Carving Out the Writer/Editor Relationship

The controversy

Recently, I discovered an editing controversy related to one of my favourite writers of fiction, Raymond Carver. I’m particularly fascinated by his collection called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. It’s one of my go-to sources for inspiration on realistic, sharp-edged stories. His work makes me rethink assumptions at a fundamental level, such as our beliefs about the meaning of love. The stories in this book are more powerful for what they leave out. The prose is sparse, the pace is tight, the endings make you catch the breath at the back of your throat, and there does not seem to be a single word out of place. It’s a special kind of feeling when you read writing that good.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that what I admire most about these stories may not be what Raymond Carver wrote. It may have more to do with what his trusted supporter, Gordon Lish, edited. The brevity and punch-in-the-gut impact seems to be mostly the result of the edits. But don’t take my word for it. Place the edited and unedited versions side-by-side and decide for yourself. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” came out in 1981. “Beginners”, the unedited manuscript of the same stories, was published in 2009.

In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”, the editor cut 75% of the words, changed titles, re-envisioned endings, changed character names and subplots, and rewrote entire paragraphs as new sentences with a completely different message and tone.

Power struggle vs. collaboration

Carver did not have a say in these changes. He was recovering from alcoholism and did not see the edits until they were in their final form. Deeply distressed, he begged the editor to not publish the book with those changes. He said, “Now, I’m afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in the present edited form, I may never write another story, that’s how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.” This letter is included in the book of unedited stories.

It’s a heartbreaking read because his pleas did not change the outcome. The book went ahead as edited. It’s difficult to know exactly how Raymond Carver felt about that, but I wonder if he simply decided to live with what he thought he could not control.

I wish I could say that this obvious lack of respect went on to receive sound punishment. But no, the edited version made Raymond Carver famous.

As a person who is contented both as a writer and an editor, this car wreck of a relationship haunts my mind. Is there something we can learn from it? Is there more to say other than the obvious suggestion that an editor who doesn’t follow the intentions of the writer should be fired? The saddest thing to me is that we will never get to see what might’ve happened if the writer/editor relationship had been collaborative.

Raymond Carver’s later style continues the voice brought to this “edited” collection, which brings up another question. Did his editor help him find his voice or force a voice upon him? The answers are slippery.

What do you think?

What can we make of this upsetting situation other than to shake our heads? I have a number of ideas, although none of them sit well. Comparing the texts gives genuine instruction on how a story can be revised. Raymond Carver’s work needed revision as everyone’s does. That’s not a statement about ethics. It’s a matter of process.

Also, Raymond Carver said that he needed his stories for his well-being, yet he was uncertain of his abilities and intimidated by the publishing authorities. Who could blame him for his struggles? He was dealing with addiction after all. But it does remind me how important it is for all of us to find a way to believe resolutely in our stories and ourselves even when both fall short. If nothing else, we can insist on collaboration.

What do you make of all this? I welcome your comments. If you want to delve more deeply, here are two thought-provoking links, one from each side:

Lorentzen, C. (2015). Lish: ‘Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney! Paris Review

Wood, G. (2009). Raymond Carver: the kindest cut. The Guardian

By Debbie Bateman

I'm an innovative thinker with a practical nature and a passion for explaining complex ideas simply. This makes me a dedicated and meticulous instructional designer, curriculum writer, and plain language editor. As a bonus, I am a storyteller, fiction writer, and novel editor.

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