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Likely Stories

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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Friday, October 19, 2007 10:29 am
Welcome to Literary Feud!
Posted by: Keir Graff

So apparently, the short-story collection that made Raymond Carver’s reputation, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981), wasn’t really what he had in mind. I should say “allegedly.” Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher (Dear Ghosts, 2006), wants to publish a retitled version (Beginners) that reverses many of the reputedly heavy edits performed by Gordon Lish.

Lish himself has cast doubt over the status of the “original documents”, and his successor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, told the New York Times he was “appalled” at the idea. “I would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground,” he said. “I don’t understand what Tess’s interest in doing this is except to rewrite history.”

Yes, that sound is me rubbing my hands together, eagerly anticipating more acrimony. It’s a heck of a story and raises a lot of questions. Even though Carver did plead with Lish not to publish the edited version, was he unhappy when the resulting book made him famous? And would he now want Gallagher to bring an earlier version to light? How authentic is the manuscript? And if it stinks, will Carver’s fans be forced to revise their opinions of him?

I also always love learning about books that were heavily influenced by editors. I believe that it happens a lot less often nowadays–cost-cutting and so forth–but it’s a great reminder that writing, like all art forms, is still a collaborative medium.



6 Responses to “Welcome to Literary Feud!”
  1. Pete Says:

    I’ve heard that editors at the big publishing houses these days don’t do nearly as much editing as they used to (and are instead more focused on marketing and promotion), with the responsibility for editing increasingly falling to the agents. Thus, by the time a manuscript reaches the editor’s desk it’s in much more finished form than in the old days. But I’m sure there are still a few old-school Lishes around.

  2. Frank Says:

    I just finished reading a book that was ok, but could have been quite good with the help of a skilled editor.

    Also recently reviewed several anthologies of newly commissioned short stories and the quality was uneven. It underscores a problem with commissioning new stuff around a theme: If one of the targeted writers submits a dog of a story it takes a hardy editor to reject the piece for publication and send it back for heavy revision–especially when it’s clear the editor is friends with or at least on quite friendly terms with many of the writers.

    It’s a tough one, but by just throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to avoid an uncomfortable conversation (or perhaps out of laziness or even an inability to recognize what’s quality and what isn’t) does a real disservice to readers.

    I don’t think we’ll see much improvement anytime soon, though, because you’d have a lot of pissed off writers howling when their tossed-off contributions to the high-concept story collection of the month were tossed out. (And I’m not only thinking here of writers with the initials J.S., but he’s indicative of the problem.)

  3. Keir Says:

    I was recently asked to contribute a short story to a magazine after one of the originally commissioned pieces was judged to be unsatisfactory. So maybe some pieces are beyond editorial help.

    I’m guessing that there are a lot of editors who’d like to edit more meaningfully but who don’t have the time. Even though book publishers have always lost money on most of their books, as the industry has transitioned from a gentleman’s (and gentlewoman’s) pastime to a wholly owned corporate subsidiary, I’m sure it’s increasingly harder to justify the man-hours (and woman-hours) necessary to do things that are intangible to the stockholders, like making the writing better.

    My biggest fear is that the people who are just starting out in publishing won’t know anything different–and it’s striking how young are the editors and agents that I meet these days….

  4. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Did I mention that her last name is Seinfeld? Says:

    [...] This spat isn’t nearly as exciting as some, but I feel compelled to mention it anyway: Oprah Winfrey plugs Jerry Seinfeld’s wife Jessica’s cookbook. Missy Chase Lapine says she wrote it first. From USA Today (”Cookbook author says Seinfeld book ‘Deceptively’ similar,” by Deirdre Donahue): Moreover, she adds, “I’m concerned and troubled that Oprah credited and applauded someone else for a technique that was out there six months earlier.” [...]

  5. Book Blog - Likely Stories, by Keir Graff - Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Editing Examind Says:

    [...] Gordon Lish may have been a ruthless editor, but he was also a ruthless writer, according to Gerald Howard: the man who took an axe to Raymond Carver’s prose allowed no whittling of his own. At least, that’s what would have happened had Howard tried. From Slate (”I Was Gordon Lish’s Editor“): However, I can tell you this with complete certainty: Had I had any bright editorial ideas, Lish would have summarily rejected them. His control-freak obsessiveness redoubled itself when it came to his own work…He wanted what he wanted, and that was that. He was a living no-editing zone. Except, of course, when it came to his author’s work; then out came the pick and the shovel and the scalpel and the drill. [...]

  6. Book Blog – Likely Stories, from Booklist Online » Blog Archive » Okri v. Robertson, Rounds 1 & 2 Says:

    [...] a feud, it needs work—it certainly has a long way to go before assuming the proportions of Lish v. Carver, but there is potential here, provided Robertson recognizes his responsibility to keep things [...]

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