digression – gordon lish

October 17, 2007

there’s an article in the times today about a new edition of raymond carver’s “what we talk about when we talk about love” that is being published by his wife to strip away the influence of the editor of the book, gordon lish. it’s total revisionist history bullshit. it’s awful the way the quotes work together to make gordon seem like some sort of villain, when without him i would bet anything we wouldn’t be talking about what we talk about when we talk about carver (sorry).

gordon lish is my favorite fiction editor. he’s also a pretty terrible writer. when i found out about him in college, it seemed completely perfect, like, i’d found this guy who was the link, the mid point, between my twin obsessions at the time, carver and don delillo. i’ve read profiles where people talk about how lish’s fiction is underappreciated, but really it’s not, because it’s not very good (at least what i’ve read). i read two of his story collections, “mourner at the door” and another i can’t remember the name of. there was all the technical precision and focus you see in the carver stories and some of the intellect and rauschenberg sentences you see in delillo, but none of the soul of those writers. the stories felt empty and cold in a way that most of carver’s fiction doesn’t and delillo’s rarely does and really all they made me feel was that i wanted to give gordon lish a hug.

the .pdf attached to the times article says that, “the ostensible transformation of Raymond Carver from minimalist to humanist was not a change of head or heart. It was a change of hands.” funny, this is the opposite of everything i’ve ever heard, that the shift into the optimism and heart of “cathedral” and “a small, good thing” was a shift of head and heart, that it was biographical, that he had finally kind of pulled his life together and quit drinking and learned to maybe believe that good things can happen. but the people who wrote this are scholars, so surely they don’t have agendas.

and all this about returning the stories to their “original” forms. anyone who has ever taken an entry level creative writing class knows that raymond carver is the king of revision, of five million different drafts of a two page short story. what is the original, which one of these unpublished drafts most completely represents his vision, how is tess gallagher qualified besides being his wife to make this decision? i don’t believe that storied story about carver and john gardner arguing for hours about the pros and cons of a certain comma but it’s touching nonetheless and a reminder that the scrupulous attention to text on the sentence level that gordon lish is being vilified for here was something that was already the phillip’s head screwdriver in carver’s toolbox.

it’s kind of like in those cinderella makeover movies where you’ve got the sad girl with a heart of gold and it’s obvious in real life that she’s a hot young starlet but in the life of the movie, her dirty matted hair and slightly out of date clothes and lack of money make her invisible to everyone in the world and heath ledger. and nobody ever knows or would know what a wonderful person she is without a musical montage where she gets a really great makeover and incredible clothes. a really great makeover and incredible clothes mean nothing in and of themselves, they’re empty, but when you pair them with a diamond in the rough, you get a diamond. both elements are important. without the clothes and the makeover and the spirit of the musical montage, the narrative of the cinderella movies would break down, cinderella would pine after her beau forever with no resolution and with really bad hair. without gordon lish (and also john gardner), carver might’ve just been a guy who wrote some stories about couples drinking and arguing. instead, thank God, we’ve got “why don’t you dance.”

i will write a post later about “the hills” later to negate this. it is like penance.


2 Responses to “digression – gordon lish”

  1. niki Says:

    hello, I realize this was written a while back but I just finished reading the New YOrker’s Dec 24-31 issue about Gish and Carver’s relationship and Carver’s decision to have less of his writing excised by Lish and I think you would find it interesting. It contains the longer, more inclusive version of the story “What we talk about when we talk about love” and a page with Lish’s editing marks to show how different Carver’s writing was or could have been without Lish’s editing plus some of the mail related on the matter. I think you would find all interesting. As for my opinion on the matter I think Carver had the right to request that more of his writing be left in while not denying that the previous two books were great thanks to Lish’s work on them. We are left with what of the two styles we prefer and it is a personal choice while Carver’s was an artistic integrity one.

  2. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    thanks for the comment. i read that article when it came out and i agree, it was fascinating. it also led me to believe that i’d probably been too dogmatic in my support for lish; i am just so against the cult of the auteur that is such a big part of how we experience and talk about art. thanks very much for writing!

    p.s. http://wiredforbooks.org/mp3 has some pretty fascinating old audio interviews with both carver and lish, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

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