When editing, the line between improving and erasing authorial voice can be thin. An editor may find themselves curling their lip at an author’s prose, wanting to delete and start the manuscript over. The editor must set at least some of these feelings aside, remembering that they are there to improve, not to completely transform a work. As much as the editor may feel as though they are pulling teeth, the author must still be present in their work.
Failure to do this results in situations like the curious case of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. This is one of the most famous and most controversial author-editor relationships, with Lish often being viewed as having taken Carver’s core ideas for a story and simply rewritten them as he wanted them to be. To the betterment of the work, some may argue. Never is this more apparent than in the (in some ways positive) editorial hijacking of Carver’s Beginners, which was published as Lish’s (masquerading as Carver) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
When viewing Carver’s original Beginners (published in the New Yorker, 2007), a reader can see Lish successfully trimmed Carver’s elongated prose into something sharper and more impactful by deleting extraneous details. For example, Terri’s overdetermined backstory is scrapped, allowing for more natural character development throughout the story. Carver had a tendency to overdetermine basic details, such as ‘leaned on the back legs of his chair’ versus Lish’s ‘tilted his chair back’. These lengthy explanations robbed the prose of mystery and blunted the reader’s interest, as no real effort was required by the reader to engage with plot or characters.
This is exacerbated by Carver’s occasionally cumbersome style that disrupted the rhythm of the prose, such as the opening of ‘My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking’ altered to become ‘My friend Mel was talking’. Furthermore, Lish’s deletion of character moments such as the ‘vassal’ conversation erased discrepancies in characterisation, creating solider, more relatable presences in the narrative. Lish’s alterations to the meandering prose rhythm to something more staccato succeeded in making the story more literary, but sacrifices Carver’s voice in the process.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, for better or worse,is a case study in an editor overstepping intellectual boundaries and ostensibly hijacking an author’s work. This is seen through unnecessary alterations littered throughout the edited work, such as Carver’s ‘Well Nick and I are in love’ versus Lish’s ‘Well Nick and I know what love is’. In this example, Lish has changed Laura’s characterisation, detracting from Carver’s core vision of the story and inserting his own narrative into the work. The hijacking is perhaps most apparent in Lish changing ‘Herb’ to ‘Mel’, and changing this pivotal character into a more hyper-masculine individual that reflected what was trendy at the time of publication.
In his edits, Lish seems intent on muzzling the raw emotion coming from the characters. This rids the story of its soap-opera like quality, which cannot be emphatically labelled a good or a bad thing. Many critics argue the jettisoning of the highly dramatic final three pages of Beginners was a blessing for the story, but others argue that it erased the self-aware and ponderous nature of the work. The changes made all served to change the meandering and near nihilistic tone of Beginners, with the deletion of Carver’s writing style transforming the piece into a sharp Gordon Lish work. Even though there was successful streamlining in the edits, the lines of the creative process were crossed and it seemed as though the author lost control of his story.
The editor is present in the creation of a piece of writing to help streamline a piece and occasionally reign in the author. It is vital that they remember that the author’s voice must be preserved, or risk the author feeling as though they were robbed of their creative property. As Carver said in regard to Lish’s edits to the Paris Review after the publication of Cathedral, “In a review of the last book, somebody called me a minimalist writer. The reviewer meant it as a compliment. But I didn’t like it.”
Michaela Harden – publishing intern