Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Raymond Carver’s “Beginners”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, add your thoughts in the comments.

When I started reading Raymond Carver’s short stories I was startled to come across similar stories in different collections of his. I say “similar” because they had the same base, but the stories were so different that they inhabited different worlds – maybe characters had the same names (or not), but the way their histories and actions were fleshed out was so different that the stories didn’t always feel like they had the same author.

So this week I’m going off a little different with the stories feature. There’s a story to read, Carver’s “Beginners”, but there’s also a version of the story showing the edits of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish. The story as edited by Lish became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The New Yorker shows the original draft of the story with Lish’s edits sort of superimposed over it – so it’s not the easiest of reads, but it gives you a sense of how arbitrary some of the changes to the story are (changing characters’ names) and also of how harsh Lish’s edits were. In “Beginners” the characters are talking about love and hate and the sort of middle ground between, with Herb McGinnis telling a story about an old couple who were in a car crash and spent weeks in intensive care, unable to see each other. At last the couple are reunited. This story is the focal point of “Beginners”, the part of the story around which everything else circles and begins to come into focus. Lish cut huge swathes of McGinnis’s story, changing even basic details like the arrangement of the couple’s room(s).

I prefer the first version of the story, “Beginners” as it existed before it saw Lish’s knife. I feel the same way about another of Carver’s stories, “A Small Good Thing”, the one that helped me understand just how unforgiving Lish’s edits were.

When I first read the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I was enthralled by the style, by the spareness of it. Now, knowing how much of that came from Lish, I’m not sure what I think of it. Lish created something extraordinary in those stories, but I think they should be read, too, as they were before Lish got to them. Whichever version of the stories you prefer, it’s interesting to get this glimpse of the editing process, and of what a powerful editor can do (in ways good and bad) to a writer’s work.

Which version of the story do you prefer?

Read “Beginners”

Read “Beginners” with Lish’s edits

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I love Carver! He’s been one of my favourites for years and years. I think I’ll just read the first version, because Lish sounds heavy-handed, which to me is not necessarily the sign of a good editor. I don’t want Lish’s voice, I want Carver’s.

So, really, I agree with you.

Comment by Steph

Okay, wait. I was looking at some of the edits and I do agree with Lish on many of them, except when he actually did some of the writing, like adding that second sentence(I preferred Carver’s version.) But then it’s kind of as though he created Carver’s voice. :(

Comment by Steph

yeah, that’s what i find weird/upsetting about it – that the carver stories i first fell in love with were lish’s voice as much as they were carver’s. i don’t like knowing the extent to which an editor can “create” an author’s voice. still, it is pretty cool to be able to compare the stories before & after lish.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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