In 1958 Raymond Carver moved from Yakima to Paradise. Enrolling at Chico State College, he was guided by John Gardner, who was also on his way to fame as a writer. But it was not until he met editor Gordon Lish, in 1967, that Carver’s skill began to be refined. Two years later Lish became the fiction editor of Esquire where he published Carver’s stories over the next decade.
Before his death in 1988 Carver was a star in the literary firmament. The critic Frank Kermode wrote that “Carver’s fiction is so spare in manner that it takes a time before one realizes how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.” His first collection, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976) as well as “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981) heralded the advent of a master of minimalism.
Those stories had been edited by Gordon Lish. In the New Yorker for December 24 & 31, 2007 (www.newyorker.com) the editor lays out the controversy. Just before “What We Talk About” was to go to print, Caver frantically wrote to Lish asking him to suspend publication. “Carver had been up all night reviewing Lish’s severe editorial cuts—two stories had been slashed by nearly seventy per cent, many by almost half; many descriptions and digressions were gone; endings had been truncated or rewritten—and he was unnerved to the point of desperation.” Carver “feared exposure before his friends, who had read many of the stories in their earlier versions.”
The magazine prints a series of Carver’s letters to Lish and the original text of the story (then called “Beginners”) that became “What We Talk About” (giving the title to the collection).
Did Lish “create” Ray Carver’s voice? The Lish-edited story is static; the characters (two married couples) remain around the table as the sun sets. It’s a bleak story that fades to black.
The longer version feels embellished, more sentimental, more spelled out. The characters move around. At the end the narrator stares out the window, making contact with the outside world. Near the end Carver had written: “Herb finished his drink. Then he got slowly up from the table and said, ‘Excuse me. I’ll go shower.’ He left the kitchen and walked slowly down the hall to the bathroom. He shut the door behind him.” As Lish edited it: “Herb finished his drink. ‘Gin’s gone,’ Herb said.” No getting up. No shower.
So who is “Ray Carver”?