Friday, 4 January 2008

From "Beginners" to the Accomplished: Gordon Lish Edits Raymond Carver

If anyone ever doubted the importance of editors, The New Yorker’s on-line publication of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” complete with Gordon Lish’s edits, will lay those doubts to rest.

Carver’s story, originally called “Beginners,” had whole pages cut from it by Lish. It wasn’t a bad story—that’s clear from the original—but the edgy, pared-down writing and enigmatic tone that made Carver so admired weren’t there. Now Carver’s widow—he died nearly 20 years ago—wants to publish the original version of it and other Carver stories in their pre-Lish form, to show just what her husband was aiming for.

Doing so would do more than fuel a controversy over the relation between Carver and Lish. It underlines just how much a careful, outside eye can see in someone else’s writing. As an accompanying article in The New Yorker points out, what Lish did is not that much different from the edit Ezra Pound gave to T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem “The Waste Land” or what Maxwell Perkins did when he cut 65,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.

This kind of editing is a thing of the past. Publishing houses today are unlikely to allow editors the time to seek out and work carefully with writers of promise the way Lish did with Carver. If a text isn't already formed and polished it is unlikely an editor or agent will read past the first couple of paragraphs. This--combined with the way the blogosphere and e-publishing tempt many writers to rush anything to the Web or print-out--means that careful editing is now as rare and quaint as an Underwood typewriter.

The New Yorker, strangely, does not say who wrote the interesting comments on the exchange of letters between Carver and Lish. Is this another evidence of the devaluing of the editor? If so, too bad.


Unknown said...

William Stull is the un-named author of it. He's a major Carver studies critic.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Thanks for the information. Still wonder why The New Yorker didn't give him credit.