It’s probably 25 years ago or so that I first read Raymond Carver. I remember picking up a short story collection in a bookshop in 1980-something and being impressed by two things: the blurb on the back (topnotch authors and critics virtually falling over themselves to say how good these stories were); and the cover photograph of Carver looking just like the “best American short story writer of his generation” ought to look — all brooding intelligence and purposeful knitwear.
Another rather obvious case I’m afraid of me judging the book by its cover.
So anyway, when I first read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I’m fairly sure I did so still strongly under the influence of superlatives (let’s put knitwear to one side). But even then the feeling crept up on me that maybe these stories were just a tiny bit unsatisfying. I began to wonder if it was Carver’s trade-mark writing style itself — the celebrated economy of language and pared down dialogue, the barely glimpsed at lives of his sad, blue-collar characters — that was leaving me feeling narratively short-changed.
Two other collections came along later — Cathedral, 1984, and Elephant, 1988. And with them came more high praise for that compressed and intense form, which by now had spawned a stream of imitators and gained a nomenclature: Carveresque.
In truth, I’m not sure I thought too much about Raymond Carver between the late 1980s and last weekend. But there in a double page spread in last Sunday’s Observer Magazine was that picture of Ray in his polo knit.
The four-page article, constructed largely around an interview with Carver’s second wife, Tess Gallagher, coincides with publication of ‘uncut’ versions of the author’s manuscripts. Gallagher, who has overseen the Carver estate since Ray’s death in 1984, wants to derail (or at least send off into the sidings) a reappraisal of Carver by literary critics which has him recast as a relatively minor writer made big by the brilliance of his editor, Gordon Lish.
Lish championed a whole stable of rising American authors — Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hermpel and Richard Ford among them — as literary editor of Esquire magazine and later at the book publisher Alfred A Kopf. In the process he acquired (or gave himself) the title Captain Literature.
As a reputation maker, Lish’s talent’s were — are — indisputable. Lured to his legendary writing workshops (likened by one alumnus to 1970s-style primal scream therapy) those fledgling novelists who survived being beaten to a critical pulp were scraped off the ground, refashioned and thrust into the literary limelight — many to become big name writers. Whether they, or their writing, were ever the same again is another matter. As Gerald Howard has noted, they were all guinea pigs in Lish’s mission to “sweep the well-made story into the dustbin of literary history”
Accusations of “slash and burn editing” were one thing. It was the creeping contention that Gordon Lish had effectively been Carver’s ghost-writer that really had to be dealt with. Hence publication now of Carver’s unedited manuscripts as a form of enforced stock-taking.
But letters recently made public show that Carver himself fought hard, if in vain, to prevent what he called the “surgical amputation” of his writing. Pleading with Lish to give his characters and stories some breathing space, he wrote: “Gordon, don’t leave these stories with limbs and heads of hair sticking out”.
Comparing the opening pages of Lish’s edit for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love with Carver’s original draft (titled Beginners) is instructive. Within the first paragraph Lish has renamed the central character (Herb becomes Mel, no explanation given) and deleted or severely truncated several sentences. Some stories in the collection are cut by 50 to 70 per cent.
But not only do the stories lose half their length, those renamed characters (Bea becomes Rae, Kate becomes Melody, Cynthia becomes Myrna) are blunter, more brutal presences. As Gaby Wood wrote in her Observer piece, Lish’s edits — made as if the editor “knew the writer’s inventions better than he did himself — alter the plots and characters way beyond issues of nuance and shading, they are close to being different stories altogether. Gordon Lish’s stories”.
I’ve just gone out to buy a copy of the new edition of Beginners. I want to read the fleshier versions of the stories cut back to the linguistic bone by Gordon Lish; find out what once filled the narrative silences and have Ray’s characters complete their sentences. Yup, I think I’m ready for pre-carve up Carver.