What He Could Live With

Jeff Baker‘s lengthy feature on Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver‘s widow, closes with a sweet detail—there’s a little mailbox at Carver’s grave, and visitors can use the pen and paper nearby to leave him a message. (“I wanted to thank you in person,” one note reads.) But the feature exists thanks to a controversy—namely, Gallagher’s ongoing fight to have the stories in his collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love published in their original form, before they were heavily edited by Gordon Lish.

The pre-Lish stories now exist in the new Library of America Carver edition, but not in its own standalone version. Gallagher believes that such a collection, titled “Beginners,” is what Carver would’ve wanted; others disagree, for both legalistic and personal reasons, and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that when it came to all this Carver was, to pick the most precise term available, wishy-washy. Carol Sklenicka‘s forthcoming biography of Carver shows how much his moods changed when it came to Lish’s enthusiastic blue-penciling. He was by turns the nervous up-and-comer grateful for any editorial attention; the fragile alcoholic in a panic over what the What We Talk About edits would do to his psyche; and, toward the end, relatively disinterested in turf wars and seemingly aware of Lish’s positive contributions to his reputation. Carver didn’t take well to Lish’s actions early on, but as he neared his first publication in Esquire he cooled off slightly, Sklenicka writes:

A year earlier [in 1969], Carver had cringed under Lish’s criticism and begged for simple rejections, but now he thanked Lish for taking a pen to his manuscripts. In his glee, Ray compared Lish’s work to the corrections he’d received from John Gardner when Ray was his student. The stories were now “first class,” Ray told Lish.

By 1987, when Carver was famous and assembling his defining collection, Where I’m Calling From, he and his editor Gary Fisketjon agreed to a mix of old and new stories, many Lish-free but eight from What We Talk About that were edited by Lish. Sklenicka writes:

The volume of thirty-seven selected and new stories would be called Where I’m Calling From. These, Ray told Maryann [Burk, his first wife], were stories he felt “he could live with. And, yes, be remembered by.” In an introduction for the deluxe edition, he emphasizes that the stories were written over a twenty-five-year span, and concludes that “any writer will tell you he wants to believe his work will undergo a metamorphosis, a sea change, a process of enrichment if he’s been at it long enough.”

The open question—and Sklenicka wisely renders no judgment on the matter—is how critical Lish was to that “process of enrichment.”

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