Monday, September 14, 2009

Raymond Carver's "Collected Stories" and Mining the Dead

I've already blogged about what I think of the publishing tradition of re-visiting the old work of dead authors - in short, I think the original work stands on its own and while I don't necessarily think that mining the vein of a dead author's work is ghoulish, I think it's in bad taste. Unless it's done well. Or I'm a fan. Like Hemingway. But now there's a new edition of Raymond Carver's "Collected Stories" and I'm no so sure we're better off:
Now, for the first time, a single volume—"Raymond Carver: Collected Stories"—offers readers the chance to compare the "canonical" Lish-edited versions with some of Mr. Carver's ­manuscript originals. Even a glance tells how drastic the changes were. In ­addition to paring ­adjectives and adverbs, phrases and sentences, Mr. Lish deleted exposition, altered endings, and changed characters' names—as well as almost every story's ­title.

The notes to this collection, contributed by editors William Stull and Maureen Carroll, have the precision of a formal indictment. "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit": "Cut by 78%." "The Bath": "Cut by 78%." "So Much Water So Close To Home": "Cut by 70%." Such evisceration might seem a travesty, but if anyone had the right to take a firm hand with Mr. Carver's work it was Mr. Lish. As ­Esquire magazine's fiction ­editor in the 1970s, he had ­cultivated the writer and ­carried him over countless rough patches. Mr. Lish had also thoroughly overhauled the stories in Mr. Carver's first ­collection, "Would You Please Be Quiet, Please?" (1976), which was nominated for a ­National Book Award.

I used to be a big fan of Carver's - I guess I still am, though I haven't read him in years - but I gradually moved away from his dreary world. I came to admire more his personal story - his overcoming his alcoholism to find late literary success only to tragically succumb to cancer - and his poetry more so than his stories. But I think restoring his early work to what more closely resembles his originals doesn't improve his art; though Gordon Lish may be responsible for a great deal of Carver's success, ultimately, it was Carver who agreed to the cuts so the published work is his own. If he had wanted these versions of his stories to be out there, he would have made sure they were published while he was alive.

Still, it seems that Carver's style was continuing to evolve so I may be entirely wrong:
Mr. Carver gradually broke with Mr. Lish in the early 1980s, after the appearance of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and the sense of liberation is apparent in his final collection of stories, "Cathedral" (1984). The diction remains as workaday as ever, but there is a thickness of ­description that is at first ­jarring. Whole passages take an inventory of every object in a room—an unthinkable digression in his earlier published work. Mr. Carver's prose loses its chilly edge here. But it is an appealing development, as is the newfound sense of generosity and even humor on display.

One measure of Mr. Carver's achievement is that, before his career was lamentably cut short, he found a more mature sensibility than the minimalist posturing that Mr. Lish had ­imposed on his work. Mr. Carver feared that following the publication of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" he might be too embarrassed to write again. If he had stopped, and we were deprived of "Cathedral," we would think of Raymond Carver quite differently today.

I'm not the person I was who discovered and loved Carver in the late 1980's so I'm not sure how I'd like this new collection. I just think it's too early to revisit this work and have it "restored."

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