Editing Raymond Carver

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:


Because life is so utterly elusive all the way down to the end, you have two basic choices if you want to say anything about it. You can say a lot, too much even, and be satisfied that at least you’ve dumped as much clutter on the matter as you could. Or you can withhold, take little tiny pecks at the thing, and be satisfied that the gaping silences are doing the job.

Raymond Carver came out with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in 1976 and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. The stories are a revelation in pecks and silences. Stripped down, punchy sentences did just that: They punched your guts out. The human landscape of his stories was so rich for being so bare. It seems impossible that literature can be this honest, this true. But there it is. If your hands don’t tremble a little when you read Raymond Carver then you’re lacking something essential in your make-up: You’re flat, you’re a goner, you won’t do.

The trouble (if such things trouble you) is that the stories in both those volumes are what they are not just because of Carver, but also because of the rough hands of a certain Gordon Lish, Editor. Mr. Lish, working at Knopf, took the stories that Carver sent him and he hacked away at them, mercilessly. He liked the stories as they were, no doubt, but he saw something else in them as well, something harder and more pure. He saw the power in Carver’s natural restraint and he wanted to push it to the very limit. He saw a compact emotional explosion in each story, and he pared away at the language until each one was a mean package of terrible beauty. It worked. The stories are brilliant, devastating. There is nothing like them.

But Carver never felt very good about what had happened.