Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Carver's Collected Stories and the Gordon Lish Controversy

The recent release by Library of America of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories has once more raised the issue of just how much of Carver’s first two collections, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, (1981) were Carver’s and how much were the result of the editing of Gordon Lish.

This is old news. Eleven years ago, D. T. Max did a long piece for the New York Times magazine entitled “The Carver Chronicles,” for which he examined the manuscripts of stories edited by Lish in the Lily Library at Indiana University. You can read the piece at: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/09/magazine/the-carver-chronicles.html

The accepted mythos about the difference between Carver’s bleak first two collections and “his more generous” last two, Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From, is that he stopped drinking and met Tess Gallagher. It is a story that Gallagher herself has defended.

However, as D. T. Max’s study of the manuscripts at the Lilly Library attest, the real difference between early Carver and late Carver has to do with Gordon Lish, who published Carver’s first story in Esquire and his first book at Knopf. As one example, Max describes how Lish took Carver’s simple anecdote about a waitress reflecting on her encounter with a fat man in her restaurant and transformed it into the haunting story, “Fat” that opens Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

I have not seen the original “Fat,” but have taught the Lish edited version that appeared in Carver’s first book many times. Here are some of my notes for teaching that story:

The challenge in reading “Fat” is trying to determine what the narrator actually sees in the fat man and trying to determine why he is so strange--his fatness, his puffing, his use of the royal “we.”

The other characters try to use terms such as “a fatty” to reduce him, simplify him, stereotype him. The narrator cannot do this. Is there something special about her? The thing about a storyteller is: Some things seem to them to be significant, meaningful things that seem just weird or ordinary to non-storytellers. “Fat” is a story about a storyteller trying to tell a story in such a way that the teller and the listener understands that significance. The narrator says, “I know I was after something. But I don’t know what.”

She says, “Rudy, he is fat, I saw, but that is not the whole story.”
The problem is:
What is the whole story?

When the fat man says Thank you, she says, “’You are very welcome,’ and a feeling comes over me,” we ask: What is the feeling?

Rita says, “This story’s getting interesting now,” just after the narrator quotes the fat man as saying, “No, if we had our choice, but there is no choice.” But the narrator says this is when the story is over. It sounds as if we are going to get the background, the motivation, the reason he is so fat. But the storyteller is not interested in where he is from or why he is what he is. Cause is not the issue here.

Why does she say, “waiting for what?” Why does she feel her life is going to change? Is this a genuine feeling or a bogus one? What does one have to do to make a change in one’s life? Why would the fat man stimulate the change? She doesn’t want to be fat. She doesn’t want to say, “There is no choice.” What kind of change does she face? She sees the fat man as one who is trapped in his own flesh. We are all caught within our flesh. But just to be the physical presence that we are--does that mean we are so limited within ourselves?

The fat man’s fatness is just a reminder of that trap of the flesh. The storyteller knows he is trapped. Why does she feel terrifically fat when Rudy is on top of her? Why is he so small? Is it good that she feels fat? Is it a negative that Rudy seems so small?

"Fat” explores both the positive and negative sides of the flesh and the body. If we lived in a world of sacred reality, the fat man would be a god. But living in the world of the physical and the real, he is trapped in his flesh.

Rita says it is a funny story; the storyteller says, “I can see she doesn’t know what to make of it.”

I do not know what Carver’s original version meant, if anything, but Lish’s edited version is a haunting story about the mysterious universal reality of flesh and the spirit.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was very well received by critics and nominated for the National Book Award. Carver won a Guggenheim and was hired to teach at Syracuse University. There is little doubt that this reception was due in no small part to the editing of Lish.

It was when Carver began putting together his second book, which he wanted to call Beginners, that he started to object to Lish’s editing. Carver wrote to Lish and asked to be let out of his contract with Knopf because of the way that Lish had transformed Beginners into What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver wrote to Lish:

Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it…. Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones…and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, too, some of them… How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened…Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand…I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this…I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me…. My very sanity is on the line here. I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another book.”

Well, Lish had his way with What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, ironically, the book so solidified Carver’s reputation that when he begged Lish not to make any severe changes in his third book Cathedral, Lish had to give in, although he was not happy about it and wanted to make his contribution to Carver’s work public. He was advised by friends, such as Don DeLillo, to keep quiet—that Carver was already too much loved, that it would make reading his work too ambiguous, that readers would resent Lish for complicating the reading of his work.

All this can be read in D. T. Max’s piece, so the revelations in the new Library of America volume are not really new. However, because of recent reviews in The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, which focus almost entirely on the fact that the book contains both the Lish-edited versions of Carver’s stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love alongside the stories as Carver originally wrote them in the collection Beginners, the debate has been raised again more publicly.

The review in the Wall Street Journal by David Propson and the review in The Los Angeles Times by David Ulin sum up rather nicely the different opinions about which of Carver’s stories are the best—Lish or non-Lish.

Propson says: “One measure of Mr. Carver’s achievement is that, before his career was lamentably cut short, he found a more mature sensibility than the minimalist posturing that Mr. Lish had imposed on his work.” After breaking with Lish, Propson says, in Cathedral, Carver’s work loses its chilly edge, an “appealing development,” with a “newfound sense of generosity and even humor on display.”

David Ulin believes that the pared-down Lish versions of many of the stories are better than the original stories, although he believes that the restored version of “A Small Good Thing,” which appeared in Cathedral is a much better story than the Lish-edited version,“ The Bath,” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In my opinion, anyone who calls Carver's stories in his first two collections "posturing" or suggests that his later stories are more "mature" just wants short stories to read more like novels, with lots of rumination, explanation, exposition, sentimentality, and mere detail.

The issue gets complicated by non-literary matters. Not many people seem to like Gordon Lish, especially for his high-handed attempt to hijack Carver’s work, work—work that he obviously recognized as very promising, work he perhaps could not write himself. However, everyone seems to love Carver. He just comes across as a big huggable, bear like sort of guy.

I like Carver’s stories very much. I remember in 1981 when I first discovered him. Someone asked me to review What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I had never read Carver before, but was so amazed and delighted with his stories that I later read everything he wrote. I taught upper division seminars on Carver’s work several times, covering all of his fiction—from his amateurish undergraduate stories written at Sacramento State and Humboldt State in California up to his very fine tribute to Chekhov, “The Errand.”

As I have written before in this blog, I think many of Carver’s Lish-edited stories are better than many of the longer, “more generous” stories in Cathedral and Where I’m Calling From. However, I also like the later Carver stories. I am just not sure that Carver could have written them without the earlier editing by Lish. The fact that Lish helped Carver hone his craft by editing it does not take away Carver’s art for me. I think Carver is one of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century. But I am not sure he would have made it without the initial help of Gordon Lish.


Ann Graham said...

I'm happy to hear there were college courses devoted to Carver. I've just loved his stories since I first found them in the early 1980's.

I've put a few specific comments on my blog

I was excited to purchase the Library of America edition. I know it's old news but I want to own it all when it comes to Carver.

I think your point at the end of your blog sums it up well. "I think Carver is one of the best short-story writers of the twentieth century. But I am not sure he would have made it without the initial help of Gordon Lish." And, I do not think that diminishes Carver's talent.

Lee said...

There is little doubt that Lish helped determine the course of the American literary short story, but there's a question which always nags at me: is it good because it's good or because Lish taught us to think so? I've been reading some of Nadine Gordimer's short stories, and they are startingly different from what we've come to expect.

Charles E. May said...

I like Gordimer's stories too, Lee--always have. I agree they are different than the American minimalist-realist-stylized strain that Carver (with the help of Lish) capitalized on.
What I like about Carver's stories is the kind of realism-pushed-to-hallucination effect they create. In the best of them, not a sentence just "moves people around" or "makes them talk." Every gesture, every bit of dialogue seems linguistically, obsessively, loaded. I think there is room for all kinds of stories (as long as they are carefully and committedly written). Carver just belongs to that tradition of stylized realism that began with Chekhov and got jumped started with Hemingway, a tradition that creaes what one critic said about Hemingway's stories--"nightmares at noonday." I admire Gordimer's political commitment, but prefer her stories that do not hammer on it too hard.

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