It’s strange to find the New York Times Book Review devoting three full pages to yet another round of the Gordon Lish/Raymond Carver spat, previously addressed (at length) in, for example, The New Yorker, Slate and the New York Times’s own Sunday magazine. Stranger still to see it come down so heavily against Lish, one of the more accomplished editors of the 20th century.
The byline is also odd: Stephen King – who was once praised (by the same publication) for his masterful reworking of the ‘evil-car motif’. Really? I don’t mean to pick on King. But King, reviewing Carol Sklenicka’s new biography of Carver, does pick on Lish, who is singled out for his ‘heavy hand’, for ‘the strangely elitist view he seems to have held of Carver’s writing’, and for his ‘baleful’ and ‘heartbreaking’ influence on Carver’s stories. When his own first novel was accepted for publication in 1973, King says, he was
young, drunk, trying to support a wife and two children, writing at night, hoping for a break. The break came, but until reading Sklenicka’s book, I thought it was the $2500 advance Doubleday paid me for Carrie. Now I realise it may have been not winding up with Gordon Lish as my editor.
Matthew Price’s review of Sklenicka’s book in Bookforum was more even-handed:
The Lish-edited collections included in the Library of America edition are now canonical… With his powerful instinct for etching heartache, Carver would have written worthy stories with or without his editor. Whether we would be reading that work in an edition designed for the ages is another question, one that’s as unanswerable as it is provocative.
But what seems to stick in King’s craw is that Lish’s edits of Carver’s stories go out of their way to avoid the answerable. For King, the original of one Carver story ‘ends on a note of hard-won hope’, whereas Lish’s edit robs it of its ‘epiphany’. It’s ‘a total rewrite’, a ‘cheat’. Elsewhere, a baker gives ‘bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. They take this communion together and talk until morning.’ According to King, Lish’s edit of that scene – which makes the baker out to be a good deal more nefarious, in a way you might have thought King would have appreciated – lacked the ‘symmetry’ and ‘heart’ (King’s italics) of Carver’s original.
Let’s leave aside the fact that, in his letters to Lish (which pull strongly at King’s heartstrings), Carver tended towards the melodramatic: ‘I don’t want to sound melodramatic here, but I’ve come back from the grave here to start writing stories once more.’ Let’s forget that the New York Times Magazine article which kicked this whole thing into gear quoted Carver quoting Ezra Pound on the collaborative process: ‘It’s immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them.’ Let’s say, instead, that where King is sentimental, Lish looks at sentimentality and sees the enemies of feeling.
Going by this review, you’d think that Carver’s stories should have looked more like their endlessly unfortunate MFA imitations, and that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which is based on one of King’s early novels, should have looked more like this: