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…
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