Monday, January 21, 2008


The New Yorker's winter fiction issue had an excellent short examination of the apparently problematic relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish. It has been openly whispered for years that Lish edited Carver's draft's rather severely, and even rumored that he was more responsible for the minimalist style so strongly associated with Carver than was Carver himself. Last year, Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, announced her intention to publish Carver's original, more expansive version of the stories that Lish pared down and published as the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Knopf however, does not seem to be interested in Gallagher's proposed volume, and seems to believe that their copyright on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love would give them the ability to veto any other edition of the stories in the collection.

The New Yorker's coverage is best online, where you can not only find selections from Carver and Lish's letters and the "original" version of the story "Beginners," but also a version that highlights, line-by-line, the changes Lish made before retitling the story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

As interesting as this all is, there's a lot that's weird as well. The piece in The New Yorker which leads off the Carver/Lish coverage, and purports to provide background, is uncredited. Furthermore, while Gallagher claims to have no desire to pull the Lish-edited versions of Carver's stories out of print, it's clear that she views the "original" versions as authoritative, referring to the Lish-edited versions as "part of the history [of Carver's writing and publications]" Gallagher is apparently in talks with the Library of America to produce an "authoritative" edition of Carver's stories, which would include the Lish-edited versions as a "historical document."

Gallagher claims to be driven by a desire to restore Carver's legacy and pull him out of Lish's shadow. That seems to me, at this point, to be a problematic goal. The battle at this point is between Gallagher and Lish, and not Carver and Lish. As determining Carver's final intentions is next to impossible, the question is more whose name will appear in the place of honor next to his, as his true and faithful editor or executor. Personally, I couldn't care less.

I would actually like to read the various versions of Carver's work, but I'm almost more of a scholar than a representative general reader at this point, and, as my post has probably made clear, I'm hesitant to privilege or marginalize either version as "definitive" or "historical." And, in all honesty, I like What We Talk About When We Talk About Love better than Carver's later, more expansive collection Cathedral.

For me, all of this throws a slightly different light on Dimitri Nabokov's apparent inability to either destroy or publish his father, Vladimir Nabokov's final manuscript. Normally, I'm on the Max Brod side of the Kafka argument—the author is dead, his/her final intentions don't matter. The struggle between Gallagher and Knopf, however, is almost enough to make me think that Nabokov's habit of burning all of his drafts was a good idea.

(Note: According to NPR, The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, wrote the uncredited "Life and Letters" piece on Carver. Listen to the NPR story here.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"...Nabokov's habit of burning all of his drafts was a good idea."

Save your drafts on Google Docs. Tell no one the password. Such is the future of literary estates for the privacy-minded.