Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing

I read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love when I was at school, many years ago, and it made a strong impression on me. His writing had that special ‘something’, observations of people going about their lives, heavy with implication. These written snapshots always felt like literary street photography. Carver’s vignettes of ordinary people, struggling against the odds, are perfectly chosen moments that express a point, something akin to Henri Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. They encapsulate a critical moment for the characters — a captured ‘memory’. They leave behind not just a ‘story’, as it were, but an artefact of that ‘memory’.

Although his short stories are works of fiction, they have a prose poetry quality, and feel like slice of real-life documentary. Carver’s ‘decisive moments’ encapsulate the characters’ hidden emotions, fears, and prejudices — life’s small injustices. Joy is marred by impending melancholy; the characters themselves overshadowed by circumstances beyond their control. Stuff happens. And we, the reader, observe. We make sense. Chandler leaves the judgement to us. His stories are riddled with characters facing prejudice, and the weight of social expectation. Their sadness lies in our painful awareness of the bigger picture — life will swallow them up and spit them out. But, importantly, it never feels sentimental. He describes a working-class world of struggle and hardship, written at a time when America was at its peak. But — evidently — the ‘American dream’ hadn’t reached these people.

It was only fairly recently that I bought Beginners, the publication of Carver’s original and unedited version of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. I was intrigued. What did his manuscripts look like before Gordon Lish, his editor, got hold of them? Part of me was expecting to have my assumptions confirmed: editors clean up manuscripts, they alter the tone, polishing over the rawness, making a writer’s work more accessible, coherent — mainstream.

The edited version of Carver’s work does reveal the talent of Gordon Lish. While Carvers stories are intimate and delightful, I wonder if they would have made as much of an impact and resonated as ‘instant classics’ had they been published without Lish? It’s surprising that some of the most Carver-esque traits of Carver’s work originate from Lish, including the weirdly meaningless — but catchy — title, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. Lish not only cut and re-wrote phrases — as one might expect — but he even went as far as writing complete, original, sentences of his own. If that had happened to a commercial crime author no one would blink, but for that to happen to a master of short fiction, that’s something else.

Or is it?

Carver was a writer, and a teacher. He was used to the idea of giving and receiving criticism, learning, and improving his work. He knew that, contrary to belief, it didn’t just happen. It had to be worked at. Earned. He certainly worked at it. And he certainly earned it. He was used to this process of as part of a writer’s creative development: surrendering to the wider creative progress, which includes: editors, and creative writing classes. Part of his greatness, in a weirdly Duchampain way, was that he understood that the writer had to open himself or herself to external factors, like his or her editor playing a crucial role.

The things I never understood about Carver’s work make sense now. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, an overly ornate title for a humble craftsman like Carver, comes from Lish. Carver’s own title Beginners makes so much more sense, in every way. But is it impactful?

Carver gives his characters a lot more space to be themselves, but much of this is exercised by Lish. The flowing sentences of one paragraph can lead on another with the staccato abruptness (Lish’s editing). Was Lish overzealous? That’s debatable, but he certainly made Carver’s work memorable.

Lish turned Carver’s raw talent — Carver’s manuscript Beginners — into a defined, packaged product: a published book. His editing helped to sell it as the work of a fresh, new, ‘minimalist writer’, using a paradoxically Baroque, and enigmatic, title of his own invention: What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.