Tomorrow, October 31st is the deadline for the Sirenland Writers Conference. This year’s conference will once again be hosted by the five star hotel, Le Sirenuse, in beautiful Positano, Italy. Come and study with One Story author Dani Shapiro and John Burnham Schwartz, as well as One Story editor, Hannah Tinti. Applications will be accepted until midnight. Send yours now!
Like many short story writers my age, I regard the works of Raymond Carver as the horizon toward which I trudge. Many of my “revelations” about writing happened after reading “Why don’t you dance?” and company in his first collection What we Talk About When We Talk About Love. You can read a snippet of my idolatry here, in our annotated history of the short story.
In October 17th’s New York Times, Motoko Rich explores the influence Gordon Lish’s editing had on Raymond Carver’s work, especially the much lauded What we talk about when we talk about love. In the pdf that accompanies the online article, you can read Carver’s original endings to two of the stories, side by side with how they eventually appeared, after Lish’s edits.
It is obvious when reading his original endings that his intent (at least with those stories) leaned toward a more verbose, clear resolution. Lish’s edits added the sense of dissonance, the foggy ether quality that, like it or not, Carver has been associated with throughout time. In many stories from that collection, the reader gets a sense that there is a huge body of glistening meaning there, but is left so vague as to encourage a variety of options, or none at all, depending on how you see it. A friend of mine once called Carver’s stories “disquieting,” and I have yet to think of a better description.
So, let’s take as a given that Lish edited Carver vigorously, that maybe Carver wasn’t instinctually a minimalist, a term his widow Tess Gallagher insists he never even liked associated with his work. Where does that leave us Carver-ites, who have grown to regard him as a sign post to the promised land of sparse description and evocative dialogue?
I have gone back and forth on this.
First, it would be naive to think a writer’s work goes from his or her midnight copybook to what we read in The New Yorker. Of course we know that in between the work has been scrutinized by many eyes and opinions, how many vary case by case. How important is the author’s initial intent? How important is what he or she thinks it means? When a work is published, does it then become the property of the reader, whose interpretation is all that matters? The philosophies of author’s intent and reader response is relevant when you consider that Tess Gallagher is now fighting to have Carver’s original collection republished the way Carver wanted it. And, that Knopf is trying to block this publication. If the meaning of literature is a thrill ride to which everyone gets a ticket, shouldn’t we save a seat in the front for the author?
I have concerns about reading a collection of Carver’s work the way he ntended. If the original work is published and we don’t find it to be as compelling, does it mean Carver is not as great as we thought he was? Are huge fans of Carver’s work going to even be able to make an unbiased judgement on the new work, having the old work’s rhythms and influences in our collective head? Or, is it important to know what he intended, solely so we can file it in our database we collect subconsciously about this master?
On the other side of things, it would be naive to think an editor can just edit, say, a 14-year-old amateur into the likes of Raymond Carver. If we place the editor in a god position, then we assume the writer is arbitrary. The editor becomes a vessel for genius, able to work with any matter and turn it into gold. If every editor were able to do that why would every editor not be able to, ahem, write? As my big brother would say, you can put as much perfume as you want on a pig, it’s still a pig. If the initial offering isn’t capable of withstanding vigorous editing, then you can edit all you want, it’s still a pig.
The New York Times presents the two voices in this room of Carver’s intent as editor and widow, both of whose roles contain a specific angle into the knowledge of the man. I would be fascinated to hear another voice, perhaps Tobias Wolff, who I would imagine would also have a keen insight, as he was a friend of Raymond Carver, and a fellow writer whose work has also been filed under the umbrella term “minimalist.”
Particularly when reading the side by side versions of the ending to “I Could See the Smallest Things,” I found I didn’t prefer Lish’s take, which culled a few sentences from Carver’s five paragraphs and left it at that. It strikes me (no, I have no right to say this. But, I am a reader, so here is my ticket) that the ending would probably have been more effective had another editor taken Carver’s vision and condensed it only a bit, working with what was already there.
Another interesting thought: Carver influenced a generation of young writers who have patterned their sense of what does and does not belong in a story on his example. If we find out the work that shaped us bore a heavy influence by an editor, then do we become like the generation of folk singers who patterned their writing and stage personas on an ailing Woody Guthrie, whose ticks and affectations were due to the onset of Huntington’s Disease? In that way, we are gleaning tips from a compromised and false source. And yet, that source, no matter how it was generated, exists on the page as real and true, and has withstood the test of time. So, does it matter how the stories were generated, as long as they were?
One thing these so called exposes about the Carver/Lish partnership do is subject imagination and creativity to the yard sticks of math and law. They attempt to classify a quality that is, by its nature, unclassifiable. And should be. I confess to exhaustion after endless literary analysis, likening it to dissecting a magic trick. Art is too important to cowtow to mortal rationale. Carver is one of the masters because when you read him, he makes you feel like writing is a thing you can actually do. It is only when you try it that you realize how difficult what he accomplished is.
This is an immensely tricky subject. Do I care that the Carver works I love may not have come from the direct source? How much would it matter to me if I came to find out the ending to “Why Don’t You Dance” was written by Lish, not Carver? One only has to count the number of question marks in this piece to know I have come up with no real conclusion. For many years, I preferred to stick my head in the sand and ignore the overwhelming evidence that Carver’s work was shaped dramatically by Lish, preferring to just read him and enjoy. In that way, I defer to Walt Whitman’s “When I heard the Learned Astronomer.” We can spend our entire lives charting the universe, but sometimes we do better to go outside and gaze at the stars.
Thanks to One Story Staffer Emily Seife for this post:
Short story writer Jean Thompson has posted a response to Stephen King’s verdict on the state of the short story here. She thinks that while the short story has been declared dead time and again, “the corpse always rises up to attack one more time.” (Some proof, as we discussed below: two of this year’s National Book Award finalists are short story collections.) And she defends the little literary magazines that King labels “written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.”
About three years ago, I adopted a dog. I had been looking for a while, visiting different shelters and rescue organizations. Friends of mine told me that I would just “know” when I found the right one. I didn’t believe them. But then I put my hand through a cage door and patted the head of a certain brownish-speckled shepherd-pitt-and god only knows what else-mix of a mutt. And she was it. I was absolutely certain. When I read a story that I know is right for
It’s great to see that two of the nominees for the National Book Award this year are short story collections. Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis and Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard. Davis and Shepard are both incredible writers, and well deserve this recognition.
A story collection has not won the National Book Award since 1996 when Andrea Barrett won for Ship Fever.
This year’s fiction jury, chaired by Francine Prose, includes two writers known for their short stories: Joy Williams and David Means. And the other two judges, Andrew Sean Greer and Walter Kirn have written story collections as well.
The other three National Book Award nominees are novels: Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End, and Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork. All talented authors, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed here at One Story that a collection brings home the gold when the winner is announced on November 14th.
Last Friday, October 5th, a large crowd assembled at Pianos to hear Brock Clarke (author of One Story #76, “What is the Cure for Meanness?”) read from his new novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. The novel is about a guy who accidentally burns down Emily Dickinson’s home. In the very funny excerpt that Brock shared with the One Story crowd, the protagonist, Sam Pulsifer, confronts a literature professor who professes to hate literature and insists that “Willa Cather is a C- -T”. To hear more of this very sharp and heartfelt book (by a man who loves literature) listen to the audio archive of Brock’s reading.
Brock signs a copy of his book
Managing Editor Pei-Ling Lue shows the cover
Although he chose a martini for his cocktail, Brock drinks a beer.
One Story staffer Marie Bertino wants to know where Robert Frost’s home is
I live in New York City, but my family lives in Massachusetts, and so every Thanksgiving I end up watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV with my niece and nephew and a slice of pie, instead of in person, with my friends and a flask of whiskey. I have always wanted to go to Central Park West the night before Thanksgiving and watch the giant balloons get inflated, and so it was with great pleasure that I experienced the whole thing vicariously in Tom Barbash’s Balloon Night. One of the things that impressed me the most about this piece was how effortlessly Tom pulled off the party. As any writer knows, it is a killer to write any scene where so many characters are being introduced at once, but here I remembered them all: Sabrina, Lilia, Melanie, Mr. Svenvold, Malcom, and especially Timkin and Amy. This story captures the swirl of it all, from the anxious preparations, to the ringing of doorbells and piles of coats, down to the kissing of the wrong person in the corner and the brutally honest toast at the end. Cheers.