Writer and editor: Carver and Lish

Alex Beam’s always provocative column in the Boston Globe has focused on the dispute over Gordon Lish’s editing of Raymond Carver’s short fiction. As Beam notes, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, argues that Lish, well, butchered Carver’s stories by chopping their length and shaping them to adhere to the minimalist school, heavy on pop culture references and “naturalism.” Even more problematic, as Beam recounts, is that “Lish also wrote portion’s of Carver’s work.”

As I am not a fan of Carver’s work (nor of any of the Kmart realists), I find the quarrel interesting more for what it says about the relationship between writer and editor than whether Lish’s heavy-handed “cut and delete” robbed us of additional thousands of Carver’s self-absorbed words.

The Lish-Carver spat raises questions. Where should a writer draw the line? Allowing an editor to re-write the close of a story, as Lish apparently did, in “Beginners” seems to me to be way over the line. The ending is Lish, not Carver. Yet Carver bears some responsibility in not pushing back.

Was the balance of power in the relationship such that Carver couldn’t say no? Did Lish’s role as an influential  gate-keeper of new American fiction mean that Carver had to swallow hard and accept whatever cuts and revisions Lish made? Or did he see Lish’s changes as improvements?

To the extent that a writer has a distinctive voice, editing and rewriting is harder. I once wrote drafts of speeches for a newspaper publisher who was a talented writer himself and had a polished and elliptical style–it wasn’t easy for me to craft the sort of elegant sentences (filled with meandering asides and allusions) that were second nature for him.

In pushing Carver into minimalist, spare prose, Lish made the editing and rewriting easier, in a sense. Was there a cost, however, to Carver? Did he feel dominated, or violated, as a writer? That we can’t know, but his widow’s quest seems to suggest a level of resentment and, in her public airing of the contretemps, some attempt at payback.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Expats and the beauty of language

I stumbled upon some comments by the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, an exile in Canada, about how expatriates appreciate their native language in a distinct way. Skvorecky offered this:

Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn’t noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.

Miller’s theory is interesting (if not self-serving, since Miller was an expat), one which obviously resonated with Skvorecky. Does absence make the heart grow fonder? Or the ear sharper? Does separation from the familiar bring it into better focus?

I’m not so sure. I look at those American writers today who clearly love the language, who play with it, and they are not expats: Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien. Each offers us different American voices, rhythms, cadences, and their home-bound lyricism seems to suggest Henry Miller had it wrong.

For that matter, today there is no isolation for an American living overseas in the age of global culture. English is everywhere (admittedly in different flavors), but it’s harder to be homesick in Paris, to miss the American idiom, with Le Big Mac available at the corner MacDonalds.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Book into movie

Hollywood is notorious for converting novels into screenplays which bear little, if any, resemblance to the original book.

A number of movies about Hollywood have had subversive fun with this “corruption by adaptation,” mocking the pretentions of studio executives and snooty authors alike (my favorite is The Last Tycoon, the film of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel).

Some beloved novels are translated to the screen with as little alteration or interpretation as possible (the Lord of the Rings triology comes to mind), and readers can savage if the movie plot doesn’t track to the original.

Sometimes the adaption is so profound that the only thing the book and movie share in common is the title. There’s a middle ground, as well, where the screenplay borrows heavily from the original work but twists it in new ways.

The recent science fiction film Children of Men is based on the P.D. James novel of the same name. It is one of several dystopian fictions popular these days (see here for more on this interest in Doomsday). Director Alfonso Cuarón and four additional writers (Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby) are listed as screenwriters (not usually a good sign for those hoping for artistic coherence).

This team of screenwriters takes the basics of James’s story—a authoritarian Great Britain in 2027 where no children have been born for 18 years, a protagonist, Theo, who is asked by members of a shadowy resistance group to help shield a miraculously pregnant woman from the authorities—and proceeds to layer on themes of race, immigration, politics, and terrorism while altering the relationships of the main characters. It’s a bit muddled, although there’s enough oomph in the story (a version of The Quest) to carry us along.

James’s novel has some very tough things to say about the willingness of humans to trade off freedom and tolerance for security and order—in the film that is lost, as well as the book’s sharp commentary on the lust for power found in all of us and countervailing pull of religious faith, specifically traditional Christianity.

The endings of the two works highlight the artistic differences. The film settles for a romantic sacrifice to save the life of mother and child. The novel ends with a much different act of violence—an assassination and Theo’s willingness to use power to protect those he loves. James’s vision that in a fallen world there can be no cheap grace—more Bonhoeffer than box office—is definitely lost in commercial translation.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Writing it down

“A poet never takes notes,” said Robert Frost. “You never take notes in a love affair.”

Frost knew something about writing poetry, but I think he was being a touch precious about the question of notes.

Isn’t it the rare writer who can create totally from memory? Perhaps I betray my journalistic roots, but I know that I find myself scribbling notes to myself all time—observations, phrases, something overhead, a particularly good argument I’ve made to myself. They come in handy, because of my all-too-faulty memory.

In fact, I regret the times when I didn’t stop to write down some particularly apt or telling idea or sentence or description. Too often it would be lost forever (floating somewhere in my subconciousness, I suppose).

Now I would agree that Frost’s image of the lover obsessively chronicling the love affair—making notes instead of making love—isn’t an appealing one. But has all great love poetry been created from by noteless poets? I would think not. What are journals, diaries, letters, writer’s notebooks for?

I remember reading once that William Carlos Williams, a doctor and marvelous poet, would scrawl lines on his prescription pads; Wallace Stevens, insurance executive and poet, kept his “poetry notes” in the lower right hand drawer of his desk where he could quickly add ideas or words when the Muse moved him.

Yes, I have deliberately taken Frost’s comment too literally—he was, I think, contrasting the need to live without self-consciously observing that life while in the moment—but it got me thinking about “writing it down.”


More on poetry can be found at Neither Red nor Blue


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Blocking and tackling

I’ll confess that I was pleased to find this quote from Joseph Heller the other day: “Every writer I know has trouble writing.”

Whenever I am struggling to find the right words—the blocking and tackling of writing—I’m convinced that others must find it easier to write than me. I’m jealous of the facile writer, the first-time-right composers, those with the gift of “flow.”

So Heller’s comment lifted my spirits.

I’m a block writer, for the most part. My method is similar to Ring Lardner’s (according to Harold Ross,”…he {Lardner} said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces.”), followed by revision. And more revision. I spend more time rewriting than writing.

Some writers I’ve talked to tell me that they can only write from front to back, from the lead sentence onward. They don’t move on until they’re happy with each sentence. Adopting that technique would give me a vicious case of writer’s block: I find skipping ahead to work on a sentence here or a paragraph there keeps me going. I think of my writing as a patchwork quilt, passages and paragraphs stitched together with transitions.


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Copyright © 2007 J. Flanders
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Storytelling through images

I stumbled across this marvelous interview with Budd Schulberg, screenwriter for On the Waterfront, among other memorable movies, in the Writer’s Guild of America’s feature, “On Writing.”

Schulberg talked about how director Elia Kazan (whose nickname was “Gadg”) decided to tell part of the story of On the Waterfront by making a different use of dialogue, and how that fit into the broad artistic struggle: narrate through words or through images?

…The writers are always in love with dialogue, and the directors are saying, “But you don’t need all those lines. You just show a face, and you’ll see the expression.” That has been going on forever–I heard it growing up in my house in story conferences between my father and a lot of writers–and it happened here, again. I remember, in the scene when Karl Malden comes into the bar to get the gun from Terry, Gadg actually said he didn’t want me in there. At the time, he said that the bar was so narrow and so crowded with crew that there was no room for me. I was a little bit miffed. But the real reason, I learned later, was he felt that the dialogue shouldn’t be just line by line, that they should be shouting over each other, and you wouldn’t hear all the lines as neatly as I wrote them. And he thought that might upset me. It upset me more that they told me to wait outside. I remember waiting outside while they were shooting that scene, and wondering what the hell they were doing to my lovely words.

Schulberg’s insights came to mind when I recently re-viewed Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s dynamic 1963 film (which won Best Picture), a reimagining of Henry Fielding’s novel. Richardson tells much of the story employing very little dialogue. There are two memorable scenes—a deer hunt through the English countryside, where we see the gentry at play; and the erotic devouring of a meal by Tom Jones and his soon-to-be lover—where dialogue is eschewed, to great effect.

John Wayne once noted in a documentary on the film-making of John Ford that Ford ruthlessly cut dialogue at every opportunity. Screenwriters are often bitter about their treatment in Hollywood, feeling that such editing (or “butchery”) is a sign of disrespect. Schulberg closed the WGA interview with a rant about directors hogging credit.

And again, nobody–there are all of these public opinion polls and people are asked who they would choose for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture, but the public has not a clue that somebody wrote the picture, not a clue. And how many times have we seen these actors get up there and thank everybody in the goddamn world except the writer. They’ll thank the producer, they’ll thank the director, fellow actors, and then they get down to their agent and their hairdresser, literally, and their family and brothers and sisters, and you wait and they never get around to saying, “I’d like to thank the writer for writing this role, without which I would have no character to play and nothing to say or do.” It just doesn’t seem to occur to them. I’m still waiting. It’s been a lifelong fight for me.

There won’t be any resolution to this tension, of course, nor should there be: the transformative push-and-pull between director and writer can lead to storytelling magic.


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Copyright © 2006 J. Flanders
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Mastery first?

Robert McKee makes the argument in Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Pricnples of Screenwriting that “the writer must master classical form” before experimenting.

Simply put, McKee believes screenwriters must learn and master traditional story forms (the Archplot, in his terminology) before they attempt unstructured film making (the Antiplot). The writer must understand the Archplot (“You’ll know you understand it when you can do it.“) in order to play off the audience’s expectations. He points to the dues Bergman, Fellini, Godard and Altman paid making genre films, playing by the commercial rules—preparation for their rules-breaking movies.

McKee’s “mastery first” approach is mirrored in other art forms: Picasso started as a representational painter before adopting minimalism/modernism; Martha Graham performed in a vaudeville revue as a prelude to her career as America’s premier modern dance choreographer; jazz pianist McCoy Tyner had classical training.



Copyright © 2006 J. Flanders
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