What can we talk about that has not already been talked about this most famous book in both the careers of Carver and Lish? So much has been said and written, from gossip to rumor to truth to literary criticism both afoul and concise. (We recommend looking for Michael Hemmingson’s 13,000 word critical essay on Lish’s editing Carver and Barry Hannah, forthcoming later this year in the learned journal Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, and the expanded 18,000-word chapter in his Routledge critical meditation, Gordon Lish and His Influence on 20th Century American Fiction.)
Needless to say, as was the case at McGraw-Hill, at Knopf, publisher Robert Gotlieb was not all that keen on publishing Raymond Carver — despite his canonical and institutional status as an American short story writer, not everyone (yesteryear and still today) feels comfortable reading Carver’s stories, with all the despair, alcoholism, poverty, bad marriages, domestic violence, lack of domestic tranquility, not to mention the minimalist style that we now know was more Lish (as co-author) than Carver as composer. (An editor at a certain university press in the Midwest once told us, while in bed after the throes of a passionate one-nights stand, that she could not read this book because it made her feel depressed and suicidal, reminding her too much of her failed marriage and sad childhood.) (Was it really necessary to make such a detailed aside? Why not? says we.) But Carver’s first book did well, and Lish was his rah-rah boy at Random House, and despite the fact that Carver wanted to pull the book’s publication, and all his fears, the book was hailed as a masterpiece work of literary integrity and has been Lish’s (along with Airships) monumental contribution to the history of American letters.
And yet so much has been written about this matter as well, from D.T. Max’s literary world shattering essay to revelations in The New Yorker to the publication of Beginners, the non-Lish-edit version of What W Talk About.
First, let us consider the Lish archives at the Lily — in the Carver boxes one can find the edited manuscripts and see just how much Lish snipped out, although one can now compare the two published versions of the book. In our view, some of the edits made the stories stronger, less sappy (James crying and praying at the end of “After the Denim,” wisely cut); in other cases, the original versions lend more depth of character and motivation of action (“The Bath” and “Tell the Women We’re Going”). Seeing and handling copies of these Carver manuscripts, written on various typewriters throughout his career and with various listed addresses, from Arizona to Iowa to California, is a treat for any fan, scholar and student.
And yet it is also disturbing to behold the many x’ed out paragraphs and series of pages, and the controversial added-in sentences by the Lish Hand, sentences that were previously labeled “Carver-esque” yet are in fact “Lish-esque.”
We contend this: Carver would not have had the career, and not have the famed status today, without Lish. After all, Lish did a lot of cheerleading to get Carver into the slick pages of Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, to secure book contracts with major publishing houses, which lead to good teaching jobs, fellowships and grants, and eventually a home at The New Yorker.
Carver was publishing books and chapbooks with small presses like Capra, with 1-2,000 print runs…the question is: without Lish, would Carver have been able to break into commercial publishing, or would he have remained a minor voice in the small presses, later simply a footnote in 20th Century literary criticism? Without the first two books, would there have been Cathedral?
Next, let us talk about the original 1981 Knopf hardback edition, something that fetches a high price on the market (for a 1st printing)…
Again, note the simplicity of the cover, only the title is presented, no flashy art design of motel room beds and women in slips and spread legs to catch the consumer eye in a bookstore…
No matter what images are on these and future editions, people will always talk more about the text inside, whether Lished-out or unLished.