When Good Editors Go Bad
September 14, 2009

Like 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 TheNew 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.