What a Carve-Up!


The great man of American letters and “blue-collar laureate” Raymond Carver is one of my favourite writers. The fact that a new book of his is – posthumously of course – being published in two weeks’ time, grabs my attention. It’s called Beginners and is in fact the original draft of what became his 1981 short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – the scoop being, his editor Gordon Lish cut and changed the work so much, the substantial edit itself has become a chattering point. This story ran exclusively in the New Yorker two years ago, with the original and the published versions of his stories going public for the first time*. Now it’s a book you can buy. Anyway, Carver was covered twice, at great length, in two broadsheets this weekend.

In the Times on Saturday, Toby Litt began his piece:

On July 8, 1980, at 8am, Raymond Carver began a letter to Gordon Lish, his editor. Carver, at that moment, was far from the revered literary figure that he would be at the time of his death, eight years later. He had published several books of poetry and one of short stories. At best, he was a respected figure within limited circles …”

In the Observer on Sunday, Gaby Wood began her piece:

At 8am on 8 July 1980, Raymond Carver sat down to write a letter to his editor, Gordon Lish. He’d been up all night worrying about the book they were working on together, and by the time Carver had finished writing there were more words in the letter than there were in many of the short stories for which he was known. ‘Dearest Gordon,’ it began … “

I find it fascinating that in both, lengthy pieces (both excellent, by the way – go for Litt’s if you want closer analysis of the “saintly” Carver from an academic perspective – he teaches at Birkbeck – and Wood’s if you want an interview with Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher) the writers began with exactly the same conceit, and exactly the same sentence. I wonder, if you’d sat me down with the same material in isolation, I’d have done the same. Actually, no, I would have started with, “Raymond Carver is one of the only authors I can quote, from memory … blah, blah, blah, me, me, me … “

*Incidentally, the New Yorker piece, from 2007, began:

On the morning of July 8, 1980, Raymond Carver wrote an impassioned letter to Gordon Lish, his friend and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, begging his forgiveness but insisting that Lish ‘stop production’ of Carver’s forthcoming collection of stories … “

Maybe sometimes, there really is only one way to start a story. Although I suspect Gordon Lish would have had a few suggestions.



12 thoughts on “What a Carve-Up!

  1. I love Raymond Carver. I gasp now to remember my chutzpah in going to his memorial service in London after he died. Thanks for pointing this new publication out as I'd missed the reviews at the weekend.

  2. I won't be reading Beginners. My skin crawls at the very thought: some things are better left unseen. The New Yorker piece has the compared endings of the last story in the collection, 'One More Thing', which is the ending that always summed up Carver's brilliance for me. In the story, L.D. and Maxine have had a relationship-busting argument and he's about to leave her:L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.He said, 'I just want to say one more thing.'But then he could not think what it could possibly be.Brilliant! Perfect! But it turns out that that was all Lish's work, and that in Carver's original, the one more thing that L.D. wanted to say was, "I love you" (four times). Maxine replies, "You call this love, L.D.?" And the story ends like this:It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn't place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.'Maxine!' he cried. 'Maxine!' 'Is this what love is, L. D.?' she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.Ow and oh dear. Tess Gallagher, what have you done?

  3. I don't know where the Daily Mail is on the comedy topic charts at the moment but I was interested that an article expressing (other people's) outrage at the decision by Tate Modern to display a naked picture of Brooke Shields included….an almost-naked picture of Brooke Shields. But it's okay because she's 14 in that one and her breasts are covered by her hair.I'm completely shocked by the double standards regarding Polanski in some quarters, I hope you'll pick it up in the next pod. I imagine if he had been a catholic priest the reaction of the 'free Polanski' people would have been very different. My boycott list has just ballooned from one (Woody Allen) to many.

  4. I'm also a subscriber to 'The New Yorker', Andrew – best magazine in the world, etc – and it amazes me how often articles in it become the "inspiration" for articles in UK newspapers and magazines. It's as if some British writers are prepared to take the view that since the British readership of 'The New Yorker' is, I would guess, pretty small, and probably disproportionately composed of fellow writers, no-one will care too much.I have a vivid memory of one record review (not by you, I should make clear) in a magazine to which you contribute, which came perilously close to being an 'hommage'. For want of a better word.David

  5. Nice piece- I often wonder as well how much writers sub consciously quote each other. As in read a phrase somewhere else and then forget it and invent it the next day- perhaps some of that is going on with this New Yorker piece.

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