By David Biddle for Talking Writing
The December 24, 2007 New Yorker is the best “writer’s edition” of that magazine I’ve ever received in the mail. It offered up the following: fiction by Junot Diaz, Lore Segal, Anne Enright, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Raymond Carver; an essay called “The Science of Reading and its Decline;” a weird little SketchBook by Edward Sorel called “Five Writer’s In Search of Utopia;” a superb and lengthy John Lahr profile of Harold Pinter; a book review by James Woods of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year; a photo book review by the one-and-only Sir John Updike; and two poems by Grace Paley of all people.
Yes, I know – OMG! I was so impressed I bought a copy at Borders and gave it to my good friend Paula as a birthday present.
The most amazing offering in that magazine, though, is the absolutely stunning (to me anyway) bombshell The New Yorker drops on us in “Life and Letters” revealing that editor Gordon Lish is largely responsible for editing Carver’s fiction into the minimalist Kmart realism that has shaped much of America’s fiction for the past 30 years or so. Lish chopped, cut, and even rewrote with abandon, winnowing many of Carver’s most beloved stories down to the skeletons that made him so famous.
After unveiling the true nature of this relationship, letters from Carver to Lish are printed. Spanning from 1969 to 1983, this correspondence is frighteningly honest and heartbreaking. Carver struggled as much with the editing of his work as he did with booze, cigarettes and depression.
Next, the magazine provides us with a full-page photo of Lish’s edit of the last page of B.” Lish has cut 22 of 26 lines and added five of his own.
The magazine goes one better than this. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, gave permission to The New Yorker to publish the original version of Carver’s final draft of the story “Beginners.” Reading Carver's original and then reading what it became, “What Wee Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is a freaky experience, but also worthy of any writer’s time. Lish cut the story by 40-percent.
I recommend reading the two manuscripts side-by-side and physically marking up Carver’s original based on what Lish did to it. You get a visceral sense of both points of view – the writer’s and the editor’s – all in one. If you’re like me, you will never forget this experience.
All of which, of course, brings up the power of good editors -- and the blessing they are to writers everywhere. It also brings up the question of how much credit a writer should take when his or her editor essentially turns work into something profoundly better than what the writer came up with. Or maybe a better way to look at this is that we need to appreciate the humility good editors possess.
Lish and Carver may provide an extreme (and kind of eerie) example, but I’ve found that many of my projects come out so much better once they’ve been treated by a good editor. I trust them implicitly and explicitly. In fact, while some people look forward to the day they sign their first six-figure advance, I look forward to the day I have an editor so good they earn a six-figure salary.
Needless to say, I look forward to my Tuesday mail every week in hopes that The New Yorker will try to duplicate that December 2007 edition. So far they haven't...
Go here and then to the bottom of the page to see the cover of December 24, 2007 New Yorker; if you're a subscriber, they'll let you have access to the whole edition
For the very latest on the Carver-Lish situation check out the blog entry by Jeff Simon of The Buffalo News here.
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