Literature Study GuidesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About LoveEditing And Versions Of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Study Guide

Raymond Carver

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Love | Editing and Versions of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love


Gordon Lish: Influence and Interference

Any understanding of Raymond Carver and his work is incomplete without a consideration of Carver's tumultuous, perhaps abusive, and extremely influential relationship with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver and Lish met in 1967 as a result of both being employed with textbook publishing companies. Their relationship began as a friendship centered on their shared literary interests, and Lish supported and encouraged the as-yet unpublished Carver in his literary ambitions. When Lish relocated to New York to take the job of editing fiction for Esquire magazine, he published Carver's story "Neighbors" in the magazine in 1971. This was Carver's first publication in a nationally distributed magazine.

Lish's transition from Carver's friend and mentor to his editor and literary agent is symbolic of the nebulous boundaries that characterized Lish's relationship with Carver's texts. As editor, Lish made such broad and deep alterations to Carver's texts questions of authorship and editorial authority came into play. Carver was not happy with the fundamental changes Lish made to Carver's story "Are These Actual Miles?" which Esquire published in 1972 under Lish's title "What Is It?" Nonetheless, Carver agreed to the changes, willing to compromise in exchange for the recognition he expected—and received—from publication.

For the rest of the decade Lish acted as Carver's agent and editor, making similarly intrusive changes to each of Carver's stories. Carver's unease over Lish's slashing and reshaping of his texts was not constant. As Carver received critical acclaim for his uniquely spare, detached, and even style, his correspondence with Lish reveals his sense of respect and indebtedness for Lish's undeniable literary genius and its critical role in his own reputation and success. Lish shaped Carver's career, down to the level of the sentence.

After Lish moved to the publishing firm McGraw-Hill in 1975, he offered Carver a book deal. The resultant collection of stories—again, subject to Lish's characteristic stylistic makeover—was published in 1976 as Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The next year Carver got sober following years of struggle with alcohol. The collection of stories Carver had written and Lish had more or less rewritten was also nominated for a National Book Award.

Gordon Lish's Minimalism and the Text

With the publication of his second short story collection, 1981's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver's reputation as the frontrunner of the groundbreaking literary movement known as minimalism was cemented. Yet changes between Carver's manuscripts and Lish's edited versions, the correspondence between Carver and Lish surrounding the texts' editing and publication, and the well-known fact Carver disliked being called a minimalist raise a troubling question: Whose minimalism?

The changes Lish made to Carver's manuscript were so encompassing the boundary between author and editor seems to disappear. Lish cut the length of the entire manuscript in half and reduced the length of three stories by 70 percent. He rewrote 14 endings and re-titled 10 stories. In July of 1980 Carver received Lish's edited text for review. In a letter to Lish, Carver requested the book not be published. Approaching the subject delicately, Carver acknowledges his immense debt to Lish, whose help had propelled him to critical acclaim and success. Nonetheless, the newly sober Carver felt his stability and ability to write were threatened by Lish's edits. He wrote he was "mortally afraid" he might stop writing if the edited version was published, because "that's how closely some of these stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being."

However, Carver's ambivalence is reflected in correspondence with his editor the following week, when he wrote he was "thrilled about the book and its impending publication." At the same time, Carver's delicate handling of the situation, as reflected in his letter to Lish (which begins with Carver carefully grooming the overzealous editor's ego), sheds light on what almost feels like a literary version of an abusive romantic relationship. Lish did not heed Carver's plea, and the Lish edits were published as the text of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In 2007 Carver's widow and literary executor, the poet Tess Gallagher, announced her intention to publish Carver's original manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Seeing Lish's overstepping of Carver's requests to halt publication of the edited manuscript as a transgression, Gallagher intended to make Carver's own words available to readers. At the same time, she acknowledged the importance of the Lish-edited text as part of literary history.

It is twice as long as the Lish text and reveals how Lish removed content from many stories, changing their climax and conclusion and overall impact. The characteristic device of a story ending with a character wrestling with expressing the inexpressible is revealed to be Lish's work, not Carver's. For example, in the story One More Thing, the Lish version ends with LD standing before his wife and daughter, suitcase in hand, announcing he has one more thing to say but then not being able to know what it is. In the original Carver manuscript, LD stands before the family he is about to leave and makes an almost melodramatic pronunciation of his love, which is challenged by his wife. The minimalist aesthetic is lost, as the prose enters into the melodrama inside the characters' heads, and so is the minimalist style, as Carver's ending goes for several paragraphs with long sentences while Lish's ending consists of three short lines. The book shows how the radical understatement and minimalist aesthetic of Carver's prose is actually the work of Lish.

The Legacy of Lish

Carver's place in the canon of modern American literature has come under scrutiny because of the increasing revelations of editor Gordon Lish's role in shaping Carver's works.

When the prestigious American Library edition of Carver's Collected Stories was published in 2009, the text included both Lish's well-known edits of the 17 stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, as well as Carver's original manuscript, published as Beginners. Comparing the two versions, readers and critics have reappraised Carver as a writer. Whatever their final appraisal, there is agreement the appearance of the Beginners manuscript amounts to an addendum, if not a revision, of American literary history.

Some of these readers have come to agree with Lish himself, who in a 2015 interview exclaimed, "Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!" One reviewer noted the text of Beginners is "twice as long" and "half as interesting" as Lish's edited text. The evocative economy of outlines and surfaces that has become Carver's reputation and that characterizes the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is seen to be largely the work of Lish. Lish claims to have seen in Carver's work a sort of diamond in the rough, and by removing the "fat" and "creeping sentimentality" of Carver's writing he was able to present the "new fiction" his own superiors desired.

Other reviewers, including author Stephen King, criticized Lish for overstepping editorial bounds and felt betrayed by having been denied the Carver text, which they regarded as the better of the two. King wrote of Lish in his role and characterized his work in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as amounting to a "cheat" and a "total rewrite." The situation raises interesting questions about the nature of legacy, creation of texts, and the proper roles of author and editor.

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