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Catherine Humble
Catherine Humble

Catherine Humble is a visiting teacher at Goldsmiths where she is working on a PhD thesis on American suburban realism and psychoanalysis. She has been a regular book reviewer for the Telegraph, the TLS and the Observer. She has also organized literature conferences and presented several papers on American fiction. She is currently editing a volume of articles about ethics and literature.
Carver Beginners
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What We Talk About
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Will You Please Be Quiet Please?
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In Raymond Carver’s short story ‘Beginners’ Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, says he has a tale that will show that people don’t know what they are talking about when they talk about love.

          “I’ll try and make a long story short,¸ Herb states.

          Yet he is unable to do so.

          Herb gives a rambling account of an elderly couple who are hospitalised following a car accident. After they are reunited: “they’d just sit and hold hands and talk,¸ Herb says.

          Written in 1980 ‘Beginners’ is Carver’s original version of a story that was published to great acclaim the following year as ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ - a version severely truncated by Carver’s editor Gordon Lish. The story secured Carver’s reputation as the master of minimalism, yet, like Carver’s elderly couple, ‘Beginners’ is a much more talkative affair. The writing is capacious, gentle, at times meandering. Famed for his brevity, Carver’s unedited work in fact suggests he is more like his character Herb – unable to make a long story short.

          This wasn’t the only Carver story to be published in considerably altered form. All the stories that make up Carver’s acclaimed collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) are radically whittled down versions of his original prose. This has recently come to light with the publication of Beginners, the unedited Raymond Carver. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s second wife and literary executor, along with the scholars William L Stull and Maureen P Carroll, has republished the seventeen stories in their un-Lished form. For Gallagher, Beginners exposes a softer side of Carver, what she calls his ‘authentic’ voice.

          A gauche and influential literary figure, once known as Captain Fiction, Gordon Lish brought Carver to the public eye. He published Carver’s first stories in Esquire magazine and went on to edit his first collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please? (1977) – nominated for a national prize. That year Carver wrote to Lish: “You, my friend, are my idea of an ideal reader.¸ Raymond Carver emerged as the laconic new voice of the American working class, his prose style uniquely suggestive, taut with desire and menace.

          From the moment he discovered Carver, Lish played a heavy editorial role, mining the spare style Carver became known for. But by 1980, when his second book, Beginners, was returned with a particularly brutal edit, the author had grown more confident, taking his editor to task: “I know there are going to be stories…that aren’t going to fit anyone’s notion of what a Carver short story ought to be,¸ he wrote in an aggrieved missive, “But Gordon, God’s truth…I can’t undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them somehow fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads sticking out.¸ Yet Carver allowed the stories to be published in Lish’s form – to spectacular acclaim. The retitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love remains Carver’s best-known collection.

          In the twenty years following the author’s death the Carver-Lish relationship has been the subject of much controversy. Lish has been hailed ’the real Raymond Carver’ and branded an editorial tyrant. Carver has been cast as both victim and fraud. Beginners reveals the true extent to which Lish carved out Carver’s prose. His excavation was considerable, as the figures cited reveal: most stories are cut by more than 50 one as much as 78 Lish changed the names of characters, of titles, created new endings. But did he create Carver? Beginners forces us to do away with heroes and villains and see the editor-writer relation in a more nuanced light.

          Amid the recent fanfare, it is important not to overlook the significant contributions of the editor. The title of the book that made Carver’s name was Lish’s making. While Beginners is a fine title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is brilliant. Lish honed the stark rhythms that became Carver’s hallmark. In the opening page of the title story Terri tries to describe her experience of love: “He said he’d spent five years in a seminary…He said he still looked back on those years…He dragged me around the living room….He kept saying ‘I love you, I love you.’¸ Here, the thudding repetition captures Terri’s compulsion to speak but also her struggle to articulate. This effect is absent from ‘Beginners’, which has a more meandering quality. At times Carver can be heavy-handed; Lish knew when to rein him in. In ‘Gazebo’, the narrator begins to get his head around the painful disintegration of his marriage, saying “Holly’s a smart woman, and I think she knew all this before I did¸; Carver’s adjunct “that the bottom had fallen out¸ is too telling. Lish omitted it. The editor curbed his writer’s mawkish tendency: Holly’s “I feel crucified¸ is scrapped. The re-paragraphing and section breaks create a cleaner, punchier feel.

          While Lish turned up the silence in Carver this is not to claim that Lish made covert what Carver made overt. Both collections explore the same territory: the struggle of human communication. They just do it slightly differently. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love uses ellipses. Beginners uses ellipses and waffle: the cropped sentence is certainly present in the original, but characters have a crack at speaking about what eludes them. In ‘Beginners’ Herb says:

          ’But it seems to me we’re just rank beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it. We love each other and we love hard, all of us. I love Terri and Terri loves me, and you guys love each other. You know the kind of love I’m talking about now. Sexual love…as well as just the plain everyday kind of love.’ (My italics)

          Here, the word ‘love’ is repeated with such frequency that the meaning recedes behind the pulsating beat of the language, recalling what the psychoanalytical thinker Julia Kristeva calls ‘pulsions’ – the originary pre-linguistic drive of an infant.

          In the same passage in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ Lish does away with several references to ‘love’ and the effect is markedly different. While both versions confront the inexpressibility of love, in Lish’s edit, blunt sentences resound with inadequacy of meaning; in Carver’s work, rolling repetitions form a visceral expression. Interviewed by Mcaffery and Gregory in 1987, Carver reflected that his later stories are “all longer, more detailed, and more affirmative. Although the relationships are more complex, I’m somehow dealing with them in a more simple or straightforward manner.¸ This quality is already present in Beginners. As characters scuttle around the point, making long-winded stabs at meaning, they appear more straightforward, more fallible even (interestingly, Lish replaces the commonplace ‘everyday love’ with the polished ‘day-to-day caring’, the familiar ‘sexual love’ with the formal ‘physical love’).

          In his essay ‘Fiction of Occurrence and Consequence’ Carver gives an account of judging a writing competition: he based his criteria for good writing, he says, not on novelty of idea, plot or character, but on “how deep a level of feeling and insight the writer was operating.¸ Without the austerity and control of the edit, the stories of Beginners are more moving. In place of a slice of life, we get the whole weight of a world behind a character. In ‘A Small Good Thing’ a young boy, Scotty, gets hit by a car on his birthday: his parents wait with him at hospital and intermittently receive hostile phone messages left by a baker from whom they’ve failed to pick up a birthday cake. The ending is incredibly touching, as the parents confront the baker and we learn his backstory. ‘The Bath’, a severely curtailed version of the story, precludes the final reconciliation, leaving the reader cold and confused: in this instance Lish cuts too close to the bone.

          Was Lish’s relationship with Carver collaborative or appropriative? The answer depends on how one considers the editorial role. Historically editors wielded considerable control –look at what Pound did to Elliot’s The Wasteland, Charles Monteith to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Today, however, an editor’s input is very different. How useful is it to insist that works of literature are produced by individual geniuses working alone? Can we really speak about a true original form? In assembling Beginners, Stull and Caroll have transcribed Carver’s typewritten words that lay below Lish’s inked edits: isn’t this another form of alteration, given the absence of the author’s permission?

          On the one hand Lish’s influence does seem constrictive. Reading What We talk About When We Talk About Love alongside Beginners one can feel the suppression of an emergent gentler voice. In the words of John Steinbeck, Lish seemed reluctant to “just let the stories crawl in by themselves.¸ But it is inaccurate to say Lish created the Carveresque. The pithy sentences are quite clearly present in the original – take the brilliant opening lines that are Carver’s own: “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of the house¸ and “That morning she pours Teacher’s scotch over my belly and licks it off.¸ Lish saw something stark in Carver and amplified it. What makes Beginners the richer text is its capacity to hold two quite different modes of expression in tandem –bald statement and mellifluous prose. Speaking about the mark of great writing, Coetzee once said: “it is the feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has not been said before.¸ In Beginners Carver begins to break his minimalist mould


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