Talking about editing Ray Carver

December 22, 2008

posted by Caroline Picard; because I’ve been having a number of conversations lately about editing and how much an editor has to do with a great writer….


Talking about editing Ray Carver

By Alex Beam Globe Columnist / December 19, 2007

I have never met a writer who didn’t need an editor, and an editor without a writer is a person without a job. It is a fraught and often-imperfect relationship, of course, dating back to the beginning of time. You remember; after God moved upon the darkness, he proclaimed, “I’ve put in place some very wondrous illumination here!” And Mrs. God gently suggested the more pithy: “Let there be light.”

Writer-editor relations appear front and center these days because Tess Gallagher, the widow of short story writer Raymond Carver, is suggesting that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, bowdlerized the Carver oeuvre. “Bowdlerize” is a word that owes its existence to a 19th-century editor, Thomas Bowdler, who toned down the gamy parts of Shakespeare’s works. It’s not precisely accurate here, because Lish added lots of four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms into Carver’s stories, if the edited manuscript of “Beginners,” now displayed at, is any guide.

So what exactly did Lish, himself a writer of no small ambition, do to Carver’s story, originally called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”? He did one thing that many good editors do, and that most good writers do for themselves. He cut, and cut, and cut. Lish seems to have cut between 4,000 and 5,000 words from the story, which appears at its original length in the current print version of The New Yorker. In the main, he cut length and sentimentality, especially an extended, mawkish, semi-credible subplot about an elderly couple who “truly” loved each other.

Secondly – and this is more problematic – Lish also wrote portions of Carver’s work. He wrote in the semi-telegraphic, minimalist style that had become the watermark of Carver’s work, a style some say was foisted on Carver by his editor. If you read the story, you will see that “Beginners” ends with a sort of naturalistic, half-cocked-epiphany that befits what has come to be known as a New Yorker story.

Lish tossed the last 2,000 words of the story, and wrote instead: “I could hear my heart beating. As a matter of fact, I could hear everyone’s heart. It was awful, the human noise we sat there making, not a one of us moving even when the room went totally dark.”

(You can see other, purported Lish rewrites collated by University of Hartford scholars William Stull and Maureen Carroll at Carver.pdf. Carroll and Stull declined to answer questions about their work.)

In addition to the drastic cuts, Lish made other changes. He roughed up the prose, injecting some of the “Kmart realism” that New York intellectuals so savored in Carver. Under Lish’s pen, an Albuquerque cardiologist adopts longshoreman patois: “this [expletive] gin” for “gin;” “shooter” for drink, and so on. Lish also changed the names of two characters, and deleted a favorable reference to Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” a novel presumably little read in the Kmart aisles.

Does Tess Gallagher have a point? I think she does. While it is true that “Beginners” as Carver wrote it does drag on, it’s an extended conversation among people drinking gin, lots of gin. (“Cheapo” gin, Lish felt compelled to add, although Carver had mentioned it was Beefeaters.) For my money Carver picks up the longueurs, the non sequiturs, the occasional insights, and the blind boredom of alcohol talk pretty well. It sounds like what drunk people talk about when they think they are talking about love.

Whether Gallagher will succeed in publishing the “real” Raymond Carver stories is far from clear. This is a copyright battle looking for a place to happen. The New Yorker paid fees to both Gallagher’s agent Andrew Wylie and to Carver’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, for “Beginners.” Wylie won’t talk about who really owns the edited versus unedited stories, and whether they will be published in book form. Knopf’s position is that it published the genuine Carver stories starting in 1981, and that there is no need for any new editions. “It’s pretty cut and dry,” a spokesman explains. “We own the publishing rights to the stories.”

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is


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