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?