Pissed at Lish

Raymond Carver is one of my favorite writers. His story is well known, at least the broad strokes. Married with two kids by twenty, he wrote stories and poems when not smashed on his drug of choice: liquor. Carver loved writing and worked at it as hard as he did the menial jobs he took to put food on the table. He went to college as a young dad, met John Gardner, who encouraged his talent.

He finally got to the point where he found a job working in a textbook company with someone else who was about to become a famous literary figure: Gordon Lish. Lish, himself a writer, moved from the textbook company to an editorship at Esquire and then on to Knopf. While at Esquire, he asked Ray, who had managed to place a few pieces in little magazines, for stories. Lish published Carver in Esquire, Carver got noticed, Lish became Carver’s most trusted editor and friend. At Knopf, Lish edited and published several collections of short stories from Carver’s work.

The first book was heavily edited by Lish. What we think of as Carver’s early minimalist style is now evident as Lish’s slashing editorial influence. But Carver learned a lot about how to edit prose, and he was grateful for Lish’s help. If not for Lish, there might not be a body of published Carver work. In his published letters to Lish in The December 24 issue of The New Yorker, it’s plain how much Carver admires, even adores Lish. His attitude is that of a humble and grateful good friend and colleague.

During the writing of the second collection, Carver got sober, for good. He’d split from his wife when he met poet Tess Gallagher, who would become his second wife. They both taught at Syracruse University in Washington. Carver was on a serious career path, both teaching and writing. Life was good. After a long dry spell, Carver began to write the stories that would make up his second, and highly acclaimed, story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

As the published letters so excruciatingly indicate, Carver was wedded to those stories for his very survival. He put himself into them and they pulled him up and out of suffering. He showed the stories to other writer friends who praised his more expansive style and then sent them off to Lish. Who cut the hell out of the manuscript, shredding Carver’s confidence and prose and plunging Carver into a deep depressive crisis. Reading that letter is what made me pissed at Lish.

It seems to me that Gordon Lish felt he owned Raymond Carver’s work more than Carver did. In one letter response, he says something like he cut so much because the stories the way they stood showed too much of Ray. I suppose he meant the private Ray, not the public, minimalist Mr. Carver. Well, hell yeah those stories show all of Ray, the hurt, the anxiety, the raw. They’re HIS stories.

There’s one page that shows just how much Lish took from Carver’s work, the last page of the title story of the second collection. Most of the page is crossed out and a few simple symbolic sentences are added to the bottom. Both versions are fine. But I saw Ray’s heart and blood in every one of those crossed off sentences. Lish’s work, which is what ended up being published, is dark and conveys the same thing, but in a more conspicuously arty way. Carver was not arty. He was a blue collar guy who found himself in an unfamiliar world and wasn’t quite sure he belonged there.

Lish seems to have taken that insecurity and run with it, taken the scissors to it, and fashioned a writer who was more to his liking than Carver’s. Last night, when I read the article, letters, and the uncut story, I was pissed at Lish. This morning, I’m just sad for what Carver suffered at his hands. There’s a kind of happy ending here. In his third collection, Cathedral, Carver absolutely insisted on complete editorial control. Some of his many writer friends must have intervened and said “You are allowed to grow as a writer. You can leave your expansiveness in the stories.” For whatever reason, he stood up to Lish and Lish didn’t like it, won’t talk about it to this day.

Tess Gallagher wants the uncut stories to be published, and they likely will be. Carver still has a huge audience hungry for his work, cut so short at age 50 when he died of lung cancer. There might very well have been more stories had Lish not so severely crushed Carver’s belief in himself as a competent writer at such a crucial stage.

The New Yorker online has the entire story, the letter excerpts, the complete uncut text of Carver’s “Beginners” and a line by line visual edit by Lish that would become “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

I like Carver’s “Beginners” original version better than Lish’s edited piece. And I’m glad Carver is being vindicated at long last. This story is a warning to all writers who may encounter overzealous editors along the way. If it can happen to Carver, it can happen to you.

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  1. Lish could not own Carver’s work, would be the same of owning the author himself. And for Lish’ first help, Raymond Carver could not be a hostage for all his life. I’m waiting deeply for the new uncut versions. I agree with you, the original “Beginners” is so much unique and powerful. Comparing the two it doesn’t seem right how can anyone could use such a ‘knife’.


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