Carver Carved Out

I have read pretty much the entire body of Ray Carver's work. (I'm not sure that's bragging: it took half an hour.) And my feelings on his stories have always been pretty clear: while his later stories are enjoyable, his early stories make me want to scratch my eyes out. Yes, they're all shorter, but they all feel longer to me. In that way that 5 minutes in a dentist's chair feels longer than 20 minutes of fun. His early stories are dull and soulless. They can't keep my attention. They are, in my opinion, stories for people who do not actually enjoy reading, and torture for people who do. In other words, minimalism.

Let me ask you something: if you love something, do you really want less of it? Hmmm? Is your favorite food better at 10 micrograms? Is your beloved more enjoyable if seen once a month? Spring days? Stormy beach walks? Whatever it is you love, do you want less of it? No, I didn't think so. Neither would you want to stuff yourself to surfeit so that you become sick of it, but you do not want as little as possible.

So Carver ain't my cup o' tea.

Now of course I'd heard that he had a pretty tough editor, but I didn't realize, until I read this NYTimes story, that the editor had really rewritten the stories:

In 1998 an article published in The New York Times Magazine by D. T. Max, then a contributing editor at The Paris Review, investigated Mr. Lish’s longstanding claims that he had played a large role in creating Raymond Carver. Mr. Max reviewed Mr. Lish’s papers at the Lilly Library and discovered that he had made dramatic cuts, changed titles and rewritten endings of the stories in “What We Talk About.”

“For better or worse,” Mr. Max concluded, “Lish was in there.”

Also in the Lilly Library is a seven-page letter, dated July 8, 1980, which Carver wrote to Mr. Lish as he readied “What We Talk About” for the printing presses. In it Carver pleaded with Mr. Lish, “Please do the necessary things to stop production of the book.”

Carver acknowledged in the letter that Mr. Lish had “made so many of the stories in this collection better, far better than they were before.” But because several people — including Ms. Gallagher and the writers Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff and Donald Hall — had already seen some of the stories in their earlier versions, Carver wondered, “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?”

Carver, who had recently met Ms. Gallagher (he later divorced his first wife, Maryann Burk) and stopped drinking, wrote: “If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.” He then detailed what he wanted restored.

Mr. Lish disregarded Carver’s plea and published the edited stories. Writing in The Washington Post, Doris Betts praised Carver’s “verbal skill, the distilled pungency, the laser focus of his implacable vision.” Michael Wood, writing in The Times Book Review, said “his writing is full of edges and silences, haunted by things not said, not even to be guessed at.”

I bolded the sections that I found particularly chilling. I mean, as an author, this is just terrifying, that someone could change and publish your stories against your vehement protest, and then, to add insult to the injury, the critics marvel at the scars and label your writing for them, so that your very name becomes synonymous with the scars.

I for one would like to see the restored versions of the stories. I suspect I'd like them a lot better than those butchered abortions that currently pass for his early work.

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