Saturday, September 17, 2011

everything in its right place

"Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say."

—Raymond Carver, "On Writing," 1981 (from Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose, 2001)

On the other hand ...

... In the end, "What We Talk About [When We Talk About Love]" [Carver's 1981 short-story collection] was published much as [Carver's editor, Gordon] 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.

Gordon Lish (photo credit: Bill Hayward)
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."

—from "The Carver Chronicles" by D.T. Max, The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1998

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