The Intellectual Property of Raymond Carver

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.

5 thoughts on “The Intellectual Property of Raymond Carver

  1. ramond carver raymond carver raymond carver – im so sick of him.

    sure he’s got a couple fantastic storys but jeez come on- the rest are all the same – drinking , ex wives – depresssinnnnggggg

  2. The writer still has the choice of letting the editor’s edits stand – or pulling the story and placing it elsewhere. For whatever reason – art, craft, money, exposure – Carver chose to work with Lish. He accepted Lish’s edits and let them stand under his byline.

  3. The bottom line (for me):

    1. The stories as they originally appeared, with Gordon Lish’s inputs, are the stories.

    2. However, the stories, the ideas for the stories, are Carver’s, so no matter how much Lish changed them, Carver still gets the credit.

  4. I think that this was a very well written essay concerning the literary works of Raymond Carver.

    I suppose I would agree with your statement that Carver “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.”

    Unlike the “Carver-ites” you speak of and, presumably, yourself, I agree with Rachelle and Puck. Raymond Carver is vastly over-rated. Weird for weirdnesses sake is impractical. Maybe Carver’s editor realized that his stories sucked when they contained resolution and that the only way to make him marketable is to leave us FEELING like there is some hidden meaning in his writing that we are too ignorant to grasp.

    To each their own, I suppose.

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