In Defense of Carver, and Lish, and Carver and Lish, and Minimalism as a Form

[Note: This was too long to post as a reply to Amy’s post (below), so it’s a post of its own. Still, you should read Amy’s take on the subject first, as I’m replying to some of her ideas here.]

People have been talking about Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish’s working relationship for years now, debating whether Gordon Lish was really the genius behind such stories as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” or if Carver was unnecessarily… well, carved… by an out-of-control editor intent on corrupting Carver’s superior vision. Similarly, people have debated whether minimalism as a literary movement—a movement that seems forever related to Carver—might actually owe more to Lish, for trimming Carver’s prose into the short, lean stories that he’s famous for.

Of course, whether one appreciates minimalism is a matter of taste—my co-blogger doesn’t, it seems. I do. A lot. Amy suggests that if you can have a good thing, you probably want more of it—a reasonable expectation. But brevity isn’t minimalism’s only concern. Minimalism is about stripping the prose (or poem, or play) of every detail that might be superfluous or unnecessary for a careful, intelligent reader to fully tease out a story’s meaning—no adverbs, no explicit direction from an omniscient narrator, very little expository dialogue. Reading a minimalist story requires active participation on the reader’s part-- anything less results in the sense that the story is absolutely meaningless. This is why the fiction of Raymond Carver or certain works by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Ford, and Sandra Cisneros are brilliant. Same deal with the plays of Samuel Beckett or the poetry of William Carlos Williams. The work’s meaning is never explicit, but must be inferred through careful analysis of the text.

As I said, when it works, it works brilliantly—I’ve never heard anyone suggest that “Hills Like White Elephants” needs another couple pages to “tie up the loose ends.” The loose ends are the story. On the other hand, when it doesn’t work, you get Bret Easton Ellis at his most frustratingly opaque—think Glamorama or The Informers.

Amy suggests that publishing “restored” versions of some of Carver’s stories—as Tess Gallagher is trying to do—would retrieve Carver from minimalism’s ghetto—a laudable goal, if you hate minimalism. As I said before, though, I happen to love minimalism, and I also happen to think Carver is one of the greatest short story writers of the late 20th century (and the story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” might be the greatest short story of the second half of the 20th century). To me, Carver can’t—and shouldn’t—be separated from this literary style. Carver’s best work is often some of his most minimalist—compare “They Aren’t Your Husband” (a fantastic story) to “Call if You Need Me” (a merely very good story) for proof.

Now, having said all that, I still think that the Tess Gallagher Edition of these stories (which is what they should be called, make no mistake—this is Tess Gallagher imposing her editorial judgment just as surely as Gordon Lish imposed his over 25 years ago) should be published. Granted, Carver eventually seemed to sign off on the versions of his stories Lish edited—or, he took on the task of revising and restoring the stories himself, in later editions (let’s not forget that Carver lived the life of a famous and well-regarded author for years after the What We Talk About… collection came out—he had ample time to correct this “mistake,” when and if it mattered to him). But, nevertheless, we should get these older drafts into print, for scholarship’s sake. As I said in the first paragraph of this post, there’s been a lot of speculation and innuendo regarding Lish’s role in the production of these famous and influential stories. So for scholarship’s sake, let’s put the older, pre-Lish drafts of these stories in print, so that students can read them alongside the approved, originally-published versions, so that some of these questions might be answered once and for all.

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