August 9, 1998
The Carver Chronicles
Raymond Carver's stories were at the center of American literary life in the 80's. Now they are at the heart of a battle over his legacy: Were some of them the product of collaboration? And why all the secrecy surrounding his archives?
Literary Spin Control Widow's Work
Obituary: Raymond Carver (August 3, 1988) Marilynne Robinson Reviews 'Where I'm Calling From' (May 15, 1988) Raymond Carver: A Chronicler of Blue-Collar Despair, A New York Times Magazine Profile (June 24, 1984) Irving Howe Reviews 'Cathedral' (September 11, 1983) Anatole Broyard Reviews 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' (April 15, 1981)
or much of the past 20 years, Gordon Lish, an editor at Esquire and then at Alfred A. Knopf who is now retired, has been quietly telling friends that he played a crucial role in the creation of the early short stories of Raymond Carver. The details varied from telling to telling, but the basic idea was that he had changed some of the stories so much that they were more his than Carver's. No one quite knew what to make of his statements. Carver, who died 10 years ago this month, never responded in public to them. Basically it was Lish's word against common sense. Lish had written fiction, too: If he was such a great talent, why did so few people care about his own work? As the years passed, Lish became reluctant to discuss the subject. Maybe he was choosing silence over people's doubt. Maybe he had rethought what his contribution had been -- or simply moved on.
By D. T. MAX
Seven years ago, Lish arranged for the sale of his papers to the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Since then, only a few Carver scholars have examined the Lish manuscripts thoroughly. When one tried to publish his conclusions, Carver's widow and literary executor, the poet Tess Gallagher, effectively blocked him with copyright cautions and pressure. I'd heard about this scholar's work (and its failure to be published) through a friend. So I decided to visit the archive myself.
What I found there, when I began looking at the manuscripts of stories like "Fat" and "Tell the Women We're Going," were pages full of editorial marks -- strikeouts, additions and marginal comments in Lish's sprawling handwriting. It looked as if a temperamental 7-year-old had somehow got hold of the stories. As I was reading, one of the archivists came over. I thought she was going to reprimand me for some violation of the library rules. But that wasn't why she was there. She wanted to talk about Carver. "I started reading the folders," she said, "but then I stopped when I saw what was in there."
t's understandable that Lish's assertions have never been taken seriously. The eccentric editor is up against an American icon. When he died at age 50 from lung cancer, Carver was considered by many to be America's most important short-story writer. His stories were beautiful and moving. At a New York City memorial service, Robert Gottlieb, then the editor of The New Yorker, said succinctly, "America has just lost the writer it could least afford to lose." Carver is no longer a writer of the moment, the way David Foster Wallace is today, but many of his stories -- "Cathedral," "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" and "Errand" -- are firmly established in the literary canon. A vanguard figure in the 1980's, Carver has become establishment fiction.
That doesn't capture his claim on us, though. It goes deeper than his work. Born in the rural Northwest, Carver was the child of an alcoholic sawmill worker and a waitress. He first learned to write through a correspondence course. He lived in poverty and suffered multiple bouts of alcoholism throughout his 30's. He struggled in a difficult marriage with his high-school girlfriend, Maryann Burk. Through it all he remained a generous, determined man -- fiction's comeback kid. By 1980, he had quit drinking and moved in with Tess Gallagher, with whom he spent the rest of his life. "I know better than anyone a fellow is never out of the woods," he wrote to Lish in one of dozens of letters archived at the Lilly. "But right now it's aces, and I'm enjoying it." Carver's life and work inspired faith, not skepticism.
Still, a quick look through Carver's books would suggest that what Lish claims might have some merit. There is an evident gap between the early style of "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Carver's first two major collections, and his later work in "Cathedral" and "Where I'm Calling From." In subject matter, the stories share a great deal. They are mostly about the working poor -- unemployed salesmen, waitresses, motel managers -- in the midst of disheartening lives. But the early collections, which Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel. They drop their characters back down where they find them, inarticulate and alone, drunk at noon. The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.
Many critics over the years have noticed this difference and explained it in terms of biography. The Carver of the early stories, it has been said, was in despair. As he grew successful, however, the writer learned about hopefulness and love, and it soaked into his fiction. This redemptive story was burnished through countless retellings by Tess Gallagher. Most critics seemed satisfied by this literal-minded explanation: happy writers write happy stories.
itting under the coffered ceiling of the Lilly, I began pulling out folders from the two boxes marked "Carver." Here were the stories from his first two collections as well as from "Cathedral" in versions from manuscript to printer's galleys. I had previously seen some manuscripts in the Carver holdings at Ohio State University, an archive to which Gallagher has said she will ultimately give the Carver papers in her possession. The manuscripts at O.S.U. are clean, almost without editing marks, as if they'd gone straight from author to typesetter. Where there are multiple drafts of a manuscript, the procession is unremarkable: the annotations in Carver's tiny handwriting drive the story confidently from draft to draft until the story achieves its finished form.
The Lilly manuscripts are different. There are countless cuts and additions to the pages; entire paragraphs have been added. Lish's black felt-tip markings sometimes obliterate the original text. In the case of Carver's 1981 collection, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," Lish cut about half the original words and rewrote 10 of the 13 endings. "Carol, story ends here," he would note for the benefit of his typist.
In "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," for example, Lish cut 70 percent of the original words. With a longer story, "A Small, Good Thing," in which a couple anxiously wait for their child to come out of a coma, Lish cut the text by a third, eliminating most of the description -- and all of the introspection. He retitled it "The Bath," altering the story's redemptive tone to one of Beckettian despair. In Lish's version, you no longer know if the child lives or dies.
Lish was constantly on guard against what he saw as Carver's creeping sentimentality. In the original manuscripts, Carver's characters talk about their feelings. They talk about regrets. When they do bad things, they cry. When Lish got hold of Carver, they stopped crying. They stopped feeling. Lish loved deadpan last lines, and he freely wrote them in: "The women, they weren't there when I left, and they wouldn't be there when I got back" ("Night School"). Other times, he cut away whole sections to leave a sentence from inside the story as the end: "There were dogs and there were dogs. Some dogs you just couldn't do anything with" ("Jerry and Molly and Sam"). On occasion, Carver reversed his changes, but in most cases Lish's handwriting became part of Carver's next draft, which became the published story.
"Fat" was one of the first stories Carver gave Lish to edit. It became the lead story in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" In "Fat," a restaurant waitress recounts to her friend Rita a large meal she served to a ravenous but melancholy obese man. The waitress's lover, Rudy, the restaurant cook, feels jealous. When they get home, he insists on having sex with her, but her mind remains with her experiences in the restaurant: the fat man has touched her in some way, made her feel dissatisfied with her life. This was how Carver wrote it, more as an anecdote than a story. It proved excellent material for Lish's talents. Some of what Lish does is technical: he moves the story into the present tense, for example. And he eliminates the waitress's self-reflectiveness, so we seem more involved than she does in what she is feeling. (Critics would later declare such touches to be trademark techniques of Carver.) Most important, Lish picks up on the "long, thick, creamy fingers" Carver gives the fat man, and finds in this the story's core -- the connection between longing and sexuality.
"My God, Rita, those were fingers," the waitress tells her girlfriend, who herself has "dainty fingers." At the end, when Rudy gets into bed with her, she observes, "Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all." These lines -- and several others -- were written by Lish. In Lish's hands, fatness becomes sexual potency, fullness, presence. He finds the resonance Carver missed.
If "Fat" was a successful -- if unusually extensive -- edit, Lish's efforts on another story, "Tell the Women We're Going," seemed closer to a wholesale rewrite. Written by Carver in the late 1960's or early 70's, the story was unusual for him, one of the few in which the violence implicit in his characters becomes explicit. The story first made an appearance as "Friendship" in Sou'wester, a small literary magazine. By the time it appeared in the "What We Talk About" collection, Lish had retitled it -- and cut it by 40 percent. The story is set near the town in which Carver grew up, Yakima, Wash. Bill and his tougher friend Jerry take a break from their wives at a barbecue and drive off looking for action. They find two teen-age girls bicycling along the road and try to get their attention. Things go awry. After a tense pursuit full of strange pleas and laughs, Jerry rapes and kills Sharon -- a scene that Bill, who has dropped behind, arrives in time to witness. He cries out, asserting in that moment the horror that the reader feels, too.
What's noteworthy about the story is the way Carver makes a boring afternoon build to murder. Lish didn't care about this. He was after more abstract effects. He made cuts on every page. Bill becomes just a passive companion to Jerry. The pursuit is eliminated: the violence now comes out of nowhere and is almost hallucinogenic. "[Bill] never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock," Lish wrote in. "Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill's." The story ends right there. One wonders how Carver must have felt when he saw that.
As I thumbed through various manuscripts at the Lilly, my face was flushed. I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean. He had shown writers the value of measuring your words. He had come along in the early 1970's when the first "post-modern" novelists, writers like John Barth and Donald Barthelme, dominated the literary scene. Their cerebral stories were admirable, but they were hard to love. Carver broke up their racket.
My favorite story had always been the sly "They're Not Your Husband." An unemployed salesman, Earl, goes to the restaurant where his wife, Doreen, is a waitress, and without identifying himself tries to goad the male customers into checking her out. He needs the validation. I particularly loved a description of Doreen's thighs as she bends over to scoop ice cream: "rumpled and gray and a little hairy, [with] veins that spread in a berserk display." The story also has a wonderful ending: "Then she put the unfinished chocolate sundae in front of [Earl] and went to total up his check." Lish didn't edit this story much, I discovered, but it turned out he had written the first sentence and rewritten the second. In Carver's version, the thighs are barely mentioned. In his original ending, Doreen just reaches for a coffeepot.
Overall, Lish's editorial changes generally struck me as for the better. Some of the cuts were brilliant, like the expert cropping of a picture. His additions gave the stories new dimensions, bringing out moments that I was sure Carver must have loved to see. Other changes, like those in "Tell the Women We're Going," struck me as bullying and competitive. Lish was redirecting Carver's vision in the service of his own fictional goals. The act felt parasitic. Lish's techniques also grew tired more quickly than did Carver's. After a while, the endless "I say," "he says" tags Lish placed on so much of the dialogue felt gimmicky. In all cases, however, I had one sustained reaction: For better or worse, Lish was in there.
ack in New York I contacted Lish. Much has changed for "Captain Fiction," as the once-dapper Lish was nicknamed during his Esquire heyday. Now 64, he is a widower, living alone in a spacious apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He shuffles around in his socks, his long white hair and loose clothes making him look like a vanquished sorcerer.
We sat across from each other at his kitchen table and I asked him what had happened. "I don't like talking about the Carver period," he said, "because of my sustained sense of his betrayal and because it seems bad form to discuss this." I was aware that he had been a radio actor before becoming an editor. Was he playing his reluctance up for me? "This puts me in an absolutely impossible light," he continued. "I can only be despised for my participation."
Lish already has plenty of enemies: By the 1990's, his aggressive editing, controversial private fiction seminars and taste for publicity had cost him many friends. "I said no to the people to whom one doesn't say no," he said. In 1994, after a decade in which the writers he was championing found fewer and fewer readers, Knopf fired him. He now writes fiction full time. His latest is titled "Self-Imitation of Myself." Reading his stories is like looking at the gears of a clock that's missing a face.
Lish's "sustained sense of betrayal" was, of course, also a strong motivator toward conversation. He was still embittered, he said, by the biting ingratitude of "this mediocrity" he had plucked from obscurity. When Lish is excited, his psoriasis acts up; he pulled a cooking spoon from his shelf and began scratching his back. And he began to tell me his version of the story.
In 1969 he persuaded Esquire to hire him as fiction editor. He promised to find new voices, to clear out the cobwebs. It was quite a leap for a part-time literary editor from Palo Alto, Calif. The pressure was on to produce.
One of his friends was Carver, who was editing educational materials in an office across the street from where Lish had worked. They were drinking pals, Carver tall, handsome, and deliberate, Lish short and wiry. Lish was the more worldly and aggressive. Maryann Burk-Carver recalls them walking down a Palo Alto street with Lish asking every woman they passed to sleep with him; he was trying to prove to Carver that you only had to ask to get what you wanted from life. At this point Carver had a small reputation, but he was not a name. "He was not known, not known at all, to the persons I would be delivering stories to for approval," Lish remembers.
Lish contacted Carver, who quickly sent off several stories to him. Lish reworked and returned them, using as his model the disorienting, unemotive stories of James Purdy, the author of "Why Can't They Tell You Why?" The stories -- "Fat," "Neighbors" and "Are You a Doctor?" -- wound up as Carver's first national magazine publications. Lish had a genius for beating the drums for his writers. He was friends with important writers like Cynthia Ozick and Harold Brodkey. Critics quickly took notice of the "new" voice in fiction Lish was championing, of its radical compression (many stories were but a few pages long) and stark silences. Much was made of Carver's name -- although Lish was the one doing the carving.
In 1976 Carver collected his stories in "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" including a version of the title story that Lish had cut. In The New York Times Book Review, the novelist Geoffrey Wolff, who would later become a friend of Carver's, hailed the stories, describing them as "carefully shaped" and "shorn of ornamentation," marked by "spells of quiet and tensed apprehension." In fact, Wolff wrote, Carver's prose "carries his mark everywhere: I would like to believe that having read the stories I could identify him on the evidence of a paragraph." The collection was nominated for a National Book Award.
Carver was gaining confidence from his success and writing more ambitiously. And he was finding out the world wasn't so harsh. He had friends now, acolytes even. He separated from Maryann and became involved with Tess Gallagher. He bought a boat and celebrated it in a poem in which he imagined it filled with his friends.
His editor's confidence was also growing. Lish thought of himself as Carver's ventriloquist. "I could not believe no one had stumbled on what was going on," he says. A collision was inevitable.
nitially, Carver had been grateful for Lish's help -- or perhaps just compliant or cowed. Carver was in a bad place in his life, beset by drink and poverty. Lish was his way to a readership. Nevertheless, Carver's unease was evident from the beginning. These letters are in the Lish archives. Responding to an edit in December 1969, Carver wrote: "Everything considered, it's a better story now than when I first mailed it your way -- which is the important thing, I'm sure." He echoed these sentiments in January 1971. "Took all of yr changes and added a few things here and there," he wrote, taking pains to add that he was "not bothered" by the extent of Lish's edit. Carver had a role in keeping the romance going, too. "You've made a single-handed impression on American letters," he wrote Lish in September 1977. "And, of course, you know, old bean, just what influence you've exercised on my life." He even offered to pay the charges for any work Lish sends out to be retyped.
After "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" they began work on a second collection, which Lish would ultimately title "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." (Carver had called it "Beginners.") Lish was editing more heavily now. He treated Carver as if he barely had a vote. Meanwhile, Carver was becoming a known literary figure. In 1978 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship. The next year he became a professor of English at Syracuse University.
Carver began to object to Lish's editing, but he wasn't sure what to object to. He wrote a five-page letter in July 1980 telling Lish that he could not allow him to publish "What We Talk About" as Lish had edited it. He wrote, "Maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it." But he feared being caught. "Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones ... and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, too, some of them. ... How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened?" He begged to be let out of his contract or at least to delay publication: "Please, Gordon, for God's sake help me in this and try to understand. ... I've got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I've been up all night thinking on this. ... I'll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or cedibility [sic] in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have [but] I can't take the risk as to what might happen to me." In the same letter, he wrote imploringly, "[M]y very sanity is on the line here. ... I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story."
Lish does not recall being moved. "My sense of it was that there was a letter and that I just went ahead." He knew what was best for Carver -- even if Carver didn't see it that way. In the end, "What We Talk About" was published much as Lish wanted.
The book received front-page reviews. Critics praised its minimalist style and announced a new school of fiction. Even so, Carver continued to press for stylistic control over his work. He insisted that if Lish wanted to edit his next collection, he would have to keep his hands off. "I can't undergo [that] kind of surgical amputation and transplantation," he wrote Lish in August 1982. "Please help me with this book as a good editor, the best ... not as my ghost," he pleaded two months later.
Lish reluctantly complied. "So be it," he wrote in December 1982 after giving the manuscript to "Cathedral" only a light edit -- although he wrote some acerbic criticisms in the margins. Even then, Carver feared a sneak attack. "I don't need to tell you that it's critical for me that there not be any messing around with titles or text," he warned Lish. Publicly, Carver also began to make a break. He made a point of telling interviewers that he controlled every aspect of his stories, invoking the adage that he knew a story was finished when he went through it once and put the commas in, then went through again and took the commas out.
Lish was angered by Carver's rebellion. He began asking his friends whether he should make his "surrogate work" public. They advised him to keep quiet. Don DeLillo, for example, warned him against taking Carver on. "I appreciate, and am in sympathy with, everything you say in your letter," he wrote to Lish. "But the fact is: there is no exposing Carver. ... Even if people knew, from Carver himself, that you are largely responsible for his best work, they would immediately forget it. It is too much to absorb. Too complicated. Makes reading the guy's work an ambiguous thing at best. People wouldn't think less of Carver for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they'd resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories.
"In the meantime," he ended, "take good care of your archives."
Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn't need to. "Cathedral" was his most celebrated work yet. Famous writers wanted to meet him; Saul Bellow wrote him an appreciative note. The collection was nominated for both a Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Proudly, Carver wrote a letter to Lish in which he noted that the title story "went straight from the typewriter into the mail."
Indeed, many writers and critics see Carver's later work -- stories like "Blackbird Pie" and "Errand" -- as his best efforts, his final brilliant flowering. Seen in this light, the Lish period, though responsible for bringing him to national attention, was an apprenticeship to be transcended. Some of Carver's friends certainly saw it that way. The poet Donald Hall read a manuscript copy of "The Bath" before Lish cut it. He asked Carver's permission to publish the original version under its original title, "A Small, Good Thing," in Ploughshares magazine. In this more expansive, uplifting form, the story won a 1983 O. Henry Award. "I was hearthurt at what had happened to that story," Hall remembers. "I've wondered in my head why Lish did what he did. Was it unconscious jealousy?"
hat is one way to explain the Lish-Carver relationship. The story is complicated by, of all people, Tess Gallagher. The poet, who now lives in Port Angeles, Wash., is generally seen as the heroine of the Carver saga. And with reason. When she met Carver in 1977, he was just turning a corner in his life, trying to control his drinking. She was ready for the job of keeping him sober. "God has given you to me to take care of," she told him. Gallagher made a home for him in which to work. She taught him to say no to Lish and ultimately to free himself from him, winning the long tug of war for Carver's soul. She encouraged him to publish "Where I'm Calling From," a selection of 7 new and 30 old stories, in the form he wanted posterity to read. (Carver never explained, however, that he was, in some cases, reversing Lish's edits.)
So Gallagher helped Carver to find his true voice. Weirdly, though, many of her pronouncements also have the effect of claiming a piece of Carver's work. Although she declined several requests to be interviewed for this article, Gallagher has described in detail her contribution to two of Carver's greatest stories, "Cathedral" and "Errand." Unlike Lish's claims, they cannot be checked against original drafts, because most of Carver's late manuscripts remain in her hands. Besides, the collaboration she describes would be so intimate that no traces were likely to remain.
But in the 1992 PBS documentary "To Write and Keep Kind" and in a series of unpublished interviews, Gallagher emphasized that she had given Carver the original idea for "Cathedral" -- or, more accurately, that he had stolen it from her. The story focuses on the discomfort that a husband feels when his wife brings a blind friend into their home. Tess herself had a blind acquaintance whom she talked about with Carver; she said she was planning to write a story about him when Carver "scooped" her. In addition, Gallagher claimed that she had written or helped shape several key lines. She spoke of the story as a joint effort.
Then there's "Errand," Carver's last published story. It tells of Anton Chekhov's early death; the work has a special status among Carver readers because Carver identified with Chekhov and because, although Carver said he did not know he had cancer when he wrote it, it limns his own death. The end of "Errand" takes place in a Badenweiler hotel room in 1904. The point of view of the story gracefully shifts from Chekhov, this man of letters dying of tuberculosis, to a young waiter worrying about a cork that has fallen to the floor in the room. The widow is lost in grief, and he is preoccupied with the cork. The ending is classically Chekovian in its attention to the waiter and his worries, and it fuses elegantly Carver's death, his life and his work.
As Gallagher explained in "To Write and Keep Kind," Carver had trouble envisioning the end of the tale: "Ray had written many, many drafts and didn't know how to get out of this story." So she came to his aid. "I was empathizing with his waiter character," she said to the camera, "and I said, that waiter is going to be looking down and you know what he's going to see? He's going to see that cork that popped out of the Champagne. I think the ending is involved with his response to that cork, and that he's going to bend down to get that and we're going to know something from that gesture, that action."
Collaboration between a literary husband and wife is not unusual. Nor is theft: F. Scott Fitzgerald lifted pages from the diaries of his wife, Zelda, for the sanitarium sections of "Tender Is the Night." Such entanglements still arouse discomfort. In an interview, Gallagher said that she had always kept their collaboration private, because "people's ideas about authorship are perhaps a bit fixed and unimaginative when it comes to what really happens when two writers live together." This has emerged as a theme of hers. Her next book is to be called "Soul Barnacles: On the Literature of a Relationship, Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver."
erhaps Gallagher and Lish did make their marks on Carver's fiction. But who needs them? Carver is enough. That's how Carver's friends -- Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Mona Simpson -- feel. "I have absolute confidence that Ray wrote everything in his stories according to my understanding of how writers write what they write," Ford said. He said he feared that any discussion of the archives would "inadvertently diminish Ray." Simpson expressed a lack of surprise. "I think people already assume an editor helps to make the work better. Who would want one who didn't?" Wolff said it reminded him what a good idea it is to destroy your drafts.
In revising 'The Wasteland,' Pound did for Eliot something of what Lish did for Carver. Pound found a voice -- not necessarily the voice Eliot intended -- and honed it brilliantly.
I mentioned the competing, and in some cases overlapping, claims of collaboration to Dick Day, Carver's college writing teacher at Humboldt State University. He thought his own influence was negligible. "I know any time I read a sentence by Carver that it's Carver's," he said. "Ray's voice was his own and it's authentic." A top editor at Knopf finds the very idea of co-authorship noxious. "I never met an author so many people claimed a piece of," he says.
How far can one take the question of influence, anyway? When I spoke with Maryann Carver about her ex-husband's work, she cited her impact on the story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" In the story, a husband and wife have an altercation over a past affair. When I pressed for details, she said it would be "crude" to get specific. Then she showed me where her tooth had entered her lip.
DeLillo had pointed out in his letter to Lish how central the idea of authenticity is to our literary culture. We have the text on the printed page. Why complicate our enjoyment of the stories by focusing on how they came to be written? To ask is to transgress. Besides, that writers take the help that is offered is not news. Chekhov, Carver's idol, used to pay friends 10 kopecks for an anecdote and 20 for a plot. Carver came out of the 1970's workshop tradition, in which you showed a story around and took the suggestions you found useful. What's so strange about a smart writer taking smart advice? "I edit my writers a lot or a little," says Gary Fisketjon, the editor at large at Knopf who worked with Carver after Lish. "Either way, it's their story."
Academics familiar with the Lish papers see the question of collaboration as more complex. "If you exalt the individual writer as the romantic figure who brings out these things from the depths of his soul," says Carol Polsgrove, a professor at Indiana University who has written about the archives, "then, yes, the awareness of Lish's role diminishes Carver's work somewhat. But if you look at writing and publishing as a social act, which I think it is, the stories are the stories that they are." Her view is becoming more widespread: a new form of literary analysis, "genetic criticism," focuses on the evolution of literary manuscripts from drafts to published form, taking into account the inevitable impact of editors and publishers.
Brian Evenson, a professor of English at Oklahoma State University, is the scholar whose findings Gallagher fought to keep unpublished. (The essay had been under consideration for an upcoming anthology, "Critical Essays on Raymond Carver," when Gallagher got wind of the submission and issued the publisher a copyright warning.) In Evenson's eyes, "You really have to say that Lish is almost as responsible as Carver for the stories he worked on." He feels the work really has to be admitted to be a "collaboration" -- almost like a musical with book and music by different artists. All the characters, the settings and the plots are Carver's. Carver country conceived of as a physical place with a given population is still Carver country. But the minimalist tone, for good or ill, was Lish's. He was more avant-garde than Carver, whose real voice was closer to his plain-spoken poetry. That's how he wrote before he met Lish, and that's how he wrote after. "It's no wonder Carver grew angry when critics called him a minimalist," Evenson says. "That was Lish."
hat does one make of literature that is the product of collaboration? Some historical perspective is in order. Consider Ezra Pound's revising of "The Wasteland" in 1922. Pound did for T. S. Eliot something of what Lish did for Carver. He made liberal cuts to the poem, shortening it by half and eliminating the strong element of parody. (The original title had been "He Do the Police in Different Voices.") Pound found a voice -- not necessarily the voice Eliot intended -- and honed it brilliantly. He helped make him a modernist cause celebre. Eliot acknowledged the debt obliquely, praising Pound as il miglior fabbro ("the greater craftsman") in his dedication. When Eliot outgrew Pound, he moved on. Scholars learned of the extent of this collaboration only with the discovery of the original manuscripts in 1968. This has not hurt Eliot's reputation. Seen in the larger context of his career, the fact that his masterpiece did not read quite like anything else he wrote did not lessen his stature or importance. Somehow it has come to seem natural.
Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, did not come in for such gentle handling. Wolfe was a brilliant writer, but there was a lot about writing a novel he never understood. He dumped the 330,000- word manuscript of his first novel, "Look Homeward, Angel," on the desk of his editor, Maxwell Perkins; in long sessions, Perkins cut, revised and made suggestions (always with Wolfe's consent). Wolfe decided to publicize the situation, much to the embarrassment of Perkins, who thought the editing process should be private. By Wolfe's second book, Perkins was mixing and matching batches of manuscripts, connecting the dots with Wolfe as he went along. After Wolfe died in 1938, Edward Aswell, an editor at Harper & Brothers, went even further. He created two more books out of the million words Wolfe left behind, creating composite characters and sometimes adding his own words. As these revelations have become known in the past two decades, Wolfe's reputation has dimmed considerably. "We have been threatened with scholarly publication of Wolfe's original manuscripts, and doubtless the threats will be fulfilled," wrote the critic Harold Bloom in 1987, "but the originals are most unlikely to revive Wolfe's almost-dead reputation."
Between these two examples sits Carver. To be sure, some of the early stories were so transformed by Lish that they should be considered the product of two minds. But what about the later stories Gallagher claims to have influenced? It's hard to say. That Carver's relationship with Gallagher was consensual rather than antagonistic matters, but what's most compelling is that the stories from "Cathedral" feel as if they came from him. They share a common voice, a brightness. If Gallagher helped him, so much the better. To paraphrase Mona Simpson, who would want a wife who didn't? Of course, one day, Gallagher may reveal a deeper level of collaboration. It's one thing to guide the pen; another to hold it. If that day comes, I suspect I will start to feel about Carver the way I do about Wolfe: namely, that he was a writer who never left a clear record of his talents. DeLillo is right: this is a culture in which we want a single name on the front of the book.
But why place so high a price on purity? The stories are what they are, regardless. Perhaps that's why Carver was not inclined to talk openly about the editing process. He was a private man and nonconfrontational. "Ray once said to me, 'Who needs trouble?' " remembers Tobias Wolff. "He wanted everything to be peaceful." When interviewers asked Carver about his relationship with "Captain Fiction," he always acknowledged Lish as a friend, a talented editor, a man who had been there for him at a crucial time. But he carefully avoided talking about the back-and-forth of their editing relationship, why it had ended or what it might reveal for those interested in his work.
In 1982, however, he came close. He was in a discussion with students at the University of Akron and, in response to a student's question, he began talking about the editor-writer relationship. He ticked off all the famous examples of heavy editing: F. Scott Fitzgerald's cutting of Hemingway's "Sun Also Rises," Perkins and Wolfe, Pound and Eliot. Carver quoted Pound's explanation of the process: "It's immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them."
Then he paused. "That's it. That's it exactly," he said.
D.T. Max, a contributing editor at The Paris Review, last wrote for the magazine about the novelist Terry McMillan.
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