Saturday, December 29, 2007

The New Yorker: "Beginners" by Raymond Carver

In addition to the story “Beginners” by Raymond Carver, which is a restoration of his original version of the famous story that was published under the title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the Winter Fiction issue of The New Yorker also includes an article about Carver’s relationship with editor Gordon Lish. That Lish edited Carver almost beyond recognition has been known for some time. It is going to be interesting to see the original stories emerge, as Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, is determined to publish them.

What I find most chilling about this is the timing of it all. Carver’s career began to really move when Lish, as fiction editor of Esquire, accepted a Carver story in 1971. That was the year I graduated from high school and began college. I believe I knew of the magazine, but had certainly not heard of Lish or Carver. Carver’s first collection was published in 1977. For not knowing this, I have an excuse. I don’t know anything that happened in 1976 or 1977 because I was living in the Korean countryside in the Peace Corps. But I did come back in 1978, so you’d think . . . His next collection came out in 1981, and this is the one that Lish had so much affect on. (My excuse this time – I was in Law School, too busy to worry about fiction.) His next collection came out in 1983, just as I was about to move overseas again. I don’t remember this either. He wrote his last story in 1987 and died in 1988, before I moved back to the U.S. Basically, what I’m saying, is that I missed Ramond Carver’s entire career and didn’t read him until just a few years ago, which is why I find this whole discussion about his relationship with Lish fascinating.

I read Lish’s edited version of the story about 5 years ago, in my MFA program. So it is amazing to see Carver’s original version here and to see the line-by-line edit here.

And now for the story itself: "Beginners". It’s a great story about four people sitting around drinking, talking about love and how they all got to where they are right now. The dialogue is what makes it a killer story as the four of them, especially Herb, get drunker and looser. Herb tells the story of an old couple seriously injured in an accident. The story goes on and on and gets interrupted, and then it ends, although he’s forced to give the story a happy ending and the reader isn’t wholly convinced he’s telling the truth. And then he comes back to talking about his ex-wife.

In the Lish version, that’s where the story ends, with Herb heading off to take a shower. In the original, we get a couple more pages: after Herb leaves to take his shower, his wife Terri talks about how he’s been suicidal, and she breaks down and cries, which makes the narrator think.

I hope others will offer their opinions here, but I think the Lish version is stronger. It’s definitely tighter, but ending where it does also leaves the focus on Herb, which is where it belongs, instead of shifting onto Terri, or even back to the narrator. So, Carver fans, what do you think?

December 24 & 31, 2007: “Beginners” by Raymond Carver


Anonymous said...

I was fascinated by the Carver-Lish letters in The New Yorker and by "Beginners." I pulled out my old copy of "What We Talk About" and compared the two. I think the Lish version is definitely stronger. "Beginners" has some empty verbiage and repetitions, which any sharp editor would have taken out. But even Lish's more aggressive changes work 90 percent of the time for me. He seems to have had an instinct for what gesture or bit of dialogue would suggest much more and linger in the mind. And I think he was right to end the story where he did. What comes after, in the original version, not only doesn't add but diminishes the impact of what's gone before.

But I was relieved to find that after comparing the two I could also say, strongly, that Lish in no way "wrote" these pieces. The characters, situation, dialogue, essential details, the mood--they are all Carver's. Carver, at least in this story, was a little sloppy and apparently didn't know when to stop. He was lucky enough to have a Lish to cure those ills. But Lish was an editor, period, if a (fortunately) meddlesome one.


Clifford Garstang said...

I agree completely, Pamela.

Friend said...

You're too into yourself when you write. Stick to the facts.

Clifford Garstang said...

Why would I want to do that?

kenneth mann said...

I agree that the longer version is weaker. It left me wondering if Herb would emerge alive from the shower. That thought undermines the power of the narrative up to that point.