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.