“She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”
-Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, “Why Don’t You Dance?”
Raymond Carver’s collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is full of skillful, mesmerizing minimalism. Carver conveys complicated relationships and human emotions with very few words, but each of the short stories haunts you long after you finish them. I had assumed that Carver’s spare style was his and his alone, but after reading this article on The New York Review of Books, I found out that Carver also had a fiercely dedicated editor, Gordon Lish, who helped him hone that beautiful, minimalist style he’s known for.
In the article, Giles Harvey references Lish’s extreme edits on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:
[Carver’s] manuscript had been radically transformed. Lish had cut the total length of the book by over 50 percent; three stories were at least 70 percent shorter; ten stories had new titles and the endings of fourteen had been rewritten.
You can check out some of Lish’s edits in an earlier draft of the title story on The New Yorker website, excerpted from Beginners, the pre-Lish version of What We Talk About When We Talk about Love which Carver’s widow published in 2009. Lish’s edits remove the “flashback” element of Mel/Herb’s story about the older couple in the car accident; instead, he refocuses the story on the present, which makes it more immediate. You can see how Lish focused on drawing deeper contrasts between the voices of each of the characters by swapping dialogue at times and having Mel/Herb swear more. What struck me the most, though, was how Lish eliminated a huge part of the falling action, and Carver replaced it with a much shorter, open-ended line.
Harvey describes a similar pattern of editing the ending in the final story, “One More Thing”:
The two versions of “One More Thing,” the final story in both Beginners and What We Talk About, reveal Lish’s editing at its most drastic and inspired. Maxine, the beleaguered wife of L.D., an alcoholic, returns home from work one evening to find him embroiled in an argument with their teenage daughter. After several volleys of abuse are exchanged, Maxine orders him to leave: “Tonight. This minute. Now.” L.D. bundles some things together—including the only tube of toothpaste in the house—and then prepares to say goodbye. Here is the ending Carver initially wrote:
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.
“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.
It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.
“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”
“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.
Like his protagonist, Carver doesn’t quite seem to know how to make an exit: his prose flails and stammers in its effort to wring as much excitement from the scene as possible (“It came to him with a shock,” “He was terrified to think”), before petrifying into the mawkish tableau of the final sentence. It all seems rather un-Carveresque.
Here is the Lish version:
L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.
He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”
But then he could not think what it could possibly be.
Compared to this, the original climax has the weightless intensity of a soap opera (“Is this what love is, L.D.?”), in which people broadcast their emotions to one another in stentorian italics. Carver had deployed an entire arsenal where in fact, as Lish shows, a well-placed sniper is all that is needed. It is not only both funny and poignant that L.D. should find himself at a loss for words at such an instant. It also feels inevitable.
Ultimately, Carver “broke up” with his Lish and continued writing in a less minimalistic style. During this time, he wrote several stories that were well-loved and highly-acclaimed– like “Cathedral, for example– but he continues to be most well-known for What We Talk About.
I learned a lot from Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver. There are the technical lessons– avoid flashbacks, create distinct voices, spend time on endings– but, more importantly, the larger life lesson about accepting critiques and edits with an open mind. When people suggest that I should make major changes to my stories, my first instinct is to try and explain why I did something a certain way. Instead, I’m going to try to make it my first instinct to listen.