Raymond Carver's short cuts

Archival evidence suggests that Raymond Carver's early short stories were heavily edited. Andrew Gumbel reports
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The Independent Culture
Raymond Carver's reputation as one of the foremost literary stylists of the late 20th century has been challenged by new archival evidence, which shows that many of his earlier short stories were heavily rewritten. In particular, his hallmark minimalism may owe more to his editor, Gordon Lish, than to his own pen.

Typescripts of Carver's first drafts, together with heavy amendments written in black felt-tip by Lish, show countless cuts and amendments, as well as entire new sentences and paragraphs that found their way into the final published work. Some of Carver's best-known stories, including "Fat", "Tell the Women We're Going" and "They're Not Your Husband", turn out to be among the most heavily edited.

The papers were donated by Lish to the Lilly Library at Indiana University seven years ago. But a first analysis of their contents by the literary journalist DT Max has only just appeared in the New York Times magazine. According to Max, at least one academic researcher has previously attempted to publish a similar analysis, but was blocked by copyright cautions and pressure from Carver's widow and literary executor, Tess Gallagher.

Rumours that Carver was not entirely responsible for his literary style have circulated for years, but have been disbelieved because of the instantly recognisable power of his prose.

Max reports: "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."

What We Talk About was to be the last collaboration with Lish, and marked a watershed in Carver's stylistic development. His later stories are lusher, a change usually explained by his recovery from alcoholism and his marriage to Gallagher.

Max quotes a desperate letter from Carver, written in July 1980, begging Lish not to insist on heavy changes. "Please, Gordon, for God's sake help me in this and try to understand," Carver writes. "My 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, who was known as "Captain Fiction" when he worked as an editor at Esquire, developed a reputation for heavy-handed editing, particularly in his later career. He is now retired. In Max's judgement, some of his changes to Carver's prose were "brilliant, like the expert cropping of a picture", while others were "bullying and competitive". Shortly before his death in 1988, Carver republished 30 old stories and seven new ones under the title "Where I'm Calling From". Many of the old stories were in modified form - reversing some of Lish's changes. The official explanation for the changes, however, was simply a change in judgement by the author, and the author alone.