What We Edit When We Edit Raymond Carver

Last week sometime, I was reading an article on The Guardian: Less Said the Better, which is about the fact that Raymond Carver’s widow is pushing to have Carver’s original, unedited short stories published. To paraphrase, the article’s writer argues that the stories as Carver wrote them weren’t that good, but after they were drastically cut by an editor, they became sparkling, brilliant gems of minimalist fiction. This issue has gotten a lot of attention (a quick Google search unearths quite a bit on the subject), and I don’t know how much I have to add, really. I’m interested in the subject because I’ve been a Carver fan since I first cracked open a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and was blown away by what I read. I was blown away precisely because the stories demonstrated an acute intelligence about human behavior and relationships and were able to pack so much grief, anger, pain, loss, disappointment and regret into so few words. The genius of them was that they contained nothing that was extraneous — they said only what needed to be said and nothing more — and they trusted the reader to get it without any hand-holding or explanation. They hit hard, and they’re amazing. (I really should re-read them.)

So I was a little disappointed when I found out that this was not the way the stories were intended. I wouldn’t go so far as James Lasdun (the writer of the Guardian piece) and say that the originals aren’t very good. I mean, Raymond Carver was still a gifted writer, and it’s not even a revelation to say so. But by saying more, explaining more, filling in more of the gaps, they lose a lot of their punch, which is unfortunate. It makes me think about writing and editing and how well we know our own work.

I’ve written a lot and I’ve been edited a lot. Sometimes I don’t mind it, sometimes I’m grateful for it, and sometimes it’s absolutely painful. I have agreed with edits of my writing and I have also gone to battle over something as seemingly insignificant as changing a single word in a sentence. It really all depends on how much I feel about what I’ve written and the style of the editor, but I’ve come to learn that the best editing is the invisible kind. Edit the hell out of my writing — go ahead, I do — but leave what I write alone. Leave me in there, but make me sound better.

But what if the writer is wrong and the editor is right? And can the editor be right if the writer disagrees? If the writer no longer sees his work in the edits? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it’s a sticky issue, but it’s one that’s interesting to think about. I believe in editing. I believe in the importance of editing my own writing, and I believe in the importance of having other people read things I write with critical eyes (I tell people to rip things I write to shreds, though they have to be people whose vision I trust, and people who I have the kind of relationship with that if I disagree with them I am free to tell them to take their edits and go to hell without any hard feelings).

At what point does a piece of writing stop belonging to the writer?

9 Responses

  1. Eliot and PatersonThis
    Eliot and Paterson

    This reminds me of two things.

    Firstly, probably the most major edit job in lit history: Ezra Pound getting his hands on The Waste Land. If anyone has seen the facsimiles of the original manuscript you can see that it’s virtually a co-creation.

    And secondly I’m reminded of something that the Scots poet Don Paterson wrote (I’m paraphrasing because I’ve not got the book to hand) – a writer shouldn’t be afraid to set their writings free, once written you should release them into the wild. This has the added benefit that you don’t have to care about their well-being anymore.

  2. The essence of the matter is:
    The essence of the matter is: when does an editor become a co-writer, as you point out. This is hard to say; Max Perkins editing Thomas Wolfe comes to mind. Does cutting something so drastically that it changes the writing constitute co-authorship? I don’t know.

    I know that Frost was ‘edited’ by academics for ‘proper grammar, which is an abomination. Example:

    “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” became

    “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep” when the English professors got done with it, wrecking the rhythm.

    And what about translations!

  3. Leave Carver’s stories aloneI
    Leave Carver’s stories alone

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to release a writer’s original manuscripts if they are not around to approve it. Editors are a valid and accepted resource for writers, and it was understood that the editor was there to smooth the edges. It wouldn’t be fair to release Carver’s unedited work, because he sent it in knowing the editor would catch sentences that could be better written, or left out. If Carver knew ahead of time that no one would edit his work, he might have taken more time and turned out stories just as well-written as they are now.

    I would welcome a good editor as long as I get final approval. It is one of the luxuries afforded by a major publisher. This doesn’t make me less of a writer. We’ve all read books in which the author says, “I want to thank so & so for their many suggestions, and also Dr. So & So for their patient corrections to my chapter on blah, blah, and I must extend a debt of gratitude to Mrs. So, for her generous reading of my manuscript prior to submission to the publisher, and of course, all the wonderful so & so’s at Faber, So, & Notso for nurturing my vision to fruition . . .”

    The point is, producing a book by oneself is very hard work. In the big leagues, it apparently involves a line up as big as a major baseball club. I know, because the print-on-demand publisher I use doesn’t do anything but print the book. I mean, if I submitted upside down hieroglyphics and a cat’s ass, they would roll out the copies and not think twice.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s all they ever represented, so I knew what the deal was. All I’m saying is, a self-publisher has to be a writer, proofreader, editor, publicist, and even cover-designer if they feel strongly about their book’s appearance.

    Of course, one could always have someone edit their work before sending it to the publisher. Jamelah, you got any spare time?

  4. Bill, my observation over the
    Bill, my observation over the past 20 years or so is that books from major publishers are NOT copy edited. I’ve seen everything from using the wrong name for a character, to material repeated, to wandering sentences, that I just can’t believe there are copy or content editors anymore. (Well, this costs money, and the suits want that money in their pockets.)

    Does anyone know if indy presses do any editing?

    By the way, let me know when you publish the piece with the cat’s ass and hiroglyphics, ok?

    (it’s ok that i misspelled that word, above, and am mangling this sentence, the editor will catch it.)

  5. A doctor has medical
    A doctor has medical assistants taking your blood pressure, temperature, running the x-ray machine, and pricking your finger.
    Take away his staff and you might still have a great doctor who can do all those things on his own, or you might have a hack.

    A producer finds a competent band of musicians with tight chops and helps them shape their sound into a hit record. Some of these bands learn how to produce themselves and become great artists, some of them don’t.

  6. I’m going to avoid any
    I’m going to avoid any pronouncements about whether or not this new Carver volume should be published, but for what it’s worth, I am not interested in reading it. That’s not to say that I object to the book being published — I just think life is too short to read unedited versions of great fiction when there is so much great fiction I haven’t yet even read the edited version of.

    This is the same reason I didn’t care about the unedited Jack Kerouac “On The Road” scrolls that came out a few months ago.

  7. I’d like to go back to being
    I’d like to go back to being my old self, and disagree. To me, the song scribbled on a notepad by John Lennon, the original scroll of Kerouac, the unedited Carver, is intriguing in it’s genuine-icity. I wanna know how the artist’s mind works when doing his work. I think that’s part of the essential that Kerouac had in mind – to know me, know my flaws. Also, here’s a link to Carver: http://www.storyglossia.com/raymondcarver.html.

  8. Editing the EditorsEditing is
    Editing the Editors

    Editing is one of the most important parts of the creative process, it seems to me. Especially when someone writes like Carver. As an artist, I would assume that you want what people see/hear/smell to have the maximum impact. That’s why when it comes down to it, I love having people edit my work (as long as I trust their tastes). Problems only arise when artists think that everything they do is obviously brilliant, so why should it be edited?

    The question of ethics comes in when considering who the editor should be of a deceased author. Did the author have an editor during his life that he implicitly trusted? The best thing an editor can do is try to be faithful to the material and the author’s style and intention as closely as possible. If the work happens to not be very good, you just have to let it not be very good I’m afraid.

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