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Criticism, Writings

Carving Up Carver

An interesting conversation about literary icon Raymond Carver was started on friend Stewart Sternberg’s blog (http://house-of-sternberg.blogspot.com/) Stewart hadn’t heard of Carver (don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t), but was immediately interested, and read a copy of “Cathedral,” perhaps the writer’s best collection of short stories.

While Stewart appreciated aspects of the writing, he did lament that “sometimes his stories, the ones I’ve read, lack in plot, internal or external conflict, or even theme.”

That’s an understandable assessment, but there’s more to his story. Carver is important for a lot of reasons, mostly because he helped changed the direction of American writing. But what’s really fascinating to me is his relationship with Gordon Lish, his editor/mentor/patron, who pushed Carver into becoming the minimalist he is regarded as today. Lish regularly cut whole pages from Carver’s stories to feed his vision of style. Carver was forced to go along if he wanted the stories to be published. Their correspondence debating the editorial changes reveals the difficult relationship between the two men, as well as Carver’s struggles with alcoholism. Even today, with Carver long dead, the battle continues. I’ve met Carver’s widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, a few times, and she laments the troubles she is having trying to publish a book of “corrected” works by Carver, which would include the Lish-deleted passages. Lish, still alive and kickin’, continues to fight their release. A portion of one was reprinted in a New Yorker a year or so ago, and showed that Carver, at heart, was as emotional and sentimental as any other writer—but Lish cut all the feeling out of what he had intended. He had his horse, and he was going to ride it until it dropped.

The New Yorker story is here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/24/071224fa_fact

Just to give you a taste, here’s the opening two sentences from the article: “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.”

So if you’re looking for a champion/scapegoat of minimalism, look more towards Gordon Lish than Ray Carver.

Kind of a cautionary tale, I think. Carver was a good writer, but had it not been for the influence of Lish, who had his own idea about what literature in the 1970s and 80s should be, most of us might never have heard of him. Lish saw his opportunity—the literary version of “A Star is Born.” Makes me wonder how much of their writing some authors would give up to get their stories in front of the mass market. I’d suggest considering that before condemning Carver for doing what he felt he had to do.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


4 thoughts on “Carving Up Carver

  1. I’m still not convinced Carver was an enormous influence in literature…perhaps in some circles and perhaps, mostly literary groups or academics, but I don’t think he is well known among the mainstream, nor do I think his work is as influential as other contemporaries who wrote at the same time, such as Bellow or Thomas Wolfe. Or Barnard Malamud.

    Which brings up an interesting question. How do we qualify or quantify influence? Perhaps we need to narrow it down to who the influence is being felt by. For instance, Anne Rice (not a great writer) had a profound influence on today’s literary marketplace. Rice’s treatment of horror, vampirism, and eroticism has given us Stephanie Meyers, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Charlene Harris, among many others. You may not like their writing or their subgenre, but their book sales and the films that spring from their books, along with the hundreds of imitators, have more influence on the popular culture and literary trends than anything you or I could ever hope to achieve.

    God…we need to discuss this concept of influence more. I think I’ll post on this before I go to bed.

    Posted by ssternberg | August 31, 2009, 6:08 AM
  2. Very good point. But then, which influential writers ARE recognized by the mainstream reader? As you said, we need to define influence first. Is it sales? Or does it imply a new style of writing that changed the way many other writers approached their craft. If it’s the latter, then Carver/Lish was a biggie.

    Posted by jpon | August 31, 2009, 7:11 PM
    • I have been mulling over the idea of influence. Writers aren’t influenced by other writers. A radical statement. I would argue that if in the next three years you and I continue to exchange ideas, arguments, and critique one another, that I’ll have more influence over you than Carter will have at that point. I think the issue here is that we are more influenced by our peer groups, our environments, our experiences, than we can ever hope to be by any author. We can dearly love an author, but trying to ascertain elements in our writing or our personality that are influenced by that person are most likely impossible. Still, it’s an intriguing discussion and one which continues to give me pause.

      One more point. About the marketplace. If we had a Medici to give us literary freedom (and that was questionable at the time of the Medici) then I would say that the artist integrity of a work would be its main importance. Instead, I would argue that the work’s ability to impact the marketplace is a major measure of its importance. I would also argue that an author can influence others in ways outside of writing. I think someone who teaches and who makes available scholarships and grants, or programs that are funded by their success, is more influential in how they reach out and touch a generation.

      Not that I want to make a plug for teachers. We know what cads they are.

      Posted by ssternberg | September 4, 2009, 10:42 PM
  3. >>I would argue that if in the next three years you and I continue to exchange ideas, arguments, and critique one another, that I’ll have more influence over you than Carter will have at that point.

    Yeah, but aren’t you a writer too?

    But seriously, it’s not something we can measure, but I do believe I am influenced by other writers, both in the long and the short-term. I see developments in my style that are directly attributable to authors I read and admire. And there are so many times that reading the work of others implants ideas in my mind that I might not have thought of otherwise.

    I do agree with your second point about the marketplace. It’s true. That’s the steep price we pay for living in a market economy. Value is determined by the marketplace, not the artist or the critic. That’s also why there are so few famous artists, intellectuals and scientists in the world, and so many famous actors and “personalities.” More people know who Paris Hilton is than Junot Diaz. But that don’t make it right.

    Posted by jpon | September 6, 2009, 1:19 AM

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