Friday, November 27, 2009

Rediscovering Carver

I've been rediscovering Raymond Carver. Turns out he wasn't a minimalist after all. Even though that's what he's famous for.

His editor, Gordon Lish, was the minimalist, slashing many of Carver's stories by half. Others by even more. This was especially true in the case of the groundbreaking collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Now, in a new volume called Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, we get to see the writer's original drafts along with the cut-down versions of those stories.

The originals are better.

I say that even though I've always been a big fan of minimalism.

(For a good visual of Lish's edits, check out "Beginners," Edited in The New Yorker.)

It's hard to say how successful Carver would have been without Lish. It was Lish who gave him his first national exposure in Esquire and championed him with agents and editors.

And Carver was forever grateful to him for changing his life.

Because of Lish, who moved from Esquire to Knopf, Carver became known as "the foremost practitioner of minimalist fiction," as the new dust jacket indicates. But the original stories were not only much longer, they were far richer and, for me, more deeply felt.

Lish was clearly a talented editor, and I admire many of his changes (as did Carver). Still, I seriously doubt that we would know the name Gordon Lish if it weren't for Carver.

So both men benefited, I suppose, but it's heart-breaking to read the long letter Carver wrote to Lish — included in the notes to the new volume — begging him not to move ahead with his radically altered version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

It's hard not to think of Lish as an ass.

The contract for that book gave Lish the final say, but that changed for the next collection, Cathedral, and Carver accepted only minor changes.

So, clearly Carver had a boatload of talent all on his own, but he still might have labored in obscurity without the big break Lish gave him.

And now we get to see the original versions and Carver is back in the news and selling more books and it all turns out for the best.

I love a happy ending.

1 comment:

Mark Richardson said...

It is hard to think of Lish as anything but an ass. It was his way or the highway!

I need to pick-up that new book.