The Tip of the Iceberg and What Lies Beneath

About rewriting and editing the American playwright Tennessee Williams said, “You have to murder all your little darlin’s.” It’s been known for several decades that the editor Gordon Lish did more than slay a few precious lines in Raymond Carver’s 1981 story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. In fact, it is clearly illustrated in Lish’s papers at the Lily Library at Indiana University that the editor cut apart, rearranged, and re-titled much of the collection. Lish claimed to have rewritten the endings of ten of the thirteen stories, even bragging that he changed the stories so much that they were “more his than Carver’s.” Lish was what Charles McGrath called in a recent New York Times article “a macro editor, ruthless and aggressive.”

Despite the collection’s critical success (it was a break-out book for Carver), the Carver/Lish “collaboration” lead to some hard feelings. Embarrassed, resentful and fearing for his reputation, Carver eventually severed professional ties with Lish. Before his death in 1988 at 50, he restored and republished in magazines such classics as “So Much Water So Close to Home” and “A Small, Good Thing.”

Now almost twenty years later, Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher hopes to pick up where her husband left off. She wants to reinstate what was sacrificed in the name of minimalism by publishing the 1981 collection in its original, un-Lished version.

It is understandable that Gallagher might want to unhitch her husband’s legacy from Lish’s wagon. Looking back, much of the work Lish edited in the 80s for the now defunct literary magazine Quarterly was suffused with the same sense of modern malaise and straight-jacketed by minimalist technique. In the late 80s and early 90s, creative writing students were swept up in the trend. Too many writing workshop stories adopted the formula: loaded dialogue, an obsessive concern for surface detail, a tendency to blur distinctions between characters, abrupt beginnings and endings, and a deterministic, and at time nihilistic world view. As Carver’s life got better and he shook off feelings of loneliness and alienation, his fiction became more optimistic with moments of redemption. And it seems natural that fuller, more generously written stories should better allow these changes in the author.

Gallagher’s project is not without its critics. Carver’s last editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, made his disfavor clear in the New York Times: “I would rather dig Ray Carver out of the ground.” He sees Gallagher’s project as an attempt to rewrite history. For now she seems in for a fight with Knopf who declined to publish it and would consider it illegal if another publisher picked it up.

In fiction writing classes, I have taught both Lish’s minimalist and Carver’s restored maximalist version of “So Much Water.” The story’s rich and perplexing central conflict easily warrants two different stylistic approaches—the tip of the iceberg and what lies beneath. Looked at together, the differences are instructive. I’d guess that the same is true of the stories Gallagher wants to make available.