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
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:
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.
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.
 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.