I have a friend who likes to throw little ripostes at me when we sail past each other on the library floor after he's read my blog. The most recent was “Philip Seymour Hoffman!” That was an actor who deserves three names. The one before that was “Raymond Carver?” That was for the perfect short story.
I gave this one some thought. Raymond Carver is a writer I have loved for years. And yet, “perfect” has never been the word which has occurred to me upon finishing one of his stories. In fact, imperfection has a lot to do with why they appeal to me, something about their intimacy and about their realism, and those sort of gear-scraping shifts he makes between the two.
Two days later I was reading a TLS back page – that's their gossip page – and there was Raymond Carver, of all people, and at the centre of the piece, his perfect imperfect short stories. Did the stories in What we talk about when we talk about love lose their identities when Carver’s friend and editor Gordon Lish chopped anywhere from 50-70% out of them? Wrote an occasional sentence himself? Changed endings?
This year the Library of America will publish an edition of What we talk about when we talk about love which will contain the stories exactly as Carver wrote them, before Lish’s editing. To be called Beginners, which is what the title story was called pre-Lish, the book was willed into being by Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, flame-keeper and literary executor, who engaged in a long battle with Knopf, Carver’s publisher and Lish’s employer, which started over ten years ago. Living overseas, I missed it. I did read The New Yorker once a year when visiting my parents, but it was a haphazard thing, involving flipping through old copies stacked in the guest room, mostly during that wide-eyed, hungry hour the time change would throw at me every night between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. My intake of literary news was uneven to say the least.
Now the wonder world of online archives has filled me in on the controversy. You too can read and enjoy DT Max’s intelligent and highly readable discussion of the editorship vs authorship issue, “The Carver Chronicles” from The New York Times.
Or, “Primary Sources” from The New Yorker lets you see the original draft of Beginners with Lish’s cross-outs and additions, and there’s a slideshow which includes a rather Sarah Bernhardtian photo of Tess at the Gravesite.
One thing I did read on one of those long ago nights was an beautiful piece of writing by Richard Ford remembering his friend Raymond ten years after his death. If it is Raymond Carver you want to know more about, and you like good writing, this is the one to read:
"Good. More for me,” he’d say when you turned down some offer he’d made you – to split a reading fee, to go fishing in Puget Sound, to divide up a last doughnut. He was always offering you something – a piece of his good fortune. He thought that was what it was for, part of why it was good. But if you didn’t want yours, he still did.
From “Good Raymond” by Richard Ford