Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (and me)



Many months ago when I discovered Literary Rejections on Display, I searched high and low for my collection of rejection letters, hoping to contribute to that fine blog, but I couldn't find them. They dated mostly from the late 80's to early 90's, when sending stories out and having them rejected was my favorite hobby. I knew that at one point I grew sick of the wallpaper of rejection I had surrounded myself with and threw most of them away, keeping only a few good ones: those with handwriting on them. I found them the other day, hidden away in a folder marked "Art."

The above is one of my favorites. (Perhaps I'll keep the others for LROD.) I don't remember what I sent -- some junk about the disillusionments of small-town teenagers, probably, or maybe small-town elderly people. Did I really think Lish might like it?? But I was happy to get this rejection note. I stuck it on my bulletin board and it was there long enough for me to more or less memorize it. Is it just me, or is this note totally crazy?

At the same time, it's really, really nice. It goes out of its way to make the impression that the mag is an accidental, collaborative thing, not a snooty magazine concerned with publishing only the very best, which you, sadly, are not. He didn't have to do that. He could have gotten away with snooty.

If I remember correctly, the Q's rejection note changed every few weeks (yes, I sent a lot of crap out) but was always similarly verbose.

Which is kind of ironic, when you remember that Lish is the guy often credited with (or accused of) cutting all the extra words out of Raymond Carver's stories.

I have always loved Carver's last story, "Errand," which is about the death of Chekhov. In it he leaves the minimalism, and presumably Lish, behind. It's a great, rich story and it seemed to indicate a new direction for Carver.

But I don't think that his early work would have been better without the editing, and wow, you can really see this in the story published by the online New Yorker this week. Carver fans will recognize that story as the one better known as "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a much better title than the original, the forgettable "Beginners." That is one excellent edit. All the repetitive stuff, all the beard-scratching between thoughts: gone. Lish didn't make the story into something it wasn't; he understood what was essential about Carver and brought it out.

Tess Gallagher obviously cares deeply about her husband's legacy and thinks she's setting something to rights by publishing the stories in their original form. It's true the editing upset Carver, and he wanted to feel as if his success was his, and his alone, not Lish's. But I wonder -- if Carver had lived and gone on to establish himself apart from Lish, would he feel the need to do this? I don't know. Writers are egoists, and as hard as it is to be rejected, it's even harder, sometimes, to take an edit -- especially if it's a good one.

It makes me wonder if maybe what the world really needs now are more great editors.

11 comments:

Michael Hemmingson said...

Without Lish, Carver would have remained in the small press and would have made a minor name of himself, not major. Lish got him into Esquire nd Harper's while he was publishing in Iowa Review and December Mag...Lish bought all his books when no one else would touch them.

I'm writing a critical book abut Lish for Routledge so I know all these things.

rmellis said...

Good luck with your book! Have you met GL yet?

Writer, Rejected said...

The thing is that Lish gave Carver a way to stand out, but I've read some of his nonedited work, and it's good. It's deep and ponderous and interesting. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Carver's minimized stories: I think they are knock-outs. But it is kind of a complicated situation, and I am loathe to rush off the Lishless Carver the way everyone else seems to do. The editor/writer relationship used to be very complex. (Not so much anymore since editors don't do too much editing these days.) Fabulous post. Thanks RM.

Writer, Rejected said...

I meant brush off. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

But isn't it unfair to compare a completely unedited Carver story to one that was edited with Lish's very heavy hand? I'm ambivalent about this whole controversy, but I do think that Carver's finest work was produced in the last few years of his life, when he had finally worked up the nerve to stand up to Lish. To my mind, Cathedral is Carver's best story, and he hardly let Lish touch it.

Josh Russell said...

I think the discussion has veered away from what's most important: Lish is an insane genius, and as Rhian notes, much more fun to get rejections from than, say, C. Michael Curtis, he of the one-line pith. Faster, too. I miss The Quarterly. Back in 1994 or 1995 I sent Lish a story, got the crazy rejection in less than seven days -- and then got contracts for the same story a week later. Okay, I thought, OKAY! I filled out the paperwork (which was a hundred times as insane and wonderful as the rejection letters) and sent it back. A week after that (two weeks after the rejection) I come home to Gordon Lish's voice on my answering machine: "Josh Russell, there has been a terrible mistake." I collected my wits for a day, then called him. He told me that he'd put my story in a box he thought was the MAYBE NEXT TIME box and his assistant thought was the NEXT ISSUE box. "You owe me one," I managed to tell Gordon Lish. "You're right," he agreed. Then the magazine went out of business for good. But not before I received in the mail a note from him -- "We are very, very, very sorry" -- and a marked-up version of the story. "Marked-up" meaning he had drawn a line through every sentence of the first paragraph and rewritten them all, then stuck through each of the remaining paragraphs on the first page. Pages two and three got one line. It ran from the upper right to the lower left. Ouch. In the end that four-page story became a 200-word story, a much better story. Thanks, Gordon.

jrlennon said...

Josh Russell, if you have a scanner, I beg, you man, use it.

jrlennon said...

I meant "I beg you, man." Not "I beg, you man."

Of course Lish would have just excised the whole comment.

Josh Russell said...

Let me check the archives. (NB: I tried to make a joke involving strikethrough font, but Blogger does not allow the del tag. Alas.)

Josh Russell said...

Jeepers, it's even better than I remember! I need to find a scanner. Can we revisit this post in January, when I'll be back on campus and have access to the technology that'll allow a peek at my Lish Shrine? Please?

jrlennon said...

Hell yeah! It's practically worth starting your own blog for.