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.