Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Editors and the Best Issue of The New Yorker Ever

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.


  1. Just got back from Border's where I dumped a wad of cash in someone's hand for the new Library of America Carver Collected Stories that includes all of his original manuscripts for Beginners.

  2. Just discovered your blog and look forward to reading more! I write fiction on NoahMatthews. I'd love your opinion. It amazes me how many of my friends don't read. Blows my mind, actually. Anyway, like I said, I am looking forward to reading your posts.

  3. I remember that particular New Yorker issue, and the Carver-Lish editing relationship is really quite an amazing thing to assess. A good editor is everything from a cheerleader to a seer who can see through your prose tangles to your central, gleaming argument. But--and there is a but--Lish probably went too far with Carver, even if he did make some of those stories masterpieces. It's one of the reasons I've stayed away from editing fiction in a professional capacity.

    I've worked as an editor for a long time and been on the other side of the equation as a writer, and I know how easy it is to edit too much. It's not even so much about fixing the words, the line-editing part; it's about overstepping in a way that takes the spark out of a writer's ideas. To encourage those ideas is the real goal, I think, and I believe I'm able to strike the right balance as a teacher.

    Thanks for sharing this, David, it's really a fascinating question, how much editing is the right amount of editing. But of course, for those of us who write for magazines and newspapers: Gotta love your editor! The first of our Talking Writing bumper stickers...

  4. Also: Check out the latest post on Paper Cuts, the NY Times blog on books: "Gordon Lish, Dust Brother." (

    Some great lines in there about how the whole thing may help uninitiated readers understand what editors really do (and it's not just fixing commas).

  5. Yes, David. And it was one of the most meaningful Christmas presents I've ever received. I've pored over Gordon Lish's edits a million times since receiving that issue, sometimes shaking my head and screaming at Lish, "Why did you change that sentence?" and other times wanting to reach out and hug him for his brilliance.

    I agree with Martha, though. Sometimes it's very tough as an editor to know when to draw the line--when to keep yourself from rewriting too much so that the work becomes more yours than the author's. An editor must respect both the author and the piece for just what it is, and not try to make it something it shouldn't be--something that dashes the author's authenticity. A good editor respects the fact that the gifts one is given are unique to that person. If the author is writing from the heart, from the center of those gifts (and a good editor will recognize when that's the case), then the editor should tread very very carefully.

    I, too, feel that Lish overstepped many times. However, I also believe he genuinely wanted to guide Raymond Carver into becoming the brilliant author he knew Carver could be. I believe Lish's heart, too, was in the right place.

    For the writer, it's difficult to work hard on a story, send it to an editor, then get it back red-lined to hell and back. I'm certain, at least according to Lish and Carver's correspondence, that Carver felt his stories were no longer his own after Lish got through with them. This is tragic, yet, where would the lit world be without the final results of Lish's efforts? In this case, perhaps the end justified the means.

  6. The excerpts from Carver's letters to Lish are really the great treasure from that New Yorker. Just google "Carver correspondence New Yorker"


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