Everybody owns Raymond

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Last week brought the news that Tess Gallagher, widow of Raymond Carver, had plans to publish original versions of the 17 stories that make up his 1981 collection, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” This is widely considered to be the book that put Carver on the map. Before it, he was just another short-story writer evoking hardscrabble America in the 1970s; afterward, he was literary minimalism’s avatar.

It’s not entirely clear that such a label is appropriate because Carver’s early drafts -- as well as his work before and after “What We Talk About” -- are hardly the spare, poetic efforts with which he is identified but more discursive slices of working-class life. As Carver himself noted in a 1983 Paris Review interview: “There’s something about ‘minimalist’ that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.”

Gallagher’s project -- which she wants to call by Carver’s original title, “Beginners” -- is an interesting idea, if you’re a scholar or one of the Carver faithful. Who wouldn’t want to see the process by which the finished book took shape? For Gallagher, though, there’s more at issue. What she’s after is taking the stories back from the influence of Gordon Lish, who edited them for book publication and, in many cases, instituted drastic, narrative-changing cuts. “I think it’s so important for Ray’s book, which has been a kind of secret, to appear,” she told the New York Times.


The Lish-Carver relationship came to light in a 1998 New York Times Magazine article in which Lish expressed a “sense of betrayal” at never having been given credit for his role in Carver’s work. In the same piece, Gallagher, too, presented herself as something of a silent partner, less her husband’s champion than his collaborator.

Besides Gallagher and Lish, one other person who had a hand in Carver’s stories has a strong opinion about bringing out another version of “What We Talk About.” Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon told the New York Times that he “would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground” than publish the collection Gallagher has in mind. Fisketjon worked with Carver on his last few books, including his selected stories, “Where I’m Calling From,” in which the author revised some pieces from “What We Talk About.” The editor sees those as definitive, meant for “posterity in the versions that he wanted them to live in.”

What’s at issue here is authorship, and the question of who “owns” literature. If Lish shaped Carver’s stories, the logic goes, then what part did Carver really play? And if the stories were, in fact, some kind of collaboration, what does that mean for Carver’s legacy? Those are fraught questions, especially in regard to a writer as iconic as Carver, who even before his death was considered by many to be the American Chekhov.

And yet I can’t help but think that anyone claiming to represent the true or better or best version of Carver’s words is missing the point. Carver, after all, was a notorious reviser, sometimes taking an individual story through 20 or 30 drafts. Not only that, he often reworked material after it had appeared in print, publishing multiple variations of the same piece.

Of the stories in “What We Talk About,” three (“Everything Stuck to Him,” “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” and “So Much Water So Close to Home”) first came out in different form in his 1977 collection, “Furious Seasons”; a fourth, “The Bath,” later appeared, expanded, as “A Small, Good Thing.” In “Where I’m Calling From,” Carver restored a number of Lish’s cuts.

There’s a lesson here, although it’s not about which version of Carver is the version. Literature is a living art, an expression of a writer’s emotional state, his or her frame of mind, at the moment the work is done. There is no inevitable, final form to a piece of writing, just the place where the author stopped.

Some writers try to assert absolute control over that moment. Vladimir Nabokov refused a request to see his revisions. “Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts,” he said. “It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.”

But others, such as Carver, Yeats, W.H. Auden and Walt Whitman -- who continually revised and expanded “Leaves of Grass” throughout his lifetime -- leave a published record of their drafts, proof that they never do stop while they are alive. For them, writing is ongoing, a reflection of the ebb and flow, the mutability, of existence itself.

Carver was, in a real sense, a shape shifter, a man who went through a variety of incarnations in his 50 years. A working-class kid from Clatskanie, Ore., he married in his teens (Gallagher was his second wife) and had two children, then struggled with money, alcoholism and domestic drama as he wrote his early works. Only in the last decade of his life did he achieve the stature of an icon, something we tend to forget. It makes sense that his aesthetics would evolve as he did; it even makes sense that, at a certain point in his career (late 30s, struggling for a national audience), he fell under the sway of an ambitious editor such as Lish.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how the stories came to reach their published form. At the same time, I don’t think we should hide the early drafts. After all, if Carver’s stories belong to him, they also belong to the rest of us, and we should be able to decide for ourselves what we think about the process by which they came to be.

Of course, literature has a funny way of connecting with readers who don’t know (or care about) process or history, who take the writing on its terms alone. This is what has happened with “What We Talk About,” which a quarter of a century later retains its stunning power, regardless of the editor-author interplay or of where it falls on the Carver continuum of revisions. To her credit, Gallagher seems to understand this; she’s not arguing to take the originally published “What We Talk About” out of print.

But to the extent that she (or anyone) suggests that there is one authentic way of thinking about Carver and his stories, she makes a fundamental mistake about the relationship between readers and writers -- indeed, about the way that literature works.