DIY MFA Reading List: “Collected Stories” by Raymond Carver

Every artist should be required to compare the manuscript Raymond Carver submitted to his editor Gordon Lish, Beginners, with the version Lish eventually published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (which I will refer to below as WWTA). Lish’s version won critical acclaim, secured Carver’s place in the literary canon, and helped revitalize the art of short fiction in the 1980s. But the published manuscript was far different from Carver’s original vision. Comparing the stories side-by-side gives rise to interesting and difficult questions about the creative process. Why do writers write? Editors edit? And do readers even care?

The recently published Library of America collection of Carver’s work, Collected Stories, gathers multiple drafts of the authors’ more memorable stories together, including the full manuscripts of Beginners and WWTA. In his early days, Carver’s work was dark, depressing, even murderous at times. Babies are killed by squabbling parents, men murder their wives and sisters, alcoholism runs rampant, and infidelity offers more intimacy than the brutality of the marriages described here. Carver was a practicing alcoholic in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the tales he wrote during this time reflect the hopelessness and despair which drove him to drink.

Lish saw in Carver’s stories “a particular bleakness”, took the emerging author under his wing, and championed his work with the New York literary establishment. Lish edited and published Carver’s initial short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet Please, in 1976. Then in 1977 Carver went on the wagon. He divorced his first wife, moved in with the woman who would become his second wife, and started a daily regimen of writing that would continue until his death, in 1988, of lung cancer.

In Beginners we see a man and an author struggling to come to terms with his past. Where his earlier stories were barebones set pieces highlighting the more disturbing aspects of suburban, working-class life, the stories Carver wrote after 1977 are more nuanced. The characters in Beginners still struggle with death and guilt and divorce and depression. They wonder where things might have gone wrong. But many of Carver’s initial drafts also describe people attempting to rebuild their lives, seeking some sort of meaning in a savage universe.

In May of 1980 Carver delivered what he considered to be the final manuscript of Beginners to Lish in New York City. Several of the stories had been published before. Indeed, Lish had previously edited many of them. Lish read the manuscript, reached out to Carver, and asked if he could tighten the collection as a whole. Carver told him “not to worry about taking a pencil to the stories if you can make them better.”

Five weeks later Lish mailed Carver the revised manuscript, freshly edited and renamed What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver did not read the manuscript, and the book was put on “the fast track” for publication. Lish continued editing, assuming from Carver’s vague reply that everything was moving ahead as planned.

The editor continued to work. He cut Carver’s total word count by 55%, removing what he saw as “false sentimentality” to “foreground the bleakness”. Lish removed entire pages of text, saving a word here, a phrase there. One story was cut by a whopping 78%. Lish added hard-hitting and insightful lines of dialogue, characterization and setting. He changed the names of characters. He wrote new (and now famous) lines. He changed titles, tone, effect, endings. He changed everything.

When Raymond Carver finally got around to reading the manuscript, he was understandably floored. He wrote Lish a frantic, heartfelt letter asking to be released from his book contract. The letter is reproduced in the Library of America collection, and in it Carver says:

Dear Gordon,

I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this, and nothing but this, so help me. I’ve looked at it from every side, I’ve compared both versions of the edited mss – the first one is better, I truly believe … 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. But Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones … and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff … How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened to the story in the meantime, after its book publication? … But if I go ahead with this as it is, it will not be good for me. The book will not be, as it should, a cause for joyous celebration, but one of defense and explanation. All this is complicatedly, and maybe not so complicatedly, tied up with my feelings of worth and self-esteem since I quit drinking. I just can’t do it, I can’t take the risk as to what might happen to me … You have made so many of these stories better, my God, with the lighter editing and trimming … Even though they may be closer to works of art than the originals and people be reading them 50 years from now, they’re still apt to cause my demise, I’m serious, they’re so intimately hooked up with my getting well, recovering, gaining back some little self-esteem and feeling of worth as a writer and a human being.

There is and will continue to be a longstanding debate over Lish’s role in Carver’s career. On one side of the fence, there are those who believe that Lish’s editorial license was a toxic sort of power grab. Stephen King called it “baleful”, and said of Lish’s work on the story “The Bath” (which was originally titled “A Small Good Thing”) that it had been “a cheat.” On the other side, there are those who say that the differences reveal in Gordon Lish a particular kind of brilliance. The New York Review of Books said: “The publication of ‘Beginners’ has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.”

Having now read them all, I believe Gordon Lish took good stories, then transformed them into brilliant and haunting works of art. Carver was just beginning his recovery from a desperate life. He was reinventing himself as a man and author. But the sentiments he was exploring had yet to be fully realized. He seemed to be writing in order to heal his own tortured soul. But Carver was just starting to heal, just beginning. Whereas the horror and despair were still evident, waiting like a cancer for someone to come along, cut them out, and hold them up to the light.

After WWTA secured Carver’s fame and fortune, he asserted new control over his relationship with Lish. Lish eventually broke off their relationship, and Carver went on to explore his newfound sobriety in one heartfelt story after the next. “Cathedral”, about a blind man who teaches an insensitive husband the concept of empathy, is such a story. Carver had finally matured – as a man, a husband, and author – and “Cathedral” might be his finest tale in the collection.

Artists create for many reasons. Editors revise for many more. But in the end, readers don’t really care about the reasons. Readers want to be entertained, titillated, shocked. They want stories that stick with them for days and months and years later.

Carver’s sparse stories, as edited by Lish, do just that.

(This review was originally published at Zouch Magazine)

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.