Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.
Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands don’t tremble a little when you read Raymond Carver then you’re lacking something essential in your make-up: You’re flat, you’re a goner, you won’t do.
The trouble (if such things trouble you) is that the stories in both those volumes are what they are not just because of Carver, but also because of the rough hands of a certain Gordon Lish, Editor. Mr. Lish, working at Knopf, took the stories that Carver sent him and he hacked away at them, mercilessly. He liked the stories as they were, no doubt, but he saw something else in them as well, something harder and more pure. He saw the power in Carver’s natural restraint and he wanted to push it to the very limit. He saw a compact emotional explosion in each story, and he pared away at the language until each one was a mean package of terrible beauty. It worked. The stories are brilliant, devastating. There is nothing like them.
But Carver never felt very good about what had happened. A good editor will sometimes show a heavy hand, but Lish would cut stories sometimes by more than 50 percent. He would rearrange them completely. He would write new sections and concoct his own endings. D.T. Max, who wrote a story about the whole affair in 1998 for The New York Times Magazine, studied the original manuscripts, which now reside at the Lilly Library of Indiana University. Max summed it up thusly:
“Overall, Lish’s editorial changes generally struck me as for the better. Some of the cuts were brilliant, like the expert cropping of a picture. His additions gave the stories new dimensions, bringing out moments that I was sure Carver must have loved to see. Other changes, like those in ”Tell the Women We’re Going,” struck me as bullying and competitive. Lish was redirecting Carver’s vision in the service of his own fictional goals. The act felt parasitic. Lish’s techniques also grew tired more quickly than did Carver’s. After a while, the endless ”I say,” ”he says” tags Lish placed on so much of the dialogue felt gimmicky. In all cases, however, I had one sustained reaction: For better or worse, Lish was in there.”
Raymond Carver was a damaged man. He was drunk and barely holding on for long periods of his life. He was drowning in a sea of nameless troubles. Just before What We Talk About was to be published, he asked Lish to withhold the volume. He sensed both that something great had been done with his stories and that, perhaps, the transformation was too much. He wrote an anguished letter to Lish in which he explained, “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.” He felt humiliated by the degree to which Lish was having his way with the stories even as he recognized that much of the time Lish was doing the right thing. Lish ignored him and the book came out. It made Carver famous, a literary hero. What could he do? There was no turning back, and so he didn’t. He just kept writing and then seven years later it was over. He was dead.
Ever since, the Carver/Lish problem has lingered at the corner of the collective literary conscience like a dirty secret. It has plagued those who love his work, especially some of the people closest to Carver during his life and doubly so to his widow, Tess Gallagher, who has been trying to figure out what to do about it for decades. Recently, she has decided to publish a volume of the same stories from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, restored to what they were before Lish got hold of them. Some see it as the appropriate thing to do. Others are horrified. Carver’s later editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon said, “I would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground. I don’t understand what Tess’s interest in doing this is except to rewrite history. I am appalled by it.”
To read Raymond Carver is to care for the man and to feel personally involved in questions of his reputation. Reading Carver and being affected by him as a writer transforms into a process of rooting for him as a man. The fact that he was able to write at all was a triumph over tough times. In talking about his influences, Carver wrote: “The main influence on my life and writing has been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent.” It is moving that he triumphed over it all enough to write, and then to write with such clarity and honesty. More than that, Carver’s triumph also seemed to be a triumph for clarity and honesty in literature in general. All the experimentalism in literature, all the formalism and trickery with language suddenly looked empty in the face of Carver’s stripped down writing about real people in bad situations making a go of it one way or another.
And an ethos went along with that. It was about being a straightforward and direct person and then writing that way, too. Carver believed in that. In an essay on writing he tried to isolate that singular thing a writer needs to be good. He talked about the importance of “the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguished one writer from another.” Many of those who hailed Carver’s writing when it first appeared were excited for the hope it provided that a robust and plain and personal style could deliver something classic and powerful. A lot of people had been waiting for a man like Raymond Carver for a long time. And that is why he himself felt so uncomfortable and humiliated by the work that Lish was doing. It wasn’t just the feeling that Lish was diminishing Carver’s own authorial persona, it was that Lish was putting the lie to a whole idea about the author forging that unique individual style. His world and no other.
But it isn’t Carver’s world and no other. It is a stranger world in which Raymond Carver is both himself and a hybrid creature called LishCarver, and maybe a few other things besides. Carver tried to reaffirm the singularity and importance of the author and in the end he’s provided more ammunition for those like Barthes or Foucault who would affirm the death of said creature.
I think we have to accept that fact even if it hurts a little. Carver didn’t get his literary triumph quite the way he wanted it. But God knows most of his stories are about the ways that things don’t come out quite right. In fact, you might say that Carver’s central philosophical premise is that nearly everything that happens to human beings, good or bad, happens in the gaps between what we think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing. Why should Carver himself have experienced anything different?
In the end, Ray Carver needed some help, just like we all do. Lish showed him just how good he could be and he learned from it. That’s fine. Carver may have been partial to the idea that the author must stand alone, inviolable, but it just doesn’t hold up. What we have, instead, is something more complicated. And that’s fine, too, because we also have the stories, and they are undeniably, indisputably great. • 22 October 2007