Dominique Nabokov

Raymond Carver at the Café de Flore, Paris, 1987


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.

Like his protagonist, Carver doesn’t quite seem to know how to make an exit: his prose flails and stammers in its effort to wring as much excitement from the scene as possible (“It came to him with a shock,” “He was terrified to think”), before petrifying into the mawkish tableau of the final sentence. It all seems rather un-Carveresque.

Here is the Lish version:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

Compared to this, the original climax has the weightless intensity of a soap opera (“Is this what love is, L.D.?”), in which people broadcast their emotions to one another in stentorian italics. Carver had deployed an entire arsenal where in fact, as Lish shows, a well-placed sniper is all that is needed. It is not only both funny and poignant that L.D. should find himself at a loss for words at such an instant. It also feels inevitable. Once we read it for the first time, it’s difficult to imagine the story ending any other way (the same can surely not be said of the earlier draft). Of course, we think, a man who is not above stealing the toothpaste from his wife and daughter—Lish, by the way, has him take the dental floss as well—would forget what he had to say. A lifetime of bungling, failure, humiliation, and deceit seems to be disclosed in a single moment.

Carver is most often thought of as the master of such moments, as a writer who, like his hero Chekhov, excelled at representing people not quite finding the right words for things. Casting one’s eye back and forth between Beginners and What We Talk About, however, it becomes increasingly clear that to a large degree it was Lish who created this reticence, this emphasis on the unsaid. Like the original version of “One More Thing,” many of the stories in Beginners—“So Much Water So Close to Home,” “A Small, Good Thing,” “Want to See Something?” “Beginners” itself—end with outbursts, with passionate speeches and pronouncements in which characters finally manage to give voice to their emotions. Almost none of this survived Lish’s scrutiny; it was either excised or radically condensed.

Henry James once said that in art, economy is beauty. This is something Lish understood far better than Carver. The brilliance of his editorial husbandry is apparent on almost every page. In “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” we find Lish reining in the rhetorical excesses of the original, so that this mannered sub-Faulknerian description of a drowned neighbor’s hand being exhumed from a lake—

For myself, I knew I wouldn’t forget the sight of that arm emerging out of the water. Like some kind of mysterious and terrible signal, it seemed to herald the misfortune that dogged our family in the coming years.

—is transformed into the wry, demotic stoicism of:

That arm coming up and going back down in the water, it was like so long to good times and hello to bad. Because it was nothing but that all the years after Dummy drowned himself in that dark water.


Carver, then, was not speaking idly when he said that Lish held an “irredeemable note.” As we learn from Carol Sklenicka’s new biography, however, Lish was by no means the only person to whom Carver was in the hole. Debt—emotional, artistic, financial—was one of the central themes of his life. Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938, the son of a sawmill worker, from whom he would inherit a taste for both alcohol and restless wandering. He was only nineteen when he married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk, who had herself graduated from high school less than a week earlier. Children soon followed, and with them came, as Carver put it, nineteen years of “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” He held a series of “crap jobs”—janitor, drugstore clerk—that he would later pass on to his characters, but it was Maryann who took on most of the work, hoping to give her husband as much time as possible to devote to his writing.

Drunkenness frequently came between Carver and his craft, and Sklenicka’s book is, among other things, a catalog of increasingly depraved drinking stories. Carver gets drunk at a restaurant and steals a pepper grinder. Carver gets drunk at home and ruins Christmas. Carver gets drunk at a party and throws a glass at his wife’s head. Drunkenness also had a way of coming between Carver and his family’s money. During this period they filed twice for bankruptcy protection.

The couple separated in 1976. Carver quit drinking the following year. “I’m prouder of that,” he once said, “than I am of anything in my life.” He spent his last eleven years with the poet Tess Gallagher, whom he married in 1988, the year he died of lung cancer at the age of fifty. Gallagher became an important reader of his early drafts and was also essential to his ongoing sobriety.
Sklenicka has done exhaustive research (she began interviewing people in 1994) and, as you would expect, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is bursting with valuable information. It is not, however, a distinguished book. It contains little in the way of sensitive textual analysis. Sklenicka mines the stories for biographical data but does so with little delicacy or discrimination. “Collectors,” for example, written in the mid-1970s during the nadir of his alcoholism, is cited as

evidence that Carver understood himself to be finished. No longer was he the writer and man named Raymond Carver: he was a nameless bankrupt and drunk whose wife had little use for him, ready for the dustbin of history.

This is a curious surmise. Why would someone who no longer thinks of himself as a writer decide to write a story about the fact?

Sklenica is no better at describing the historical and cultural background of Carver’s life. She sees late-1960s America, for example, as a time when

Nihilism and carpe diem alternated to create a sense that nothing mattered and you could get away with anything. Women went without bras, and men and women alike uttered angry profanities to display minds as unfettered as their bodies.

Elsewhere we get useless juxtapositions, such as: “In 1960, as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon ran for president, Lish, now twenty-six, began teaching English at Mills High School in the suburb of Millbrae.” And: “In January 1980, as Jimmy Carter’s presidency limped through its final year and Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign gathered momentum, Ray moved to Syracuse.” It is unfortunate that Sklenicka did not have someone like Gordon Lish to shape this book into something more thoughtful and illuminating.


After the success of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver’s relationship with Lish began to sour. “Being around Ray and Gordon in the early 1980s,” said one mutual friend, “was like watching a marriage go bad.” During preparations for his next book, Cathedral (1983), Carver made it clear he would not “undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make [the new stories] someway fit into the carton so the lid will close.” Reluctantly, Lish complied. Sending him an edited version of one of the stories that would appear in Cathedral, Lish said the work he’d done on it represented the “minimum” he felt was possible: “to do less than this would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly.” Like a host who keeps the lights low so as to conceal the stains on the carpet and the dents in the walls, Lish suggests, the constraints imposed on Carver’s first two collections were necessary to mask the limitations of his writing.

This is a harsh judgment, harshly phrased, but there is some truth to it. As Lish’s influence receded, Carver’s fiction became more conventional. Silences dwindle; there is more loose talk; the emotional volume is turned up. In “Fever,” a high school teacher, Carlyle, befriends an elderly woman, Mrs. Webster, whom he has hired to babysit his young children after his wife leaves him for another man. When, toward the end of the story, Mrs. Webster tells him that she and her husband have decided to leave the area, she inadvertently uncaps a geyser of schmaltz:

Mrs. Webster, there’s something I want you to know. For a long time, my wife and I loved each other more than anything or anybody in the world. And that includes those children. We thought, well, we knew that we’d grow old together. And we knew we’d do all the things in the world that we wanted to do, and do them together.

When Carlyle pauses, Mrs. Webster presses him to continue, as it dawns on us that she is little more than the emissary of Carver’s sentimentalism:

I know what you’re saying. You just keep talking, Mr. Carlyle. Sometimes it’s good to talk about it. Sometimes it has to be talked about. Besides, I want to hear it. And you’re going to feel better afterwards. Something just like it happened to me once, something like what you’re describing. Love. That’s what it is.

There is nothing at all poignant about writing with such naked designs on our emotions. One can’t help reading this passage through the eyes of Lish, who understood that fiction has to stalk its prey with less noise and greater cunning.

Still, there are several post-Lish masterpieces, stories like “Feathers,” “Where I’m Calling From,” and “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” that one can be glad Lish did not edit. The title story from Cathedral is one of the best Carver ever wrote. Free from the garrulous sentimentality that sinks “Fever” (and most of Beginners), it nevertheless achieves an emotional range that Carver felt to be lacking from his earlier work. Without understanding why, the narrator is agitated by the visit of one of his wife’s old friends, a blind man for whom she used to work. After dinner the two men smoke marijuana together while watching a television documentary about European cathedrals. It occurs to the narrator that the blind man must have only a vague notion of what cathedrals are. He tries to describe them:

To begin with, they’re very tall…. They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky. They’re so big, some of them, they have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses. They remind me of viaducts, for some reason. But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either?

He soon realizes, however, that he isn’t “getting through to him.” One can imagine Lish ending the story here, at a moment of stalled speech. It is also possible to conceive of a younger, less-assured Carver launching the narrator or the blind man into a lachrymose personal confession. The story does something different. At the blind man’s suggestion they draw a cathedral together, the blind man holding the narrator’s hand. It is an oddly moving scene that builds to a note rarely struck in the Lish stories—one of cautious affirmation. When they are finished the blind man asks the narrator how it looks:

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

“Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

“It’s really something,” I said.

The publication of Beginners has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish. There are certainly some fine stories among Carver’s later work and they should make us grateful that he ultimately broke with his editor; and yet it is unlikely that we would be reading the later stories at all were it not for Lish’s transformation of What We Talk About.

Still, it is the stories themselves, and not their genesis, that will continue to seize and hold attention. Like Maxwell Perkins’s editing of Look Homeward Angel (which cut 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s manuscript) or Ezra Pound’s liberation of “The Waste Land” from inside the welter of T.S. Eliot’s inauspiciously titled first draft, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” we are likely to end up viewing Lish’s involvement with Carver as a footnote, incidental to our appreciation of the finished work. Readers of the Collected Stories would do well to remember a remark of Pound’s, which Carver himself once quoted in an interview: “It’s immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them.”

This Issue

May 27, 2010