Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Carver and authorial intention

The galleys for Carol Sklenicka’s forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver arrived yesterday. (Full disclosure: Carol and I are old friends.) After scouring the book for references to myself, I sat down to the problem that trips up anyone who takes more than a passing interest in the stories of my old teacher—namely, the problem of how much is Carver and how much is Gordon Lish, the editor who almost singlehandedly established Carver’s reputation as a “minimalist” while serving as fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1976.

When I knew him, Carver was no minimalist. The first story of his that I ever read, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”—reprinted in Short Stories from the Literary Magazines (1970), an anthology that he gave me soon after I had put myself under his tutelage—had a pleasant looseness, an ambling pace. I enjoyed the fact that it opened with background information and eased into the action rather than jumping in media res and expecting the reader to make sense of things.

According to Sklenicka, Lish “raved” about the story. The two men met in Palo Alto in 1968, and almost immediately Lish started in on it. “[I]f he had been editing that story,” Sklenicka recounts his telling Carver, “Ralph Wyman wouldn’t have stayed with his wife.” The story would have had a different ending. Carver’s first wife Maryann said, “Well, that’s just the point, Gordon. It isn’t your story. You didn’t write it.”

A decade after its original publication in Curt Johnson’s little magazine December, Lish got his hands on it. Having convinced Nabokov’s publisher McGraw-Hill, a New York house better known for textbooks and trade journals, to issue a collection of Carver’s stories, Lish buckled down to work on it. Sklenicka says that he

shap[ed] the individual stories to make a distinctive collection. In most cases, he first edited photocopies of magazine versions of the stories and then reedited on typescripts made from that first editing. Carver discussed this editing with Lish and ultimately approved it, with reservations. It appears that Carver, hampered by his alcoholism and eagerness to see the book appear, made compromises with Lish.She compares Lish to a “sound recording engineer” who might “bring up one instrument and play down another. . . .”

I am not so sure. Here, for example, is a side-by-side comparison of the opening paragraph in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” The first column is the magazine version, first drafted in 1964 and published in 1966, and the second is Lish’s version, edited in 1975 and published in 1976.

December, West Springs, Ill. (December 1966)
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976)
When he was 18 and left home for the first time, in the fall, Ralph Wyman had been advised by his father, principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Weaverville and trumpet-player in the Elks Club Auxiliary Band, that life today was a serious matter; something that required strength and direction in a young person just setting out. A difficult journey, everyone knew that, but nevertheless a comprehensible one, he believed.
When he was eighteen and left home for the first time, Ralph Wyman was counseled by his father, principal of Jefferson Elementary School and trumpet soloist in the Weaverville Elks Club Auxiliary Band, that life was a very serious matter, an enterprise insisting on strength and purpose in a young person just setting out, an arduous undertaking, everyone knew that, but nevertheless a rewarding one, Ralph Wyman’s father believed and said.

To my ear, only one of Lish’s changes is an improvement (moving Weaverville from a prepositional phrase after “Jefferson Elementary School” to modify “Elks Club Auxiliary Band”). The remainder accomplish little more than to put Lish’s stamp on Carver’s prose—to rewrite the story as Lish’s own, just as Maryann Carver feared he secretly wanted to do.

The endings are nearly unrecognizable as two versions of the same story. Lish cuts about five hundred words from the third and final section. In the original version, Ralph Wyman faces an existential crisis after returning home despite learning of his wife’s infidelity:In the kitchen he laid his head down on his arms over the table. How should a man act? How should a man act? Not just now, in this situation, for today and tomorrow, but every day on this earth. He felt suddenly there was an answer, that he somehow held the answer himself and that it was very nearly out if only he could think about it a little longer. Then he heard [his children] Robert and Dorothea stirring. He sat up slowly and tried to smile as they came into the kitchen.Lish does not quite cut the heart out of this passage, but he discards the pericardium:In the kitchen he let his head down onto his arms as he sat at the table. He did not know what to do. Not just now, he thought, not just in this, not just about this, today and tomorrow, but every day on earth. Then he heard the children stirring. He sat up and tried to smile as they came into the kitchen.In her biography, Sklenicka is generous enough to cite my speculation that Carver in his fiction is “something of an Augustinian figure. At the heart of his mystery lurks an unsayable Other, who eludes all efforts at definition.” Well, at least my speculation is appropriate to Carver’s original version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” It is entirely off the mark when Lish’s version is substituted for the original.

The heavy-handed editing of his early stories, which transformed Carver from an Augustinian to a minimalist, is a problem upon which all critics must break their teeth, although most would prefer not to. Despite the widespread kiss-off of authorial intention in literary study today—it derives from a misunderstanding of Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “Intentional Fallacy” coupled with a sedulous cuddling up to Barthes’s “Death of the Author”—the concept is indispensable to textual criticism. The idea of an authoritative text, such as that recently released by the Library of America under the title Collected Stories, takes for granted that an author’s final intention is represented.

But who is the author of the official version of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” When critics praise the story’s effects, what are they praising? Lish’s editorial revisions do not build upon a cumulative sentence-by-sentence effect, because that effect was painstakingly developed by the man who wrote the story sentence by sentence. Lish swooped in to pluck at the carcass of sentences he believed that he could write better.

In an essay on Carver’s fiction, Charles E. May quotes critics who characterize “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” as a “precursor” to the later minimalist stories, because more background and “authorial guidance” are provided. “However,” he goes on, “the key to the ‘impossible changes’ that Ralph feels moving over him at the end of the story cannot be attributed to any articulable understanding he has achieved, but rather the mysterious visual image he recalls of seeing his wife on the balcony of their honeymoon house in Mexico”—that is, to a characteristic minimalist effect.[1]

Yet the phrase impossible changes is Lish’s. The original version ended with Ralph’s “marvelling at the changes he dimly felt taking place inside him.” Lish altered the last sentence. In his revised version, Ralph is “marveling at the impossible changes he felt moving over him.”

To what, though, does the adjective impossible refer? What knowledge would make it possible to answer this question, given that Carver’s intention in writing the original sentence has been discarded and Lish’s intention is squirreled away in four small but significant verbal alterations?

In his critical essay, May scolds other critics for focusing on the sensuality of Ralph’s wife Marian on the balcony of their honeymoon house. They should be focusing instead on Carver’s words: namely, the image reminds Ralph of “something from a film, an intensely dramatic moment into which Marian could be fitted but he could not.” Again, though, this sentence belongs to Lish and not to Carver. In the magazine version, the incident “was always a little vaguely disturbing [to Ralph] for some reason.” What becomes of May’s interpretation when it turns out that the sentence upon which it rests is not the author’s?

If the success of Carver’s story depends upon Lish’s editing, in what sense can it be described as a work of art rather than a cut-and-paste composite? Were all the finicky verbal alterations necessary? And to what extent do the many changes reflect a stable, subsuming conception? What was the attitude behind them? Do they demonstrate a remarkable intuition into the state of Carver’s mind? Or do they obscure and perhaps even bastardize his original intention? And how is anyone to know which changes Carver “ultimately approved” of, even “with reservations”?

Where, in short, is the text? Why should either be described as final and authoritative? Or is one great and the other not so much? Until questions like these are at least entertained if not fully answered, there really can be no informed discussion of Raymond Carver as an important American writer. At least I need to answer them for myself—to recognize the man who was once my friend and teacher.

[1] Charles E. May, “ ‘Do You See What I'm Saying?’ The Inadequacy of Explanation and the Uses of Story in the Short Fiction of Raymond Carver,” Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 43–44.


Jonathan said...

I wonder if readers need to join critics in confronting Carver's "[transformation]... from an Augustinian to a minimalist."

In response to this post I pulled "Where I'm Calling From" off my shelves. My estimation of the stories doesn't change when I acknowledge Lish's editing. My opinion of Carver may be influenced, but does Lish's true role or influence (whatever that may be) change the quality of the writing in the book on my desk?

It is an interesting discussion, however, and reminds me of the recent disagreement concerning the re-edited version of "A Moveable Feast". I suspect that with the release of "The Original of Laura" next month we might, with profit, once again consider the division between author and editor.

D. G. Myers said...

But what constitutes the quality, Jonathan? That’s my question.

If a literary text is (at least in part) the statement of a meaning, and if the meaning is (at least in part) a component of its quality, what constitutes the meaning of a text composed at one time by one person and revised at a later date by another person?

And if we cannot determine its meaning, how can we determine a text’s quality?

Kevin said...

Having the two texts side by side is eye-opening. The edits strike me as arbitrary and without justification, as if Lish’s mood or subjective preference dictated such choices as “counseled” instead of “advised” or “purpose” instead of “direction. Anyhow, I’m not troubled by the relationship between Carver’s original text and the heavily edited version by Lish. On the one hand, we can regard Carver’s original text as final and authoritative IF we have authorial intent and speaker meaning in mind, or we can regard the Carver-Lish edited text as the final text if we have semantic meaning in mind. Lastly, Carver is the author of the Carver-Lish edited text. He is the artistic force behind it. IF Lish’s edits had been profound improvements, not just in style, but in structure and content as well, then a case could be made that he’s the “real” force behind the story. But since he didn’t, he’s not. Regards, Kevin

D. G. Myers said...

But what is “the artistic force”? For Raymond Carver is not the author of the text printed in the McGraw-Hill book Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which is reprinted in the Library of America volume Collected Stories. The author is a composite figure.

And thus the story cannot be said to have “semantic meaning.” The meanings of words are determined by the intention operating within the choice of them.

What is more, the intention within a literary text is cumulative. The meaning builds as the text develops. Editorial revisions are a break, however, with the development of the meaning. What, for example, is the “semantic meaning” of the phrase impossible changes? The phrase refers to no larger context than a one-word insertion.

In short, am not nearly so sanguine as you, Kevin, that the problems can be airly dismissed.

Kevin said...

“But what is ‘the artistic force’?”

Carver conceived the story. He wrote it. Then someone edited it. If someone else conceived the story and wrote it, that person would be the artistic force.

“For Raymond Carver is not the author of the text printed in the McGraw-Hill book Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, which is reprinted in the Library of America volume Collected Stories. The author is a composite figure.”

Yes, a composite figure, but Carver is still the driving force. Without primary-Carver, there’s no derivative-Lish.

“And thus the story cannot be said to have ‘semantic meaning.’ The meanings of words are determined by the intention operating within the choice of them.”

Words and sentences are linguistic objects whose semantic properties require ontological subjectivity, i.e., intentionality broadly construed (see Searle’s Speech Acts, for instance). But this doesn’t warrant the view that all words and sentences depend on authorial intent for semantic meaning, because words and sentences are also conventional realities that exist independently (once created) of the subjects who use them. Even though I stipulate that “salt” means “pepper,” the sentence, “Please pass the salt,” still has a semantic meaning that’s very different than my speaker meaning.


Lincoln Hunter said...

If an editor or director removes lines from a manuscript (a play perhaps) but leaves all other lines as originally written, is the author still the author?
This is a common practice with the works of Shakespeare. I wouldn't be afraid to bet some words have been 'revised' as well.

Jonathan said...

I may be mistaken, but it seems to me there are two different "things" under discussion. The meaning of the text and the meaning of the story.

Does the meaning of the story change immediately upon learning of Lish's editing? Namely, have thematic or plot developments suddenly altered in meaning by acknowledging Lish's role?

All that seems to have changed is the way we understand the text and the processes that led to its final form. This secondary concern may call into question the purity of the text or an assessment of the author, but does little to effect the quality of the writing.

To respond to your question regarding quality, I would point to the apocryphal definition of Jazz: "You know it when you hear it".

While perhaps unsatisfactory for our purpose here, it seemed to me that this commonplace understanding was implied in your original post. After comparing the two different passages you wrote: "To my ear, only one of Lish’s changes is an improvement..."

While difficult to satisfactorily define quality, it seems that on the surface we are willing to acknowledge that some writing is better than other writing, and that some stories succeed, while many others do not.

It seems you propose a story's meaning is dependent on something other than the words on the page - that knowledge of a controversy regarding authorship will immediately change the degree to which a story may be judged successful. Does Lish's involvement necessarily render my copies of Carver's writing suspect? If so, are we assessing a story favourably only because it is written by Raymond Carver?


D. G. Myers said...

If an editor or director removes lines from a manuscript (a play perhaps) but leaves all other lines as originally written, is the author still the author? This is a common practice with the works of Shakespeare.

The practice damages and sometimes destroys Shakespeare, but Shakespeare remains Shakespeare because the text remains the text—separate from the performance.

In New York, once upon a time, I attended an Off Broadway performance of Henry V, at the time my favorite Shakespeare.

Either failing to recognize that the play ends with a sonnet (or not caring), the director or someone reduced closing speech to six lines. I was able to spot the damage, and to boo in disapproval, because I was readily conversant with the text—and because the text remained the text, separate from the botched and self-indulgent performance.

(This is not to say that there are not scads of textual problems in Shakespeare.)

The difference in the case of Carver’s stories is that the only version that is readily available of many is the composite Carver-Lish version, without any acknowledgment or consideration of that rather important textual fact.

I will develop this last point in a subsequent post.

D. G. Myers said...


I disagree with your account of semantic meaning, but let’s set aside the disagreement. “Please pass the salt” is rather too easy. You ignored my more difficult challenge. What is the “semantic meaning” of impossible changes?

Kevin said...

It depends on a host of contextual considerations. We cannot definitvely assign a meaning that will cover all cases of its use. I think we agree on this, which is why I didn't rise to the "challenge."

D. G. Myers said...

It depends on a host of contextual considerations.

Such as? You treat the meaning of the sentence “Please pass the salt” as self-evident, regardless of “contextual considerations.” And I have supplied quite a lot of the context surrounding the “impossible changes” of the last sentence in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” If the phrase—just two words, mind you—has “semantic meaning,” you ought to be able at least to begin to specify it.

Declining to rise to the challenge seems awfully close to admitting defeat.

D. G. Myers said...

I am playing center field. The batter hits a high, lazy flyball between me and the leftfielder. I drift under it. “Please pass the salt,” I call.

I walk into the classroom, open the text under discussion, and clear my throat. My students look up expectantly. “Please pass the salt,” I remark.

The girl removes her shirt. “Can’t you at least kiss my breasts?” she says. “Please pass the salt,” I reply.

A car passes me on the right, swerves in front, and slams on its breaks. “Please pass the salt,” I scream.

My son loses a tooth. Before he puts it under his pillow, he asks, “Daddy, is there really a tooth fairy?” “Please pass the salt,” I tell him.

Kevin said...

"You treat the meaning of the sentence 'Please pass the salt' as self-evident, regardless of 'contextual considerations.'

Yes, I do regard this sentence as self-evident but only because I assume that we share a background understanding of what makes that command meaningful.

"And I have supplied quite a lot of the context surrounding the 'impossible change.' If the phrase—just two words, mind you—has 'semantic meaning,' you ought to be able at least to begin to specify it."

Fair enough - I’m reminded of the child in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass who asks what grass is, and the poet openly acknowledges that he doesn’t know only to riff on the various meanings of grass.

In Lish’s emendation, I understand “impossible changes” to mean changes that ought not to occur or typically don’t occur but do to one’s great surprise...

Or means changes that Ralph himself previously felt were impossible but no longer does since the change in fact is happening...

Or means changes whose depths aren’t fully plumbable and hence are best described in a hyperbolic sense as impossible.

What semantic meaning do you think it has?


D. G. Myers said...

What semantic meaning do you think it has?

None at all, because there is no larger context than the phrase—really, the insertion of a single word—itself.

There was clearly an intention to the insertion of the word impossible, but whether broadly or narrowly conceived, it is impossible to recover.

What, for example, if The Great Gatsby had ended like this? “So we beat on, boats against the unnecessary current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” What semantic meaning would the book’s final sentence have now?

According to me, none at all. Fourteen of the fifteen words belong to Fitzgerald; the insertion is mine. Does it belong to the same intention? Does it alter the intention? Expand it? Create a context of meaning that is not “fully plumbable”?

Who knows? The composite intentionality renders semantic meaning null.

K said...

"Call me Ishmael."

I delete Ishmael and replace it with Kevin.

"Call me Kevin."

On your view, the composite intentionality - Melville's and mine - somehow nullifies the semantic property of the sentence.

Except it doesn't.

"Call me Kevin" is a perfectly meaningful sentence even if it doesn't cohere with Melville's intention or original text, etc. Etc.

I think the major sticking point is this - you love the man Carver, and I don't know him from Adam.

I know the work that goes under his name, and with that I'm perfectly content.

I enjoy Carver's work quite a bit (he's no Flannery O'Connor!); I find it more important than him, whoever he is and however vivid your memories are of him.

I'm unfamiliar with "his" unedited, un-Lishified work, though I did find your side-by-side presentation very interesting.

Perhaps if I read the un-Lishified material, I'd love it, too.


D. G. Myers said...

Call me Kevin.

Do I have to?

As you know, proper names have a distinctive linguistic function, really serving as little more than pointers, which is unlike other kinds of words.

There is also a difference between a first sentence, in which a novelist is just beginning the hard slog of making meaning, and the last sentence, in which he is putting a finishing touch on his job.

Even so, to change the first sentence of Moby Dick from “Call me Ishmael,” which alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures and casts the narrator as an outcast, to “Call me Kevin” does indeed reduce the opening sentence to meaninglessness.

For whom does Kevin refer to? The rest of the novel says nothing else about Kevin. It does not repeat the name Ishmael either, but that name’s meaning lies in its allusiveness and not in its pointing mechanism. Since there is no Kevin to point to—a nineteenth-century novel can hardly refer to you—the new opening sentence means nothing.

D. G. Myers said...

Does Lish's involvement necessarily render my copies of Carver's writing suspect? If so, are we assessing a story favourably only because it is written by Raymond Carver?


You must understand that I am working through these issues for myself too. Carver is hardly the only writer who is affected. A friend told me yesterday that All the King’s Men was heavily edited in manuscript by Lambert Davis, Warren’s editor at Harcourt.

The issues are difficult. Most readers prefer the original 1946 edition of All the King’s Men to the restored version issued under the editorial direction of Noel Polk in 2001.

But how much of that preference is the consequence of attachment to the 1946 version—to its familiarity?

I don’t know enough about the Warren case to answer with any confidence. The question is whether Warren made further revisions prior to publication on the advice of Davis.

When an editor recommends a change to me, I usually rewrite it in my own voice and try to reconcile the change with other portions of the argument before and after it. Did Warren do the same?

We know Carver did not. At best Carver “approved” Lish’s editorial revisions—with “reservations,” his biographer Carol Sklenicka adds.

So my tentative conclusion is that the “Carver” stories published in book form prior to 1982, when Carver told Lish that he could not “undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant” that Lish was wont to perform, are indeed—to use your word—suspect.

Yet those are the stories that established Carver’s reputation. After 1982—after he had become famous—he retook editorial control over his own fiction. The post-1982 stories are looser, more ambling.

Are they better? That, that, is the real question. Do we read Carver only because of Lish’s editing, and weather the later stories because “Raymond Carver” had become recognized as the Chekhov of his age? Or are the early Lish-ravaged stories an interesting prelude to the emergence of a master? (If so, why include them in a Library of America Collected Stories?)

These are questions that need to be asked, but no one seems interested in asking them. The texts are as we have them. Where is the trouble?

D. G. Myers said...

A friend sends along rare archival footage of Gordon Lish working with another famous writer.

Drew Johnson said...

To be honest, I don't think that this is a very difficult question. Only wishing Carver to be a larger figure makes it so. The Raymond Carver who became famous while being edited by Lish was a collaboration between Lish and Carver. That Carver is as much Lish as Carver, more, in a way, since what was different and influential in Carver were the effects that Lish introduced.

The late Carver/early unedited Carver might have made his way, might have been known, etc. but the influence would have been negligible. Without Lish, he simply wasn't that distinctive.

There are other well-known writers edited by Lish whose essential characteristics weren't much changed by his editing. It's a case-by-case basis. In the case of Carver the effects we identify as Carver came about because of the editing.

Full, but not very important, disclosure: In the last months of The Quarterly's existence I had a story accepted there. Lish accepted it on the condition that I allow his edits. He cut the story from 5 pages to 2 pages. The Quarterly folded while the story was still in the backlog.

The story wasn't much in either form. But afterward it was his as much as mine--I retitled it, cleverly I thought at the time: "An Embellishment."

I can't imagine arguing that level of alteration and reduction (equaled or surpassed in the case of some Carver stories) didn't fundamentally change the question. Certainly I felt that it did. On a much grander level, we know that it caused Carver tremendous anxiety--otherwise he wouldn't have written the long-dark-night-of-the-soul letter and otherwise he would never have broken off that interaction. We know that it continues to irk Tess Gallagher who believes Carver was a better writer without Lish.

Better to say that "Raymond Carver" is a body of work written by Carver and Lish than to pretend that Lish wasn't a full-blown sentence-writing partner in the process.

K said...


Agreed, that proper names serve as pointers.

Agreed, that there's a difference between the first and last sentence of a book.

If (per impossible) Ishmael had been emended to Kevin, the proper name would have referred to the protagonist and narrator of Moby Dick.

The emendation would have sacrificed a richly allusive dimension of meaning, but it wouldn't have reduced the sentence, passage, chapter, or entire book to utter meaninglessness — at least not on the order of saying that colorless white whales scribble furiously.

Anyhow, your questions may have been strictly rhetorical, in which case you can scrap my response if you like.


Jonathan said...

As you find Lish's involvement problematic, I'm curious how you approach - both as a reader and a critic (if you'll permit the separation)- literature in translation.

I have only pages to go to complete A.B. Yehoshua's "Mr. Mani" and am unclear whether it is the original story or Hillel Halkin's translation that I am enjoying so much. So too with "Gimpel the Fool" - is it Singer or Bellow's translation that provokes admiration?

I recognize that the academic study of translation has its own controversies and theories, but it seems the issues confronted there are similar to those here - only with a translator rather than an editor.

D. G. Myers said...

On literature in translation.

As you say, Jonathan, this is a problem with its own controversies and theories. But see today’s post on the concept of the unified text.

My view of translation is basically Steven Mailloux’s of editing. It is interpretation.

Jonathan said...

I suspect you've already read this article. It looks, that we now have the opportunity to read some pre-Lish Carver - only, however, if we trust the "restoration" of William Stull, Maureen P Carroll, and Tess Gallagher.

"Beginners by Raymond Carver is published by Jonathan Cape on 15 October"

Phil Greaney said...

I think your comparative reading of the 1966 and WWTA (found in the table) is a bit wonky. Both are examples of free indirect speech. The WWTA version includes several changes to the text to more completely capture the idiom of the character that 'says' these words - a pedantic, high-minded, bore, or thereabouts.

That's why we find Lish adding 'very', for example, to refer to the seriousness of life: ultimately redundant, it's the kind of thing we can imagine said by an elder to the young. Other words accumulate and solidify into painting this word picture of the speech of a man, and the man himself.

What's more, I don't think you've found the best example to compare. When using free indirect speech the writer is interested in capturing a voice that is different from his or her own narrative voice. That is, it's unusual - it's not the narrative 'voice' we have come to expect from Carver. It's part of their approach, the tools at hand, but you wouldn't say this example characterises Carver's approach. So, I don't think it's as useful as it might be.

The problem we Carver lovers have is this: we loved Carver when we read 'WWTA'. We loved 'Will You Please...' and we loved 'No Heroics...' etc.

But now that we've read the un-edited, un-colloborated voice of Carver (in Beginners, say) we can't simply dismiss his edited writings as inferior, because its through them that we came to love him. It would be like saying that you never loved someone (that you did love) when you met another, new and different person.