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Raymond Carver’s Gordon Lish problem, and mine

When my parents visited, they dropped off a stack of old New Yorkers, including this year’s fiction issue, which featured “Beginners,” Raymond Carver’s original version of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Carver’s version is moving, but also talky and baggy, possessing none of the rigorous terseness that we talk about when we talk about Raymond Carver. Except that maybe we were actually talking about Gordon Lish, who edited the story down to its bones. Or, more precisely, about the collaboration between the two. The New Yorker offers a remarkable chance to see how this kind of collaboration works: they’ve posted Carver’s original version with Lish’s edits superimposed, “Track Changes”-style:

My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel Herb and me I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, then. But but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Mel Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

That opening paragraph is actually treated pretty mildly; farther into the story, whole pages get the axe. Carver didn’t take Lish’s edits easily — in an exchange of letters published in the same New Yorker issue, he tries to pull back the stories from publication after seeing what Lish did to them. Carver felt Lish had violated his work — and he was right! But the work was better for being violated.

I know how he feels, a little, because I, too, have been edited by Gordon Lish. Sometime in 1995 I wrote a story called “What Can We Expect From the New Currency?” and submitted it to Lish’s magazine, The Quarterly. Lish called me on the phone to tell me he was accepting the story and that he’d send me a version with some edits by mail. When the package from Lish arrived, I discovered that what he was accepting was about a third of my story: most of the opening, broken up by the insertion of some paragraphs rescued from the mostly deleted latter sections.

And you know what? His version wasn’t really my story — but it was a lot better and cleaner than my story. And he didn’t change my title.

What I didn’t know was that The Quarterly was out of money, and would never publish another issue.

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