The Whole New Yorker Raymond Carver Thing

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On the morning of July 8, 1980, Raymond Carver wrote an impassioned letter to Gordon Lish, his friend and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, begging his forgiveness but insisting that Lish “stop production” of Carver’s forthcoming collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” 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. A recovering alcoholic and a fragile spirit, Carver wrote that he was “confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid.” He feared exposure before his friends, who had read many of the stories in their earlier versions. If the book went forward, he said, he feared he might never write again; if he stopped it, he feared losing Lish’s love and friendship. And he feared, above all, a return to “those dark days,” not long before, when he was broken, defeated. “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here,” he wrote to Lish.

Considering the dreary facts of Raymond Carver’s origins, he was lucky to have survived and published at all. He was born in the logging town of Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938, and grew up in Yakima, Washington. His mother worked as a retail clerk and a waitress, and his father, who had ridden the rails during the Dust Bowl days, was a saw filer in a lumber mill, a storyteller, a depressive, and a blackout drunk, who died at fifty-three. Before Carver was twenty, he was the father of two children, and he and his first wife, Maryann Burk, began a life of working “crap jobs” and dodging bill collectors. Over the years, Carver swept floors in a hospital, pumped gas, cleaned toilets, and picked tulips. He wanted desperately to write poems and stories about the landscapes he’d seen and the people he’d known, and he had even published a few stories in “little” magazines while studying at Humboldt State, at Chico State College (with John Gardner), and, until his money ran out, in the writing program at the University of Iowa. But he could write only fitfully. “I scarcely had time to turn around or draw a breath,” he said. Alcohol soon became an even greater obstacle to writing than the need to pay the bills. Over time, there were bankruptcies, blackouts, and breakdowns, physical and mental. “I made a wasteland of everything I touched,” he once remarked. “Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved and emergency rooms and courtrooms.”

In 1967, while working for the textbook publisher Science Research Associates, in Palo Alto, Carver met Lish, who was also working at a textbook publishing house. Lish, a voluble, eccentric, and literary man, began inviting Carver to his place for lunch and to talk about books. Lish was impressed by Carver, in particular by the exoticism of his characters––“hillbillies of the shopping mall,” Lish later called them. Let go from S.R.A., Carver lived on severance and unemployment insurance, and was able to write stories with greater concentration. “Something happened during that time in the writing, to the writing,” he said. “It went underground and then it came up again, and it was bathed in a new light for me.” Lish was extremely encouraging to Carver, and when, in 1969, he moved to New York to be the fiction editor at Esquire, he became Carver’s lifeline.

In 1971, Lish accepted Carver’s story “Neighbors,” and throughout the seventies he continued to publish Carver’s work—stories of marriage, struggle, and the working poor—or guided him to other publications. He also consistently cut the stories to the linguistic bone, developing a uniquely spare, laconic, almost threatening aesthetic that was eventually dubbed “minimalism” or “Kmart realism.”

Carver seemed only to encourage and accept Lish’s ministrations—at least, until the summer of 1980. There are dozens of letters in Lish’s papers at the Lilly Library, at Indiana University, that attest to Carver’s gratitude to Lish for his friendship, support, and editing. After hearing the news that, at Lish’s urging, McGraw-Hill had accepted his first collection, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” Carver gleefully wrote Lish that he intended to “set the globe afire” and follow his lead on reworking the stories: “Tell me which ones and I’ll go after it, or them. . . . Or I will leave it up to you & you tell me what you think needs done or doing.”

The year 1977 was, for Carver, a new and miraculous beginning. His collection was nominated for a National Book Award. Even more surprising, on June 2nd, after a series of hospitalizations, he quit drinking, and stayed sober for the rest of his life. “I guess I just wanted to live,” he recalled. Around the same time, Lish left Esquire, but he soon accepted an invitation to join Knopf. Lish had built his reputation at Esquire by publishing such writers as Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, and Richard Ford, and Carver reacted to the news of Lish’s departure from the magazine with a tribute. “Just knowing you were there, at your desk, was an inspiration for me to write,” he wrote Lish. “You, my friend, are my idea of an ideal reader, always have been, always, that is, forever, will be.”

At Knopf, Lish signed Carver to a five-thousand-dollar contract for his next collection of stories. Carver and Maryann Burk had separated, and he was living, happy and sober, with the poet Tess Gallagher. Teaching jobs and grants were also coming his way. Carver’s “second life,” as he called it, had begun.
Editing takes a variety of forms. It includes the discovery of talent in a relatively obscure literary magazine or in a “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts. It can be a matter of financial and emotional support in difficult times. And, once faced with a manuscript, an editor ordinarily tries to facilitate a writer’s vision, to recommend changes—deletions, additions, transpositions—that best serve the work. In the normal course of things, editorial work is relatively subtle, but there are famous instances of heroic assistance: Ezra Pound cutting T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in half when the poem was still called “He Do the Police in Different Voices”; Maxwell Perkins finding a structure in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” and cutting it by sixty-five thousand words.

In the years after the publication of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” Carver wrote a series of stories dwelling on alcoholism and wrecked marriages. They were eventually published under a title recommended by Lish: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” According to the professors William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, who, with the coöperation of Tess Gallagher, have been doing scholarly work on Carver, Lish mailed Carver an edited manuscript in the spring of 1980 containing sixteen of the seventeen stories that eventually appeared in the book. Lish had cut the original manuscript by forty per cent, eliminating what he saw as false lyricism and sentiment. Then, while Carver and Gallagher were attending a writers’ conference, Lish edited the manuscript yet again, had it retyped, and sent the pages back to Syracuse, where Carver was now living and teaching. When Carver returned home and read the manuscript, he wrote his forlorn letter to Lish.

In 1998, ten years after Carver’s death, the journalist D. T. Max went to the archives at the Lilly Library to examine the Carver-Lish letters. The result was an article in the Times Magazine that brought that strange and shifting editorial relationship to public light. But it remains a mystery why, just two days after pleading with Lish to withdraw the book, Carver wrote another letter to him, in a far different mood, calmly discussing relatively minor editorial points, and signing off “with my love.” Lish, apparently, had spoken to Carver by telephone and managed to avoid a prolonged crisis.

When “What We Talk About” was published, in April, 1981, it enjoyed enormous critical success, capped off by a front-page review in the Times Book Review, a rarity for a collection of short stories. The critic Michael Wood wrote that Carver had “done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do: He has invented a country of his own, like no other except the very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world of all of us.” Wood also wrote, “In Mr. Carver’s silences, a good deal of the unsayable gets said.” Many of those silences were the result of Lish’s editing.

After years of failure, illness, work, and obscurity, Carver naturally relished the reception. The public praise also insured that he kept to himself his ambivalence about the way Lish had edited some of the stories. In Tess Gallagher’s view, Lish’s work encroached upon Carver’s artistic integrity. “What would you do if your book was a success but you didn’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat?” Gallagher said recently. “He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink."

In the years following the book’s publication, Carver seemed determined to keep Lish as a friend and “brother,” even as an editor, but he now set stricter editorial boundaries. There was a shift in power. Carver demanded his autonomy. “Gordon, God’s truth, and I may as well say it out now,” he wrote in August, 1982, about his latest stories. “I can’t undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close.”

Carver’s next story collection, “Cathedral,” was published in 1983, and was an even greater success, winning praise again on the cover of the Times Book Review, this time from Irving Howe, who wrote that in Carver’s more expansive later work one saw “a gifted writer struggling for a larger scope of reference, a finer touch of nuance.” In an interview with The Paris Review that year, Carver made clear that he preferred the new expansiveness: “I knew I’d gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I’d be at a dead end––writing stuff and publishing stuff I wouldn’t want to read myself, and that’s the truth. In a review of the last book, somebody called me a ‘minimalist’ writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it.”

Now Tess Gallagher is hoping to re-publish all the stories in Carver’s second book in what she believes is their “true, original” form. The story published here, “Beginners,” was the submitted draft of a story that Lish cut by more than a third and retitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Gallagher is eager for people to read “Beginners.” And yet Lish’s work helped transform a more conventional story into an exemplar of an astringent and original aesthetic—the aesthetic that helped win Carver his initial following. “I see what it is that you’ve done, what you’ve pulled out of it,” Carver wrote to Lish about “Beginners” in his long, aggrieved letter, “and I’m awed and astonished, startled even, with your insights.” Carver may well have regretted, to some degree, the way a number of his stories appeared in “What We Talk About,” and, in the compendium “Where I’m Calling From,” which appeared a few months before he died, he republished three stories in their “original” form. But most of the stories, including this one, he republished as Lish had edited them.

“An editorial relationship is a private one, and nobody can see it fully and completely,” Gary Fisketjon, an editor who helped Carver make the selections for “Where I’m Calling From,” said recently. “Clearly, there was a catastrophic breakdown here that’s interesting but ultimately unknowable.” What can be known is that, by the mid-nineteen-eighties, Carver’s relationship with Lish was at an end. Lish told D. T. Max, “I don’t like talking about the Carver period, because of my sustained sense of his betrayal, and because it seems bad form to discuss this.” Gallagher, for her part, thought that Lish had been claiming too much credit for Carver’s achievements.

In 1987, Carver wrote “Errand,” a story about the death of Chekhov, his literary idol. It was published in The New Yorker. The same year, Carver, like Chekhov, began spitting up blood. Carver had always been, he once said, “a cigarette with a body attached to it,” and he was found to have lung cancer. He and Gallagher bought a house on the Olympia Peninsula overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and they married on June 17, 1988. Some mornings, Carver tried to write, despite his illness. “But I get so awful tired,” he said. He died on August 2nd. He was fifty years old, and “Errand” was his last story. ♦

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:02 (fifteen years ago) link

Following are excerpts from Carver’s correspondence with Lish, from 1969 to 1983.

November 12, 1969

Well, as it happens I do have a few stories on hand, and I’m sending them along within the next day or two. I hope you can find something you like.

July 15, 1970

Hombre, thanks for the superb assist on the stories. No one has done that for me since I was 18, I mean it. High time I think, too. Feel the stories are first class now, but whatever the outcome there, I appreciate the fine eye you turned on them. Hang tough.

January 19, 1971

I think it’s a fine story. Took about all yr changes, added a few things here and there. Hope to get it retyped by this evening and back off to you. No later than tomorrow, sure. Thanks for going over it.—Listen, something you said a long time ago, the thing itself is what matters. Is true, in the end. I’m not bothered. I’ve always been the slowest kid in class anyway, right down there. But I keep trying, even at this advanced age. So lean on it, if you see things. If I don’t agree, I’ll say something, never fear.

November 11, 1974

Well, listen, can’t exactly tell you how pleased and so on about the prospects of having a collection out under your aegis . . . along with McGraw-Hill, of course. First reaction was to run out and buy two bottles of champagne for a champagne breakfast. . . . But all that is neither here nor there. What I’m concerned about and thrilled about is having out a book of stories, & from there on I intend, brother, to set the globe afire, believe me. . . . I’ll tell you this, you’ve not backed a bad horse. . . . About the editing necessary in some of the stories. Tell me which ones and I’ll go after it, or them. Tell me which ones. Or I will leave it up to you & you tell me what you think needs done or doing.

September 27, 1977

The most wonderful thing about this stay in McKinleyville, though, is that I’ve got sober and intend to stay that way. I’ve never done anything in my life I’ve felt so good about as getting and staying sober. What can I say? [Lish had left Esquire.] You’ve made a single-handed impression on American letters that has helped fix the course of American letters. And, of course, you know, old bean, just what an influence you’ve exercised on my life. Just knowing you were there, at your desk, was an inspiration for me to write, and you know I mean that. You, my friend, are my idea of an ideal reader, always have been, always, that is, forever, will be. So you loomed large on the literary scene, and that is a fact, as well as a truth, but you loomed large in my conscious and unconscious life as well.

September 8, 1978

Tess Gallagher, that Irish lass, I like to have fallen in love with her. She left, went to Tucson on business—she’ll be teaching there next year, she’s on a Guggy this year—then returned and we spent a fine week together, I put her on a plane to Seattle yesterday, today I get a dozen red roses from her.

February 1, 1979

I’m going to Mardi Gras with Tess; and the Fords are coming down in March for spring break and we’re going into Mexico by train for a week. . . . I’m happy, and I’m sober. It’s aces right now, Gordon. I know better than anyone a fellow is never out of the woods, but right now it’s aces, and I’m enjoying it.

May 10, 1980

As for lunch, lord, it was the high point of my visit to NYC, nothing mindless or silly, at least not on your part. I delight in your company, simple as that. You know, I feel closer to you than I do to my own brother. Have for a long time, years. We don’t see each other that often, or talk on the phone weekly, etc., but I know you’re there and it’s important to me. Besides, you’re my hero—don’t you know? Ever since you left PA [Palo Alto] and went out into the Great World and began sending me messages back from time to time what it was like out there. Your friendship and your concern have enriched my life. There’s no question of your importance to me. You’re my mainstay. Man, I love you. I don’t make that declaration lightly either. . . . For Christ’s sweet sake, not to worry about taking a pencil to the stories if you can make them better; and if anyone can you can. I want them to be the best possible stories, and I want them to be around for a while. . . . I never figured I was going to get rich or even earn a living writing stories and poems. Be enough, you know, to have Knopf do a book of mine and have you as my editor. So open the throttle. Ramming speed.

July 8, 1980, 8 A.M.

Dearest Gordon,

I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this, and nothing but this, so help me. I’ve looked at it from every side, I’ve compared both versions of the edited mss—the first one is better, I truly believe, if some things are carried over from the second to the first—until my eyes are nearly to fall out of my head. You are a wonder, a genius, and there’s no doubt of that, better than any two of Max Perkins, etc., etc. And I’m not unmindful of the fact of my immense debt to you, a debt I can simply never, never repay. This whole new life I have, so many of the friends I now have, this job up here, everything, I owe to you for “Will You Please.” You’ve given me some degree of immortality already. You’ve made so many of the stories in this collection better, far better than they were before. And maybe if I were alone, by myself, and no one had ever seen these stories, maybe then, knowing that your versions are better than some of the ones I had sent, maybe I could get into this and go with it. But Tess has seen all of these and gone over them closely. Donald Hall has seen many of the new ones (and discussed them at length with me and offered his services in reviewing the collection) and Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, too, some of them. . . . How can I explain to these fellows when I see them, as I will see them, what happened to the story in the meantime, after its book publication? Maybe if the book were not to come out for 18 months or two years, it would be different. But right now, everything is too new. . . . Gordon, the changes are brilliant and for the better in most cases—I look at “What We Talk About . . .” (Beginners) and I see what it is that you’ve done, what you’ve pulled out of it, and I’m awed and astonished, startled even, with your insights. But it’s too close right now, that story. Now much of this has to do with my sobriety and with my new-found (and fragile, I see) mental health and well-being. I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here. I don’t want to sound melodramatic here, but I’ve come back from the grave here to start writing stories once more. As I think you may know, I’d given up entirely, thrown it in and was looking forward to dying, that release. But I kept thinking, I’ll wait until after the election to kill myself, or wait until after this or that happened, usually something down the road a ways, but it was never far from my mind in those dark days, not all that long ago. Now, I’m incomparably better, I have my health back, money in the bank, the right woman for this time of my life, a decent job, blah blah. But I haven’t written a word since I gave you the collection, waiting for your reaction, that reaction means so much to me. Now, I’m afraid, mortally afraid, 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, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being. . . .

Please help me with this, Gordon. I feel as if this is the most important decision I’ve ever been faced with, no shit. I ask for your understanding. Next to my wife, and now Tess, you have been and are the most important individual in my life, and that’s the truth. I don’t want to lose your love or regard over this, oh God no. It would be like having a part of myself die, a spiritual part. Jesus, I’m jabbering now. But if this causes you undue complication and grief and you perhaps understandably become pissed and discouraged with me, well, I’m the poorer for it, and my life will not be the same again. True. On the other hand, if the book comes out and I can’t feel the kind of pride and pleasure in it that I want, if I feel I’ve somehow too far stepped out of bounds, crossed that line a little too far, why then I can’t feel good about myself, or maybe even write again; right now I feel it’s that serious, and if I can’t feel absolutely good about it, I feel I’d be done for. I do. Lord God I just don’t know what else to say. I’m awash with confusion and paranoia. Fatigue too, that too.

Please, Gordon, for God’s sake help me in this and try to understand. Listen. I’ll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have. But if I go ahead with this as it is, it will not be good for me. The book will not be, as it should, a cause for joyous celebration, but one of defense and explanation. . . . I know that the discomfort of this decision of mine is at its highest now, it’s rampant, I feel nearly wild with it. But I know it will cause you grief as well, explanations, more work, stopping everything in its tracks and coming up with valid reasons for why. But, eventually, my discomfort and yours, will go away, there’ll be a grieving, I’m grieving right now, but it will go away. But if I don’t speak now, and speak from the heart, and halt things now, I foresee a terrible time ahead for me. The demons I have to deal with every day, or night, nearly, might, I’m afraid, simply rise up and take me over.

Of course I know I shouldn’t have signed the contract without first reading the collection and making my fears, if any, known to you beforehand, before signing. So what should we do now, please advise? Can you lay it all on me and get me out of the contract someway? Can you put the book off until Winter or Spring of 1982 and let them know I want to have the stories in the collection published in magazines first (and that’s the truth, several of them are committed to places with publication way off next year)? Tell them I want the magazine publications first, and then the book out when I’m up for tenure here that spring of 1982? And then decide next year what, for sure, to do? Or else can or should everything just be stopped now, I send back the Knopf check, if it’s on the way, or else you stop it there? And meanwhile I pay you for the hours, days and nights, I’m sure, you’ve spent on this. Goddamn it, I’m just nearly crazy with this. I’m getting into a state over it. —No, I don’t think it shd. be put off. I think it had best be stopped.

I thought the editing, especially in the first version, was brilliant, as I said. The stories I can’t let go of in their entirety are these. “Community Center” (If It Please You) and “The Bath” (A Small Good Thing) and I’d want some more of the old couple, Anna and Henry Gates, in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Beginners). I would not want “Mr. Fixit” (Where Is Everyone) in the book in its present state. The story “Distance” should not have its title changed to “Everything Stuck to Him.” Nor the little piece “Mine” to “Popular Mechanics.” “Dummy” should keep its title. “A Serious Talk” is fine for “Pie.” I think “Want to See Something” is fine, is better than “I Could See the Smallest Things.” . . .

I’m just much too close to all of this right now. It’s even hard for me to think right now. I think, in all, maybe it’s just too soon for me for another collection. I know that next spring is too soon in any case. Absolutely too soon. I think I had best pull out, Gordon, before it goes any further. I realize I stand every chance of losing your love and friendship over this. But I strongly feel I stand every chance of losing my soul and my mental health over it, if I don’t take that risk. I’m still in the process of recovery and trying to get well from the alcoholism, and I just can’t take any chances, something as momentous and permanent as this, that would put my head in some jeopardy. That’s it, it’s in my head. You have made so many of these stories better, my God, with the lighter editing and trimming. But those others, those three, I guess, I’m liable to croak if they came out that way. Even though they may be closer to works of art than the original and people be reading them 50 years from now, they’re still apt to cause my demise, I’m serious, they’re so intimately hooked up with my getting well, recovering, gaining back some little self-esteem and feeling of worth as a writer and a human being.

I know you must feel angry and betrayed and pissed off. God’s sake, I’m sorry. I can pay you for the time you’ve put in on this, but I can’t begin to help or do anything about the trouble and grief I may be causing there in the editorial and business offices that you’ll have to go through. Forgive me for this, please. But I’m just going to have to wait a while yet for another book, 18 months, two years, it’s okay now, as long as I’m writing and have some sense of worth in the process. Your friendship and your concern and general championing of me have meant, and mean still, more to me than I can ever say. I could never begin to repay you, as you must know. I honor and respect you, and I love you more than my brother. But you will have to get me off the hook here Gordon, it’s true. I just can’t go another step forward with this endeavor. So please advise what to do now. . . . As I say, I’m confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid, yes, of the consequences for me if the collection came out in its present form. So help me, please, yet again. Don’t, please, make this too hard for me, for I’m just likely to start coming unraveled knowing how I’ve displeased and disappointed you. God almighty, Gordon.


Please do the necessary things to stop production of the book. Please try and forgive me, this breach.

July 10, 1980

Please look through the enclosed copy of “What We Talk About,” the entire collection. You’ll see that nearly all of the changes I suggest are small enough, but I think they’re significant and they all can be found in the first edited ms version you sent me. It’s just, not just, but it’s a question of reinstating some of the things that were taken out in the second version. But I feel strongly some of those things taken out should be back in the finished stories. “Gazebo,” for instance. “In this, too, she was right.” That ending is far superior and gives the story the right, the just ending, the narrator’s sense of loss, and a sharp, perfect ending for the story. Otherwise, the narrator is a lout, a son of a bitch, and totally insensitive to everything he’s been telling us. Otherwise, why even is he telling the story, I wonder.

July 14, 1980

I’m thrilled about the book and its impending publication. I’m stoked about it, and I’m already starting to think about the next one. More than thinking about it, in fact. Fact is, I’m giving some thought to taking the second semester off to do nothing but write and write through the summer as well. . . . Things are in full swing, and I am just generally excited, specifically too. I know you have my best interests at heart, and you’ll do everything and more to further those interests. . . . I won’t harp or dog, for I know the book is going to astonish and give pleasure. So just these last words on the matter: please look at the suggestions I’ve penciled in and entertain those suggestions seriously, even if finally you decide otherwise; if you think I’m being my own worst enemy, you know, well then, stick to the final version of the second edited version. But do give those things a hard third or fourth look. My greatest fear is, or was, having them too pared, and I’m thinking of “Community Center” and “The Bath” both of which lost several pages each in the second editing. I want that sense of beauty and mystery they have now, but I don’t want to lose track, lose touch with the little human connections I saw in the first version you sent me. They seemed somehow to be fuller in the best sense, in that first ed. version. Maybe I am wrong in this, maybe you are 100% correct, just please give them another hard look. That’s all. That and what I said about “Where Is Everyone?”—Mr. Coffee, Mr. Fixit.

August 11, 1982

Now I don’t know for sure how we’re going to work out some of the disagreements we’re bound to have over some of these stories I’ve written and am writing this very minute. And I’m going to give you the book [“Cathedral”] on schedule, in November. . . . Anyway, you’re the best editor there is, and a writer yourself, you bet, and you have to call them the way you see them. Fair enough. But I may not be in agreement with you, and this is what’s worrying me right this minute. . . .

Forgive me. But hear me out. I’m saying that despite all and fuck all, I’ve been writing short stories ever since I landed out here in this woodsy cranny. I’ve got five new ones, no six, counting the one I just typed out a second draft of earlier tonight and hope to finish, at least have some more drafts of, before the week is out. I’ve been writing as if my life depended on it and like there’s no tomorrow. And we both know that first may be true, and there’s always likelihood of the second. (And fuck no, I can’t get off the cigarettes either.) . . . But one thing is certain—the stories in this new collection are going to be fuller than the ones in the earlier books. And this, for Christ’s sake, is to the good. I’m not the same writer I used to be. But I know there are going to be stories in these 14 or 15 I give you that you’re going to draw back from, that aren’t going to fit anyone’s notion of what a Carver short story ought to be—yours, mine, the reading public at large, the critics. But I’m not them, I’m not us, I’m me. Some of these stories may not fit smoothly or neatly, inevitably, alongside the rest. But, Gordon, God’s truth, and I may as well say it out now, I can’t undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads of hair sticking out. My heart won’t take it otherwise. It will simply burst, and I mean that. Dearest friend of all, brother, you know what I’m saying, and I know you understand. Even if you think I’m dead wrong. . . .

I love your heart, you must know that. But I can’t write these stories and have to feel inhibited—if I feel inhibited I’m not going to write them at all—and feel that if you, the reader I want to please more than any, don’t like them, you’re going to re-write them from top to bottom. Why, if I think that the pen will fall right out of my fingers, and I may not be able to pick it up. . . .

You understand I’m not saying, or even remotely thinking, that these new and year-old stories are beyond criticism, or that they won’t need editing. Not true. Not true in either case. You’re as close to me, and my work, you couldn’t be closer, if you were my blood brother. You’re the left side of me. Or the right side, take your pick. But I guess I’m trying to say here that we’re going to have to work very closely together on this book—the most important book of them all for me, at every stage, and be careful and understanding with each other. Gordon, the last book passed as if in a dream for me. This one can’t go that way, and we both know it.

October 3, 1982

Listen, I’ve finished work on the new Knopf book of stories. Last week I got them all back from the typist and I spent all day today reading them through. It’s going to be something, that book. I thought I would try and put them in order, the order I’d like to see them in the book, but just a few minutes ago gave up on that. I’ll leave that up to you. I don’t have a title, either. We talked, a year ago, about calling the book “Cathedral.” That’s fine with me and maybe lead off with that story and finish with “Fever,” a long story, or “A Small Good Thing,” another long story. But I will leave the arrangement of the stories up to you. You know I want and have to have autonomy on this book and that the stories have to come out looking very essentially the way they look right now. I’m of course not saying we can’t change words or phrases or a line here and there, and punctuation, sure. But after you’ve read the book, I’ll come down and we’ll talk about titles, the ordering, or any suggestions you might have.

October 29, 1982

As I said before, I would be happy with either title, “Cathedral” or “Where I’m Calling From.” . . . My biggest concern, as you know, is that the stories remain intact. Oh, Christ, sure, you know, if you see some words or sentences that can be trimmed, that’s fine, trim them. You know what I’m saying. Please help me with this book as a good editor, the best . . . but not as my ghost. I tell you, I may be reading it all wrong—and if I am, I don’t care, in a very profound way—but I think there is a great deal of good will established toward me, or for me; and this book, the stories, are going to be so different, in so many regards, from so many of the earlier stories, that the book is going to be met with a good show of enthusiasm, even celebration. And, yes, I’m eager to have that artist you were talking about do something for the cover, if she can. Yes, for sure. I hope that works out. (But that, finally, will be your final decision; the matter of the text, in this case, has to be mine.)

November 19, 1982

From Lish to Carver

Dear Ray—Here’s “Where I’m Calling From” reworked to the extent that I think it must be—as basic as I can keep it. I’m aware that we’ve agreed that I will try to keep my editing of the stories as slight as I deem possible, that you do not want me to do the extensive work I did on the first two collections. So be it, Ray. What you see in this sample is that minimum: to do less than this, would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly. At all events, look: if this is in keeping with your wishes, call quickly and say so—and I will then be guided thereby in my handling of the rest of the stories. Love, G.

January 21, 1983

From Carver to Lish

What’s the matter, don’t you love me anymore? I never hear from you. Have you forgotten me already? Well, I’m going back to the [Paris Review] interview and take out all the good things I said about you. ♦

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:05 (fifteen years ago) link

Lish's edit of Beginners:

Carver's original draft of Beginners:

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:07 (fifteen years ago) link

the most tragic note in all of literary history:

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:08 (fifteen years ago) link

Too nervous to eat pie!!!! Oh the horror...

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:09 (fifteen years ago) link

joyce carol oates + shelley duvall + lillian gish = tess gallagher

scott seward, Sunday, 23 December 2007 14:11 (fifteen years ago) link

I think what's fascinating is that Lish basically created Carver's signature style. Gallagher's repackaging and re-repackaging and re-re-repackaging of Carver's work has made her seem at least as opportunistic as Lish. I'm assuming Carver was as opportunistic as the company he kept. "Beginners" is OK, though it seemed much more like an Ann Beattie story in its original form, rather than something groundbreaking.

Eazy, Sunday, 23 December 2007 15:46 (fifteen years ago) link

i rented 'jindabyne' yesterday, but haven't watched it yet. has anyone seen it? i loved 'so much water so close to home' but i'm nervous about how much the movie is going to match up.

Rubyredd, Monday, 24 December 2007 06:43 (fifteen years ago) link

steve mcqueen + steve martin = raymond carver

*in this particular photograph.

Pleasant Plains, Monday, 24 December 2007 07:04 (fifteen years ago) link

i knew lish was a heavy handed editor but I can't wrap my head around this :/

m coleman, Wednesday, 26 December 2007 00:41 (fifteen years ago) link

see: maxwell perkins. he took 100,000 words out of look homeward, angel. and people considered This Side Of Paradise "his" book.

scott seward, Wednesday, 26 December 2007 01:01 (fifteen years ago) link

Time for an auteur theory of fiction editing.

Dr Morbius, Friday, 28 December 2007 17:19 (fifteen years ago) link

The piece in Salon where they point out that Lish wasn't ever a great writer is a bit otm-ey.

I have been on a bit of a mission to get into Carver. Can anyone recommend a good collection to start with. Cathedral? I'm more a fan of the Lish butchered (apparently!) stuff. The Bath is a beautiful story. That part that goes something like "she listened to the boy. She held his hands in her lap" just cuts me in a way I don't understand.

I know, right?, Friday, 28 December 2007 17:42 (fifteen years ago) link

If you're a fan of those stories, best to read his first two collections. Cathedral is less in that style.

Look through any issue of Lish's The Quarterly and it's clear that he creates a consistent voice in the work that he edits. (Look at the one Tim O'Brien story in The Things They Carried that was published in The Quarterly and compare it with the others.)

Eazy, Friday, 28 December 2007 17:52 (fifteen years ago) link

That long Carver letter to Gish is quite saddening. It seems like Carver felt there was something a bit sordid about Gish's extensive involvement in the final form of those stories - or at least something that conflicted with this internal image of what the author's role should be.

o. nate, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:33 (fifteen years ago) link

Can anyone recommend a good collection to start with.

I'd say go ahead and dive right into Where I'm Calling From.

Pleasant Plains, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:43 (fifteen years ago) link

Yeah, Is that good?

I know, right?, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:47 (fifteen years ago) link

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

These are now in my Amazon basket. Any reason why they shouldn't be?

I know, right?, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:50 (fifteen years ago) link

That comes across as very aggressive sounding doesn't it?

I know, right?, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:50 (fifteen years ago) link

i like them all. i mean, they all have good stories in them worth reading.

scott seward, Friday, 28 December 2007 18:59 (fifteen years ago) link

i much prefer 'a small good thing' to 'the bath'. i really don't like the style of 'the bath' - for me, it felt very cold. 'cathedral' is one of my favourite stories. i think each collection has its gems, and you should buy them all! :)

Rubyredd, Saturday, 29 December 2007 11:04 (fifteen years ago) link

and then you should buy 'jesus' son' by denis johnson.

Rubyredd, Saturday, 29 December 2007 11:04 (fifteen years ago) link

I don't think it's cold. I think it's numb, like the characters all walking around in shock.

I know, right?, Saturday, 29 December 2007 12:00 (fifteen years ago) link

yeah, but to me it didn't feel like he pulled it off.

Rubyredd, Saturday, 29 December 2007 12:24 (fifteen years ago) link

I really like "Intimacy", one of his final stories.

Eazy, Saturday, 29 December 2007 17:34 (fifteen years ago) link

and then you should buy 'jesus' son' by denis johnson.

-- Rubyredd, Saturday, 29 December 2007 11:04 (2 days ago) Link

I was just given this for my birthday, and Carver is one of my favorite short story writers; should I be excited? It may be a while 'til I get to it, but, you know, it will BE there. Also, here is a long and detailed article on the same subject:

It's... intense. I'm also wondering about things, now, like how different the versions of stories in Cathedral are from the versions in "Where I'm Calling From." Not to mention "Fires" which notes specifically that they're early drafts of stories published later. The duplication in Carver anthologies has sort of bummed me out, but if the versions are that different it would probably be worthwhile to do some A/B comparison, no?

ian, Monday, 31 December 2007 04:35 (fifteen years ago) link

(that NYT link was originally posted by Mr. Que on I Love Books a few years ago, I think.)

ian, Monday, 31 December 2007 04:37 (fifteen years ago) link

'jesus' son' is one of my all time favourite books. i think if you like carver you'll love this. carver's revisions are really interesting, and i admire the fact that he wasn't afraid to rework and reprint stories he wasn't happy with.

you should definitely be excited! plz come back and post here after you've read it, and tell me what you think. my favourite story from that collection is 'the emergency room'. so laugh-out-loud funny.

Rubyredd, Monday, 31 December 2007 13:11 (fifteen years ago) link

also: if you like carver, and then you read johnson and like it, DEFINITELY track down a copy of maggie dubris' 'weep not my wanton'.

Rubyredd, Monday, 31 December 2007 13:12 (fifteen years ago) link

It may be a while 'til I get to it.

But it's so short! You could read Jesus' Son in an afternoon.

Eazy, Monday, 31 December 2007 15:26 (fifteen years ago) link

okay guys, you got me. i'll read it once done with Blood Meridian and report back.

ian, Monday, 31 December 2007 16:02 (fifteen years ago) link

shit yeah, it's definitely a super fast read.

Rubyredd, Monday, 31 December 2007 19:37 (fifteen years ago) link

I took a writing class with Denis Johnson last semester. He's great. He signed my copy of Jesus Son.

BIG HOOS aka the steendriver, Wednesday, 2 January 2008 04:24 (fifteen years ago) link

I gave my mom Cathedral for christmas, and I don't think she likes it. :\

ian, Wednesday, 2 January 2008 04:40 (fifteen years ago) link

hoos i am so freakin' jealous

Rubyredd, Wednesday, 2 January 2008 05:26 (fifteen years ago) link

two weeks pass...

The birthday boy told his mother what had happened. They sat together on the sofa. She held his hands in her lap. This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back.

I know, right?, Tuesday, 22 January 2008 13:55 (fifteen years ago) link

fourteen years pass...

In THE PENGUIN BOOK OF THE MODERN AMERICAN SHORT STORY (2021), I read Raymond Carver's story 'Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes' (1973).

Though I've read Carver closely before, I don't think I'd ever read this story. It describes one Mr Hamilton who is called to a neighbouring house where his son Roger is accused of stealing or destroying a bicycle. Other boys are involved. It's not certain who did what to the bicycle. The drama here is mainly something about family, connection and obligation - so, should Hamilton stand up for his son in this stranger's house, because he's his father? He does feel that he has to when another boy's father, one Mr Berman, turns up and is harsh towards Roger. Now the dynamic, for Hamilton, goes from being an honest broker, a witness to a process, to being involved, unable to avoid taking sides. In fact, having told Berman that he's out of line, he ends up fighting him and banging his head on the lawn. Berman survives. Hamilton and Roger walk away home.

In a final scene, Hamilton puts the boy in his bed. The boy expresses a surge of admiration for his father's strength, his ability to fight. He expresses a wish that he could now know his father as a child; that they could be contemporaries. Here, I think, is a strangeness that Carver is able to access, an unexpected thought or feeling.

I quite admired this story. More than the other stories in the book so far (not many), it at once conveys a mundane, everyday world of small interactions, and something mysterious; some way in which people don't fully understand themselves. The action, fighting, slow release of tension after it, also creates a strong narrative dynamic. Writing about it, I can almost still feel the build-up of tension in the father as he walks away from the embarrassing, unintended fight.

the pinefox, Saturday, 31 December 2022 11:19 (one month ago) link

I saw him read in late winter or early spring of 1986, at either Reed or Portland State. He was in full ascent at this time and the room was full. Very fucked up time in my life from which I'm lucky to have emerged at all, which goes a way to explain why I don't remember which school it was at -- I had heard about it, probably from my poetry teacher at PCC, and somehow remembered to go. The hall was packed; I remember having the impression that although his demeanor was mild, he was really enjoying all the acclaim, although this could very easily have been projection on my part. He read a story which I think was "Are You a Doctor?"- the opening was a long bit involving a wrong number in the middle of the night. There was a line in it that brought the house down -- "Why'd you answer?" I think it was.

J Edgar Noothgrush (Joan Crawford Loves Chachi), Saturday, 31 December 2022 13:24 (one month ago) link

I think it's one of the new stories included in Where I'm Calling From iirc.

Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Saturday, 31 December 2022 13:29 (one month ago) link

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