Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Carver and Lish

Once upon a time, in world far far away, I began submitting my fiction to literary magazines. I'd read stacks of books on becoming a writer, although most of them seemed rather unhelpful as regards writing the kind of fiction I had in mind.
Gradually, although I did succeed in publishing more fiction than most people I knew (in part because I was very diligent about both writing and going to the post office), I began to realize that something called "dirty realism" was what American editors really wanted. Never mind that they might say they were open to all kinds of fiction so long as it was good, "dirty realism" was what they really thirsted for. I learned that a guy named Raymond Carver was the king of dirty realism, that his acolytes were many, and that by god, if you wanted to write some other kind of short literary fiction, you had better pretend you were from a foreign country, or at least set your tale in one. Friends suggested that I adopt a Spanish pseudonym, but I resisted.
Another name I saw mentioned time and time again was that of Gordon Lish. Lish, who was Carver's editor, was quite the arbiter of taste in those days--the heir to Maxwell Perkins, it seemed, except that he never sounded anywhere near as nice as Perkins. I always had the feeling that Perkins was the kind of guy you'd like to have work with you, especially, if like Thomas Wolfe, you had trouble editing yourself down to a readable length. Lish, on the other hand, gave a more severe impression. I never had even the slightest fantasy of working with Lish (perhaps because I found most dirty realism singularly dull reading), although clearly many writers found him helpful.
Of late, articles have been coming out detailing Lish's editing of Carver. Apparently Lish chopped quite a bit out of Carver's work, not just in a fat-cutting operation, but completely changing tone, characterizations, and endings. James Campbell discusses the editing in The Times Literary Supplement, and none other than horror writer Stephen King provides an account of it in his review of Carol Sklenicka's recent biography of Carver for the New York Times.
I confess I find the whole thing rather shocking. A good editor can improve a piece of writing, or at least some pieces of writing, but changing the entire thrust of the piece? Reading Campbell's and King's articles, I began to wonder whether perhaps I would have liked Carver's writing had Lish not (as King suggests) taken the heart out.

A little addendum (I just ran across this):
“...neo-realistic minimalism--a dull mode starring writers like Anne Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Raymond Carver. Because of its barren anti-adjectival, anti-adverbial unwittiness, this style also fails to win audiences--but it is easy to teach in creative writing classes to a clientele with little literary background or allusive competence. At the moment, while Latin America[n] literature continues to march forward, American fiction is becalmed.” Elizabeth Dipple, The Unresolvable Plot: Reading Contemporary Fiction (New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988), 11.
How I would have loved to have seen that assessment back in 1988!


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