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Monday, August 10, 2009

Raymond Carver Revealed

On August 20, the Library of America will release Raymond Carver's Collected Stories. If you've been following the story of Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish, for the last two years like I have, there will be some things in the volume that you won't want to miss. For the first time the original manuscript of the book of stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which Carver had titled Beginners, will be printed in its entirety.

A literary rumor that had been growing suddenly blossomed in December 2007 when Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, wrote an article in the New Yorker about Carver's relationship with Lish to accompany one of Carver's stories as he had originally written it. Reading the article is an astonishment. An editor's job is to help the writer find the story, but Lish's cuts were deep, he wrote lines in himself, and he cut Carver's part down by more than half the original word count in some places. The style of Raymond Carver that towered high in the 1980's - "dirty realism" or "minimalism" - was now revealed to be at least in some part the work of Lish.
I’ve struggled to come to terms with these facts since I’ve read the article. Raymond Carver was alive and publishing when I was moving into young adulthood and just becoming interested in the short story in a big way. His stories affected me deeply and are on any list I care to make of significant short stories. But now it appears that aspects of his style, especially the part of it that we call “minimalism” were not all from Carver.
When interviewed, Carver’s distaste for the term 'minimalism' was evident, but he accepted it. He also accepted the Lish edits, but after no small amount of agonizing. Later, as he grew more confident, he came out from under Lish’s thumb and stood his ground about his work. I have found refuge in the collection titled Cathedral (with its masterpiece ‘A Small, Good Thing’) which has come to be seen as most representing the non-Lish Carver. But now we will have some new words to add to it.

While I don't expect to find masterpieces in the Beginners material since it has little or no editorial hand in it, I am looking forward to reading it. I am looking forward to the writer distilled, undiluted by his mentor’s opinions (and additions!). What he wrote about is as important as the style in which he wrote. He wrote about people who had origins like himself: blue-collar and acquainted with despair. These people and what happened to them are what informed part of my life, and now I’m going to know just a bit more about them. And that is a small, good thing.

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