Happy birthday, Raymond Carver!

By | May 25, 2019

Guest post by Tim Groenland

The Art of Editing

Raymond Carver, who died in 1988, would have celebrated his 81st birthday today. In the years since his untimely passing, the continued spread of his work – the appearance of previously unpublished stories, new translations in multiple languages, adaptations and homages such as that found in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman – has been accompanied (and complicated) by an irregular drip of revelations about the extent of Gordon Lish’s editorial influence on his early fiction. These revelations, often referred to as the “Carver Controversy,” now amount to the most notorious (and widely parodied) example of editorial intervention in recent literary history.

The Art of Editing grew from a longstanding curiosity about the role that editors play in literary culture, and my interest crystallized in 2009 when Carver’s Beginners was published. Beginners – which, with the support of his widow Tess Gallagher, reproduces Carver’s original manuscripts from his 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – shows what a difference, for better or worse, an editor can make. Carver had always been one of my favourite writers, and these stories, with their claustrophobic tone, terse and ambiguous dialogues, and narratives that slam to an abrupt and sometimes violent halt, are some of the strangest and most provocative in his whole body of work.

In his recent book on What We Talk About – a combination of memoir and literary criticism in which he discusses the influence of Carver’s collection on his own life – writer Brian Evenson describes the disorientation of revisiting the stories in their expanded form, many published in different collections during Carver’s lifetime. Evenson describes his confusion at reading alternate version of already canonical stories: “The stories weren’t like I remembered them. There were scenes I didn’t recall at all, and even moments of language that were quite different from how I remembered… [in one case] there was backstory that I actually was certain hadn’t been the original.” Years later, when he saw the manuscripts showing Lish’s changes, the very notion of the “original” became more complicated, as the extent and attribution of the edits became clearer: “the revisions,” he reports, “were even more extensive that I had imagined. Looking at them felt, in some respects, like a violation. I felt sure I was seeing something that, ethically speaking, I wasn’t sure I should see.”

These descriptions echo my reaction as well as the reactions of Beginners’ reviewers, who tended to respond in polarized ways both to the ethics of Lish’s editing and the shocking aesthetic double-take involved in the reading experience. If you’re already familiar with Carver’s most “minimalist” stories and their pared-back prose (prose that is, in the words of one contemporary reviewer, “as sparingly clear as a fifth of iced Smirnoff”), then to read Beginners is to involuntarily experience an unsettling kind of mental superposition as canonical stories are revealed to exist in relation to longer and quite different “shadow texts.” Some of these stories read as entirely different treatments of the same narrative ingredients, a fact that seems almost to demand (as the reviews showed) that the reader pick a side.

My interest lay not so much in lining up on Team Carver or Team Lish, though, as in exploring what this editorial relationship might tell us about the interactions between authors and editors and the critical dynamics involved in reading multiple and even incompatible versions of the same texts. As I pursued this interest through the different published versions and, later, the archives (in which Lish’s editing is even more starkly revealed), I was struck again and again by the complex dynamics and long-lasting effects that editorial processes can have. Even after the men’s professional relationship ended, Carver was still struggling with Lish’s contributions to his most celebrated stories, and his later work shows, I believe, a kind of anxiety of editorial influence as he tries to come to terms with the changes his writings have gone through. These changes, for better or worse, are now a central part of Carver’s story, and one to which The Art of Editing attempts to do justice.

*****

The Art of Editing

Tim Groenland is a lecturer in American literature, most recently at the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin, Ireland. His book The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace is now available from Bloomsbury.

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