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.