What we talk about when we talk about Carver

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In Books this weekend, David L. Ulin looks at the new 1,020-page Library of America Raymond Carver book, ‘Collected Stories.’ The uneasy creative relationship between Carver, who died in 1988, and his longtime editor Gordon Lish came to light in a December 2007 New Yorker article. How much of Carver’s ‘minimalist’ style was a byproduct of Lish’s editing? In some cases, much was cut from his original drafts; as much as 78%. In this collection, then, an original, unedited version of a story casts Carver’s work in a different light.

‘Beginners’ is published for the first time in ‘Collected Stories,’ and although it comes at the end, it can’t help but function as a centerpiece. That’s either as it should be or a significant problem, depending on your perspective, but regardless, it skews the way the collection showcases Carver’s career. The purpose of a retrospective is not so much to highlight individual stories as to trace how a writer’s aesthetic has grown. Here, the prominence of ‘Beginners’ adds a subtext that threatens to subvert the larger arc. That’s because, in the main, the pared-down versions of the stories are better, which opens the question of where authenticity resides. Are the unedited drafts more essential because they represent the truer Carver? Or is the point the continuum of his writing, developed through the intersection of internal and external influences?...

In 1983, Granta famously labeled him, along with contemporaries such as Ford and Wolff, ‘dirty realists’; six years later, Tom Wolfe derided them as ‘K-Mart realists’ in Harper’s. The idea is that there’s something less than artful about their fiction, that their stories are unformed, anecdotal slices-of-life. But that’s not true, any more than it’s true that in editing ‘What We Talk About,’ Lish eclipsed its authenticity, effacing Carver’s voice while recasting the book, somehow, as his own.

Taken as a whole, Ulin says, ‘Collected Stories’ implies that Carver’s various creative influences were stops on a long path. Consider this edit by Lish of Carver’s ‘Beginners’ (published as ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’), which turns a bit of banter into a more ominous anecdote. From the New Yorker:


Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her. Then Terri said, “He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles.
-- Carolyn Kellogg