Raymond Carver: Treading on Sacred Ground

by Evan Jones

I grew up reading the stories of Raymond Carver. I have my mother to thank for the introduction and my own good sense to thank for aiding me in maintaining the relationship. I loved the “real life” subject matter and blue-collar characters of carver’s stories, stories that were set in places where such people would believably live, many times smaller towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest or sometimes ones local to my own native Northern California. Almost everything about Carver’s stories seemed somewhat familiar, like they could be about people you knew. I think that’s one reason why they were so hard to put down. The other was that the only thing you often had to reach for in the stories, or at least think about, was the stories meaning to you, which should probably be important to you when you like a story in the first place.

Carver never tells you specifically what or how to feel about his stories and definitely never seems to try and lead the reader to any one conclusion or any such nonsense like that. The stories simply read like slices of people’s lives, just that the slices are carefully selected for the real events that occur in them, events which catalyze some change or revelation in or from the characters. It’s this style, which would later be dubbed by some as minimalism, which contributes to the common (at least for me) effect of the pause after finishing one of Carver’s stories, a lingering moment where you know that some profound connection has been made between your mind and the story because of the sincerity of the feeling you are experiencing, but you still must wait for the waves of the story to catch up and roll over you for a few moments while you try absorb or grasp just exactly what that revelation may be. I love that feeling. It is what really hooked me on Carver’s writing. You can imagine my alarm upon finding out that that feeling may have been caused just as much by the editing of someone else, as Carver’s own writing.

Two new books out recently, Carol Sklenicka’s “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life”, and “Carver: Collected Stories”, a comprehensive anthology of Carver’s work from several different collections of stories, including his breakout collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, but also including the unedited version of this book, which was originally titled “Beginners”, shed new light on the results of the influences upon Carver’s writing, channeled both indirectly through Carver himself, and much more overtly through Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish.

By all accounts; in Sklenicka’s book as well as in the obviously apparent differences between the previously published “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, and the never before published original version, “Beginners” in the new collection, Carver’s editor Gordon Lish, certainly seems to be a heavy handed one. It may have been this way since the beginning. In 1972, Lish changed the title of the second of Carver’s stories to be published by Esquire (which he also profoundly edited the content of) from a more beckoning “Are These Actual Miles?” to much more benign “What Is It?” Carver, eager to be published in a major magazine, accepted the changes. He reassured himself and others by saying that “a major magazine publication was worth the compromise.” This however, may have been the establishment of Lish’s upper-handed power over Carver which would dictate the nature of their relationship for years to come.

Was Gordon Lish a good editor? Well, he was at the very least, a successful one. Lish held the fiction editor position at Esquire magazine for 7 years, and then later a senior editor position at the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf for almost 30. Perhaps his success went to his head a bit and contributed to his tendency for taking liberties with the writing, and writers under his control. After all, Lish is the one who wrote a piece entitled “How I Got To Be a Big Shot Editor” and is said to have bragged that Carver was “his creature”. What appears on the back jacket of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”(1976), Carver’s first published book of stories, is not Raymond Carver’s photograph but Gordon Lish’s name.

Sklenicka’s own account of the changes in Carver’s third collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), is nothing short of heartbreaking. There were, she says, three versions. The first version was the manuscript that Carver submitted. It was titled “So Much Water So Close to Home.” The second was the manuscript that Lish initially sent back. This is where he changed the name of the story “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and of course that became the new title of the book. Although this alarmed Carver, he still signed a legally binding contract with this version as the premise in 1980. Soon after however, a third version, and the version most readers now know, arrived on Carver’s desk. Now even the differences between the contracted version and this latest version “astounded” him. “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Sklenicka writes. “He had not expected . . . a meat cleaver.” According to the poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s most recent wife, Lish refused over the phone to restore the earlier version and the rest is as they say, history.

Only now, history is being re-written. The truths are finally surfacing, helped in no small way by these two very welcome books which are serving as long overdue correctives. One need only glance at the stories in “Beginners” and the ones in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in the new “Collected Stories” to see the most obvious changes. The prose in “Beginners” consists of more concentrated blocks of narration interspersed with dialogue while in “What We Talk About,” much of both of these are simply…gone. In many cases, the man who is rumored not to have allowed editors to change his own work gutted Carver’s, and on this subject Sklenicka voices her own opinion in “A Writer’s Life” quite clearly, calling Lish’s editing of Carver “a usurpation.” He imposed his own style on Carver’s stories, and the so-called minimalism with which Carver is credited with, minimalism being a good thing or not, must have rested heavily and undeservedly on Carver. I for one hope that the weight upon him has lifted somewhat for his sake, rest his soul. Now all that is left, is for Carver fans to compare the different versions, edited and unedited, and make their own conclusions as this then becomes a very personal realm for Carver fans, and I being one of these, a place wherein I cannot and will not delve in print.

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