second short-story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, had been published and was still being hailed and heralded by the literary world.
The book made Carver famous and, for the first time in his chronically impecunious existence, rich. It has since come to be regarded as the cornerstone not only of his reputation but of an entire literary movement, whose members might loosely be said to include Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tobias Wolff, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison, among others. Few books of the last quarter-century have been more widely imitated. Attend a creative writing workshop or open a magazine of short stories nowadays and the chances are you will encounter one of Carver’s numberless epigones.
What critics admired—and what Carver’s heirs would strive to emulate—was the book’s lean, reticent prose style, which seems to register every detail with the same neutral intensity, the same dispassionate precision. There is, for example, almost no difference between the manner in which Carver describes a woman ordering a birthday cake for her son—
The cake she chose was decorated with a spaceship and a launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars. The name SCOTTY would be iced on in green as if it were the name of the spaceship.
—and the manner in which, shortly thereafter, he describes the son being hit by a car:
At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.
Carver’s prose does not flinch. The fictional world he uses it to describe is a sprawling hinterland inhabited by drifters and floaters, by stay-at-home drunks and itinerant deadbeats. His characters struggle to hold on to jobs they hate and to marriages that have become more trouble than they’re worth. The only relief is to be found at the bottom of a glass of whiskey or on a weekend fishing trip. This of course is the world in which Carver spent most of his life. Chronicling it with scrupulous attention would earn him his ticket out.
On July 8, 1980, however, one year before his triumphant summer at Yaddo, Carver had written to Gordon Lish urging him to halt production on What We Talk About. He had just spent the whole night going over Lish’s edited version of the book and was taken aback by the changes. His manuscript had been radically transformed. Lish had cut the total length of the book by over 50 percent; three stories were at least 70 percent shorter; ten stories had new titles and the endings of fourteen had been rewritten.
The long, anguished letter begins with another frank acknowledgment of debt, although here Carver is less graceful, and less concise:
You are a wonder, a genius, and there’s no doubt of that, better than any two of Max Perkins, etc. etc. And I’m not unmindful of the fact of my immense debt to you, a debt I can simply never, never repay. This whole new life I have, so many of the friends I now have, this job up here [teaching creative writing at Syracuse University], everything, I owe to you….
Carver met Lish in 1967. Both men were working as textbook editors in Palo Alto. Lish, himself an aspiring writer, had come across Carver’s fiction in various little magazines and was already an admirer. They became friends and drinking partners—although for Carver, a full-fledged alcoholic, the terms were more or less synonymous.
In 1969, Lish tall-talked his way into a job as fiction editor of Esquire. “The plain fact is,” he wrote in a remarkable deal-sealing letter to Harold Hayes, the magazine’s editor in chief, “I have earned this job—through great love for the short story and great labor to know it, to make it the province in which my sensibilities live.” He was soon publishing Carver, who assured him he hadn’t “backed the wrong horse.” Then, in 1975, Lish moved to McGraw-Hill where he was given his own imprint. His first order of business was to call his friend and offer him a contract for a book of stories. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was published the following year and a “whole new life” began to open up for Carver.
So one can understand, reading his letter of July 8, 1980, why Carver was “not unmindful” of all he owed to Lish. What he was now concerned about, however, was going even further into debt. Although he was “awed and astonished” by the new text, Carver, who had recently quit drinking, pleaded with Lish not to go ahead:
I’m afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.
Lish, however, overruled Carver—and the rest is literary history.
The new Library of America edition of Carver’s Collected Stories has galled many by what they view as its attempt to rewrite this history. At the behest of Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow and literary executor, its editors, William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, have made the decision to include the manuscript version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, under the title Beginners,* alongside the text that established Carver’s reputation in 1981.
Both in the notes to this book and elsewhere, Stull and Carroll provide several ostensibly good reasons for this decision. The centerpiece of their argument is Carver’s July 1980 letter, quoted above, which Gallagher takes as proof that he “didn’t ultimately accept” Lish’s revisions. Furthermore, they argue,
Carver chose thirty stories from his previously published books for what proved to be his final book of fiction, Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories (1988). Significantly, he included three of his original versions instead of their Lish-edited counterparts from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Thus, according to Stull and Carroll, “Beginners completes the restoration that Raymond Carver began—a restoration cut short by his too-early death.”
In their eagerness to make the case for the manuscript version, Stull and Carroll give short shrift to several important points. The first is that Carver did come around to Lish’s version. Less than a week after his anguished letter, he wrote his editor to say, “I’m thrilled about the book and its impending publication. I’m stoked about it….” Apparently, according to Stull and Carroll, “The resistance he had voiced a week earlier had collapsed, as had his self-confidence.” Perhaps. But one is hardly obliged to take Carver’s earlier resistance as a definitive statement about his wishes for the book, nor can speculation about his self-confidence be used to undermine the fact that he did change his mind.
Second, Stull and Carroll are correct in saying that Carver chose three pre-Lished stories from What We Talk About for inclusion in Where I’m Calling From, but they seriously downplay the fact that he also chose to republish eight stories in their post-Lish versions in the same book. Their presumption that Carver would have republished his original text in its entirety had he lived is exactly that: a presumption. In any case, the main problem with the decision to publish Beginners is much more straightforward: the book isn’t very good.
Beginners is twice as long as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (202 pages compared to 103 in the present volume), and about half as interesting. One can’t help but wonder whether the Library of America would be republishing Carver now if it had been this version of the book, and not the one pruned and scoured by Lish, that appeared in 1981. Carver’s original text, it turns out, is dense with sentimentality and melodrama. Lish sensed a leaner, quieter, more agile book trapped inside the manuscript and he hacked away briskly until he was satisfied he’d found it.
The two versions of “One More Thing,” the final story in both Beginners and What We Talk About, reveal Lish’s editing at its most drastic and inspired. Maxine, the beleaguered wife of L.D., an alcoholic, returns home from work one evening to find him embroiled in an argument with their teenage daughter. After several volleys of abuse are exchanged, Maxine orders him to leave: “Tonight. This minute. Now.” L.D. bundles some things together—including the only tube of toothpaste in the house—and then prepares to say goodbye. Here is the ending Carver initially wrote:
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you 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.
“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.
It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.
“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”
“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.
As Stull and Carroll explain, they have chosen the name Beginners for the manuscript version "because the story ‘Beginners' corresponds to the title story of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."↩
As Stull and Carroll explain, they have chosen the name Beginners for the manuscript version “because the story ‘Beginners’ corresponds to the title story of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”↩