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.
Writing; Editing; Raymond Carver;Gordon Lish
Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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