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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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Beginners   (Page 1 of 3)

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.

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