“Gordon Lish & Me” by Gary Percesepe

Every four or five years, it seems, Frederick Barthelme and I exchange a few e-mails about Ray Carver, Gordon Lish, and the edit job that Lish did on Carver back in the day. Barthelme never initiates this recurrent conversation, it’s always me; he hasn’t changed his mind, I have.

Finally, I interviewed Barthelme on the subject, and here is an excerpt from our exchange, published in New Ohio Review.

GP: Going back to Ray Carver—what’s your take on the latest dustup about the role of Gordon Lish in the Carver editing job?

FB: I don’t think much about it. Carver-Lish was a fortuitous coupling for Carver. It made his work much more fascinating in that moment. Some argue that the untouched work is better, and it may be, but my guess is that it would never have made the splash it did without Lish. Gordon is a complete nutball as an editor, no disrespect, and took advantage of the naiveté of writers who didn’t realize they could just say no. Or maybe it wasn’t Gordon taking advantage, but the writers realizing they might become significantly less famous if they just said no. In any case it’s a shame that people are taking the opportunity to pile on Lish yet again. He was and is a brilliant editor who  wrought Carver out of a much rougher stone.

Somewhere in here, when Barthelme was still Executive Editor of the Mississippi Review and I worked with him and a talented cast as an Associate Editor,  we thought it might be fun to interview Gordon Lish on the Carver matter, and on his approach to editing, generally. So I called Lish in New York, and here is where things get interesting.

The New Yorker had published a long essay on the topic, and included the “uncut” version of a famous Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The uncut version—Carver’s original manuscript—was titled “Beginners.”

What was astonishing was that Carver’s story “Beginners”—a 33 page manuscript—had been cut 50% by Lish for inclusion in a new story collection, a collection which Lish subsequently re-titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” changing both the title of the story and the collection previously called Beginners.

When I read Carver’s uncut story in the New Yorker, in December of 2007, I yelped. I was appalled that Lish had taken the knife to some beautiful writing. I was taken in by the beauty, richness, and fullness of Carver’s original story, particularly the lovely ending, beginning with this passage:

“I had the feeling that  something was going to happen, it was in the slowness of the shadows and the light, and that whatever it was might take me with it. I didn’t want that to happen. I watched the wind move in waves across the grass. I could see the grass in the fields bend in the wind and then straighten again. The second field slanted up to the highway, and the wind moved uphill across it, wave after wave. I stood there and waited and watched the grass bend in the wind. I could feel my heart beating. Somewhere toward the back of the house the shower was running. Terri was still crying. Slowly and with an effort, I turned to look at her. She lay with her head on the table, her face turned toward the stove. Her eyes were open, but now and then she would blink away tears. Laura had pulled her chair over and sat with an arm around Terri’s shoulders. She murmured still, her lips against Terri’s hair. 

“Sure, sure,” Terri said. “Tell me about it.” 

“Terri, sweetheart,” Laura said to her tenderly. “It’ll be okay, you’ll see. It’ll be okay.”

Lish cut all that and a hell of a lot more. I was unbearably offended.

But then, over time, I came to the opposite view. By this time, Tess Gallagher (Carver’s widow) along with William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll had published Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, with the chronology, bibliography, notes on the text, and the original text of Beginners, and re-reading the passage cited above, and the ending of the story, it sounded maudlin to me, sentimental, and wrong.

What changed for me?

I was trying like hell to revise my own novel, and finding it difficult to make the cuts I knew needed to come. Whereas before I had asked myself, “How did Lish have the nerve to cut that story?” now I asked myself, in wonderment, “How did Lish have the nerve to cut that story, and where can I find some!”

In my conversations with Barthelme about Carver, he had once remarked that Carver had spent years as a journeyman writer—no better, no worse, maybe, than many of us—when he had the good fortune to run into Lish. I resisted that idea for a long time, but I’m not resisting any more. I think Barthelme is right. What’s more, I wish I had my own internal Gordon Lish. I wish we all did. Which is not to say that Gordon Lish always got it right. I think he made a terrible mistake when he cut Carver’s story “A Small Good Thing” by an astonishing 78% for inclusion in WWTA and published it as “The Bath.” There are other examples, equally egregious, with Mary Robison’s stories, and others.

But we all read and edit from somewhere. Context is everything. As a writer, I know that I battle daily with a tendency toward sentimentality. So did Carver. I asked Ann Beattie about this last summer. She admitted battling the same tendency. Pretty good company, there.

There is a quotation from Gordon Lish (quoted in the new Stull & Carroll collection) that is very much on my mind these days. Speaking of his early encounters with Carver’s writing, Lish said that he was struck by its “peculiar bleakness.” Stull & Carroll comment: “To foreground that bleakness, he cut the stories radically, reducing plot, character development, and figurative language to a minimum.”

Keeping this in mind, try this experiment: Go back now and re-read the Carver excerpt in italics, above. Then read the Lish-edited version. See what you think.

“Kill your darlings,” as the saying goes—easier said than done. It’s nice if we have a Gordon Lish there to do it for us, but no fun if you are Gordon Lish, and the topic is Carver and what you did to him, and the grieving widow is out there telling her story, and you decide, if you’re Lish, to just keep your mouth shut.

Which, in the end, is the best course of action Gordon Lish can take. He has surrounded this matter with a generous silence.

This hasn’t stopped people from asking.

Bartheleme and I wrote up some interview questions for Gordon Lish a while back. I called him up in New York and asked if he’d consent to be interviewed. He said, send me the questions, so I did.

I include them below, along with his “answers.”

Which are eloquent.

 Interview Questions for Gordon Lish
Mississippi Review, Fall 2008 Issue
An Interview with Gary Percesepe

 Is it possible that the means of literary production and distribution will eventually be democratized to the point that there is no “publishing industry” to speak of?  Or does the consumer culture’s demand for validated product overbalance the impulse toward democratization?

Some lament the commercialization of the literary magazine, noting that some (formerly) poor and underfunded magazines with little or no distribution have suddenly become money- and- career-making opportunities for editors and writers alike. Is there a trend toward self-promotion in independent literary publishing?

You have a reputation as a brilliant, meticulous and aggressive line editor. Would you talk a bit about your editing process, particularly with regard to “distilling essences” and finding, in perhaps overwrought prose, those elements and that language which most perfectly convey the basic ideas and melodies the author is understood to seek?

Is any editor, in the best case, a co-writer with the originating author?

Do you believe that your editing of Ray Carver, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison and others made significant and as yet uncredited contributions to the so called “minimalist” movement which, while widely (and wildly) discredited, has nevertheless had a substantial impact on American fiction from 1975 to the present?

I’m interested in your response to the New Yorker issue of December 24, 2007, which featured an unsigned piece (we may assume it was written by David Remnick) called “Rough Crossings: The Cutting of Raymond Carver,” as well as the “uncut” version of Carver’s story, “Beginners” (later published as “What We talk About When We talk About Love”). Do you feel that you have been run over by the “Carver machine,” the industry that builds up around any successful writer and that has a vested interest in maintaining and elevating the writer to the possible detriment of what one might naively try to call “historical accuracy?”

Postscript—

I have two letters from Gordon Lish concerning these non-answers, and they are priceless. I don’t mean to be coy, but I am not sharing them with anyone. He’s rubbing off on me.

More nonfiction at Used Furniture.

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Comments

  1. I can’t tell what Lish’s “answers” are supposed to be at the end here. There is nothing to mark which lines may be a response. That is so frustrating.

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