When Good Editors Go Bad

carveresquejpgLike so many of you, I rushed out and bought the Library of America edition of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories right on the day it was published. (Okay, that was a joke. I am a writing nerd is what I’m saying. I went to the Strand on the day of release to buy a copy. Like a teenage girl awaiting the new Stephenie Meyer.)

Yes, I already own Cathedral and Fires and Where I’m Calling From and the poetry collections (which are fine and powerful though not formally challenging but hey, that’s okay, too). I know Carver, and I love his work for the most part—not always, but for the most part—and this new edition fascinated me.

Why? Well, because it includes the original unedited manuscript, the source material for what became What We Talk About Love When We Talk About Love. Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, cut and reshaped that collection of stories until it was practically unrecognizable. Some stories he cut by as much as 78%. Others he retitled, threw away endings, and wrote his own concluding sentences. When Carver saw the edits, he wrote to Lish begging him to stop publication, but Lish prevailed and the collection was published in 1981. The end result is the slimmest of Carver’s books, overwhelmingly spare and bleak—even more so than Carver’s first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?

Thing is, Carver’s work at the time was moving away from that spareness. He was moving into a more expansive mode, and his later stories are alive with … oh, I don’t know, a generosity of spirit, say, that is almost entirely absent from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This has been written about extensively elsewhere, including a superior piece in The New Yorker that you can read here (along with the correspondence between Lish and Carver here.) I’m not interested in rehashing the controversy; more I just want to talk about the actual editing. Because there are examples both of superb editing and of an editor pushing his own agenda over the author’s aims.

First, the superb editing. There is a story that Carver called “Mine,” which Lish edited only two or three percent. And which Lish retitled “Popular Mechanics.” It’s a very short tale of domestic horror, about a couple who are separating. Each of them wants the baby. A tug-of-war ensues with sad results. Here’s the opening paragraph of Carver’s original:

During the day the sun had come out and the snow had melted into dirty water. Streaks of water ran down from the little, shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside. It was getting dark, outside and inside.

And Lish’s tweaked version of that paragraph:

Early that day the weather turned and the snow was melting into dirty water. Streaks of it ran down from the little shoulder-high window that faced the backyard. Cars slushed by on the street outside, where it was getting dark. But it was getting dark on the inside too.

I like what Lish has done there. He’s made the melting of the snow active and created a causal connection to the streaks of water running down the window. That’s subtle, but it helps unify the paragraph. And he’s excised one of the repeated instances of “water” that clunked the rhythm of the sentence. Then he’s shifted the bit about how it was “getting dark” outside to the description of the cars, which is nice. That grants that final “getting dark on the inside” sentence more ominous weight. These are subtle edits, but they work very well to accentuate what Carver is doing.

The other edits are similar, things like paragraphing and shifting of clauses that redistribute the weight of the sentences to maximum effect. The story ends with the husband and wife pulling back and forth on the baby’s arms and legs, and the final sentence is, in Carver’s version,

In this manner they decided the issue.

Lish makes a tiny edit, resulting in

In this manner, the issue was decided.

Now, some may not feel the edit does much, but to my ear, it saves the most damning word for last. In Carver’s version, the full import of the sentence is felt by the time we’ve read that “decided,” so “the issue” is kind of anticlimactic. Lish repositions things so that all the weight of the sentence comes down at the end, as it should.

It’s a masterful bit of editing, and Carver clearly approved of everything Lish had done (with the exception of the overly cynical, cute title change), because he included the edited version in his new and selected stories.

It’s a different case entirely with one of Carver’s most famous stories, “A Small, Good Thing,” which Lish cut by 78% and retitled “The Bath,” completely scuttling the original ending. The Lish version is powerful, but it is powerful in a wholly different way than Carver’s version.

If you know the story, it’s about a couple whose son is hit by a car a few days before his birthday. A party had been planned, and a fancy cake ordered, but that is obviously forgotten while the two wait by the boy’s hospital bedside, hoping for him to recover. (He doesn’t.) Meanwhile, the baker, angry about the cake he’s made that was never picked up, keeps calling the parents and asking if they have “forgotten about Scotty” and then hanging up. (He’s an immigrant and a bit estranged from the language.)

In the Lish version, the couple do not know who is calling, and the story ends with the bereaved mother answering the phone and hearing the baker ask again about Scotty. It’s bleak and depressing as hell. The Carver version, however, continues and arrives at a different place, one that is large-hearted and forgiving and about grief and finding solace in unexpected places. In the Carver version, the couple realize it is the baker prank calling, and they arrive at the bakery late at night to confront him. And the baker comes to understand what he’s done, is horrified, and tries to make amends the only way he knows how—he offers the couple food and asks their forgiveness.

“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.

That has the power of plainly expressed truth behind it, and it is cathartic. The emotional burden of the story, so long held back, comes down upon the reader and it is a crushing weight. Through the baker’s interaction, we finally feel some small portion of what the parents are suffering. The story ends with a breaking of bread (could there be any better symbol of forgiveness and shared sorrow?):

They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.

The Carver version was later published and won the O. Henry award, the love of thousands, and so on. It is that version that he included in his new and collected stories for posterity’s sake, and it is one of the centerpieces of the truly great collection Cathedral. Which only goes to show you that Carver know what he was about.

I suppose my final question here is: Did Lish do wrong? Well, I guess I’d say yes. Mind you, I respect Lish enormously—he’s a genius and guided many great writers to publication (among them the amazing Amy Hempel)—but the end result of his editing here is to make the stories more his than Carver’s. There is the kind of editing that sharpens the writer’s vision, accents the points the author is making. That’s what an editor should do. And then there is the kind of editing that forces a story or novel to fit into the procrustean bed of the editor’s very personal notion of what the book should be. And that’s just plain wrong.

  1. This is one of the best agent blog entries I’ve read in a great while, and was truly fascinating. Thanks for the read.


  2. Your first sentence made me laugh even before you said you were joking. I see why you rushed out and bought the book. The differences in the ending of “A Small, Good Thing” are amazing. Now, like so many of you, I’m going to rush to click that link of the correspondence between Lish and Carver. Thanks for this interesting post.


  3. Michael, do you remember Gordon Lish’s short-lived quarterly, called, well, the Quarterly?

    I’ve always loved Raymond Carver and his spare, incredibly powerful style. Seeing the edits that Lish made is very interesting. One of my favorite lines is from the collection What We Talk About Love When We Talk About Love.

    I can barely remember it now but it’s about a young boy who goes out fishing. He is so proud that he has caught this huge fish. I think he arrives right when his neglectful parents are having an incredible fight.

    The boy, excited and eager to show his father the prize fish, is only met with an outburst: “What is that? Get that damn thing out of the house!”

    Which is heartbreaking and funny at the same time.


  4. Ron,

    I do remember The Quarterly. And years ago, I had sent a story there, which Lish edited and returned for revision. I undertook the revisions and sent it back, then came home one day to a message from Lish on my answering machine.

    “Michael Stearns,” he growled, “this is Gordon Lish. You have the address of The Quarterly wrong. We’ve moved. Our new address is ….” And then he hung up.

    Didn’t say whether he was taking the story or not. A few weeks later, it came back to me with a note stating that “now it lacks oomph.”

    And that was the whole of our interaction.

    But yes, was an interesting journal.


  5. Fascinating entry, Michael. I used to think authors wrote in a vacuum, producing the final, publishable manuscripts on their own. It was intimidating, I never thought I could do it, and for years I didn’t. I know that the trend to thank agents, editors and writing group members in acknowledgements sections is somewhat controversial, but I love it. I think it’s important for readers, especially young readers, to know that authors receive help, hopefully inspiring more would-be writers to pick up the pen and get to work.


  6. I was actually thinking of this same topic recently while reading the poem “I am” by the mostly unknown John Clare. He spent much of his life in an asylum and very little of what went on to be published was as he’d written it. His editor was brutal, and he considered Clare to be “unqualified” to do his own editing. His position wasn’t such that he had control over what happened to his poetry once it left his hands. It strikes me as profoundly tragic and encourages me to stop just shy of insanity.

    I’ve never gone up against a professional editor. It’s not typical to have your writing slashed and burnt like this… is it? (I have in mind the image of the baby involved in the tug-of-war… which is disturbing, but I can just picture my writing in the middle of a similar fight with similar results.) I must have a healthy amount of hubris because I find myself thinking, “Yeah… but I wrote it.” In most scenarios your manuscript isn’t considered a “jumping off point,” is it? 78%? Yikes.


  7. This post must’ve taken a lot of time to put together. You’ve given me things to think about, and not just the writer/editor relationship, but also ways to edit my own manuscript. The snow scene is particularly helpful. Something as tiny as “the snow had melted” to “the snow was melting” makes such a difference and is so simple to change.

    Thank you for this post!


  8. Michael,

    This is an excellent post. Great thoughts on editing. I was curious about your thoughts on the ending of the “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Story” if you happened to look at those two stories side by side. I believe the last couple of sentences are Lish’s (lock, stock and barrel).


  9. Wow. That was fascinating.

    Thank you!


  10. I have had good editors (hi Michael!) and bad ones. The good ones ask questions. The bad ones rewrite.

    As for the lines: (Carver’s) In this manner they decided the issue.

    (Lish) In this manner, the issue was decided.

    I respectfully disagree with Our Esteemed Host. In the first case, the couple are the deciders and I think it stronger. (Though the last two words could be left out.) In the Lish change, someone/something else does the deciding.



  11. Well, Jane, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    Carver’s version makes it sound as though the way this issue was decided was the intent of the couple. (I don’t believe it is.) In the Lish version, the decision happens because of their behavior and isn’t owned by them. And clearly Carver agreed, because he didn’t revert any of the changes in this story.

    So there. (sticks out tongue)


  12. Gosh, Michael–what is it about our relationship that brings out the naughty little boy in you?

    Your Other Mother


  13. Wow, terrific and enlightening post.

    One thought on the Carver “In this manner…” last line vs. Lish last line (if it’s not UTTERLY presumptuous of me to toss one in) is that, while I prefer Lish’s last line for the reasons you spelled out, Michael, Carver’s last line DOES have a bit more of a play on the word issue (as in, the issue of their loins) that is mostly lost in the Lish version because of the change in emphasis with the different position of the word.

    Fun stuff.


  14. Jane, you don’t ever want to be known as the Other Mother—terrifying shades of Coraline!



  15. […] Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Some serious paring down went on in Lish’s office. It’s interesting! (And Jane Yolen and Michael debate a bit in the comments section, which is worth the price of […]


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