Sunday, September 27, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Collaboration

I gave my son The Library of America's recently released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories for his eighteenth birthday a few weeks ago. He had discovered Carver's stories this past summer while attending a writing workshop at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and Carver immediately jumped the list to become his favorite writer.

When I was a young man with writerly aspirations of my own, Raymond Carver's stories also made a deep impression--so deep, that I felt moved to write the author a letter about my favorite story from his 1983 collection Cathedral, "A Small, Good Thing." Weeks later, to my astonishment, I received a handwritten reply from Carver, cementing my attachment to him and his work. I've had cause to correspond with many writers over the years, but this letter remains particularly meaningful.*

"A Small, Good Thing" is also my son's favorite Raymond Carver story. As many readers know, it's a longer version of a story called "The Bath" that appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Much has been made of Gordon Lish's strong hand in editing Carver's work on that collection. And questions have arisen about the importance of the edited versions in establishing Carver's reputation. In December 2007, The New Yorker ran the story "Beginners," which was Carver's longer version of the title story, along with an account of his conflicting feelings about Lish's changes and, online, a recreation of Lish's edits. The Library of America edition includes a section, called Beginnners, that presents the original manuscript of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that Carver submitted to Lish.

I've always liked "A Small, Good Thing" better than "The Bath," but I have to give Lish his due for his role in Raymond Carver's development as a writer and some credit for the critical reception What We Talk About When We Talk About Love received. Editors matter, and I'm sure other editors have (perhaps more quietly) played a significant role in a writer's reputation. Collaboration is an important part of the creative process and shouldn't necessarily detract from an artist's success. Here's an analogy I would make: Would the Beatles be the Beatles without producer George Martin? Yes, but Martin undoubtedly made a huge contribution that is impossible to separate from the band's lasting reputation. Would Raymond Carver be Raymond Carver without Gordon Lish? I have little doubt. With or without Lish's contribution, Carver is--and still would have been--a great short story writer. In any event, readers can now compare the different versions and see what they think.

* I'm not sure of the legalities, but maybe if I can sort that out, I'll post a copy of the letter some time.