domingo, 31 de enero de 2016

Raymond Carver / What We Talk About When We Talk About a Great Writer

Raymond Carver by Ruth Guilly
based on a photograph by Bob Adelman

What We Talk About When We Talk About A Great Writer


Raymond Carver was born in Oregon on 25 May 1938. He grew up in Washington State. His father was a sawmill worker and his mother a waitress.
Carver worked with his father in a sawmill in California and then as a deliveryman. He married his first wife—Maryann—and six months later a daughter was born. A son followed.
Carver enrolled at various colleges, where his studies concentrated on creative writing. Aged twenty-two, "The Furious Seasons"—his first published story—appeared in college magazine Selection. "The Brass Ring"—his first published poem—appeared in 1962, in the little magazine Targets.
In his late twenties, Carver filed for bankruptcy. His father died. He also got his first white collar job (textbook editor), his story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" appeared in The Best American Short Stories 1967, and a college press published the poems Near Klamath—his first book.
Carver continued to move around, move jobs, and get stories and poems published. He began to lecture. He went bankrupt again and was hospitalized with acute alcoholism. In his late thirties, the stories Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? appeared—his first major-press book. Carver stopped drinking. He met Tess Gallagher, and he and Maryann separated. The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him a fellowship to write full-time. At forty-nine, doctors diagnosed cancer. They removed part of his left lung, but the cancer recurred. He had brain radiation treatment, but cancer reappeared.
Ray and Tess married in Reno, on Friday 17 June 1988. He died at home, in Washington State, on 2 August.

Clastkanie, Oregon, May 25, 1938
Port Angeles, Washington, August 2, 1988

Raymond Clevie Carver, Jr. was an American  short writer writer and poet. Carver is considered a major American writer of the late 20th century and also a major force in the revitalization of the short story in the 1980s.

Raymond Carver
Poster by T.A.

Early life
Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, a mill town on the Columbia River, and grew up in Yakima, Washington. His father, a skilled sawmill worker from Arkansas, was a fisherman and a heavy drinker. Carver's mother worked on and off as a waitress and a retail clerk. His one brother, James Franklin Carver, was born in 1943.
Carver was educated at local schools in Yakima, Washington. In his spare time he read mostly novels by Micey Spillane or publications such as Sports Afield and Outdoor Life and hunted and fished with friends and family. After graduating from  Yakima High School in 1956, Carver worked with his father at a sawmill in California. In June 1957, aged 19, he married 16-year-old Maryann Burk, who had just graduated from a private Episcopal school for girls. Their daughter, Christine La Rae, was born in December 1957. When their second child, a boy named Vance Lindsay, was born the next year, Carver was 20. Carver supported his family by working as a janitor, sawmill laborer, delivery man, and library assistant. During their marriage, Maryann worked as a waitress, salesperson, administrative assistant, and high school English teacher.

Writing career
Carver became interested in writing in California, where he had moved with his family because his mother-in-law had a home in Paradise. Carver attended a creative-writing course taught by the novelist John Gardner, who became a mentor and had a major influence on Carver's life and career. Carver continued his studies first at Chico State University and then at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, where he studied with Richard Cortez Day and received his B.A. in 1963. During this period he was first published and served as editor for Toyon, the university literary magazine, in which he included several of his own pieces under pseudonyms. He later attended the Iowa Writers´ Workshop, at the University of Iowa, for one year. Maryann graduated from San Jose State College in 1970 and taught English at Los Altos High School until 1977.
His first published story appeared in 1960, titled "The Furious Seasons." More florid than his later work, the story strongly bore the influence of William Faulkner. "Furious Seasons" was later used as a title for a collection of stories published by Capra Press, and can now be found in recent collections No Heroics, Please and Call If You Need Me.
His first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was first published in 1976; the title story had appeared in the Best American Short Stories 1967 collection. The collection itself was shortlisted for the National Book Award, though it sold fewer than 5,000 copies that year.
In the mid-1960s Carver and his family lived in Sacramento, where he worked as a night custodian at Mercy Hospital. He would do all of the janitorial work in the first hour and then write at the hospital through the rest of the night. He sat in on classes at what was then Sacramento State College, including workshops with poet Dennis Schmitz. Carver and Schmitz soon became friends, and Carver's first book of poems, Near Klamath, was later written and published under Schmitz's guidance.
With his appearance in the respected "Foley collection," the impending publication of Near Klamath by the English Club of Sacramento State College, and the death of his father, 1967 was a landmark year for Carver. That was also the year that he moved his family to Palo Alto, California, so that he could take a job as a textbook editor for Science Research Associates. He worked there until he was fired in 1970 for his inappropriate writing style. In the 1970s and 1980s as his writing career began to take off, Carver taught for several years at universities throughout the United States.
During his years of working different jobs, rearing children, and trying to write, Carver started to drink heavily. By his own admission, eventually he more or less gave up writing and took to full-time drinking. In the fall semester of 1973, Carver was a teacher in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with John Cheever, but Carver stated that they did less teaching than drinking and almost no writing. The next year, after leaving Iowa City, Cheever went to a treatment center to attempt to overcome his alcoholism, but Carver continued drinking for three years. After being hospitalized three times (between June 1976 and February or March 1977), Carver began his 'second life' and stopped drinking on June 2, 1977, with the help of  Alcoholics Anonymous. Carver believed he would have died of alcoholism at the age of 40 if he hadn't found a way to stop drinking. When he knew the cancer would kill him, he wrote a poem about that bonus of 10 years, called "Gravy." Carver was nominated again in 1984 for his third major-press collection, Cathedral, the volume generally perceived as his best. Included in the collection are the award-winning stories "A Small, Good Thing", and "Where I'm Calling From." John Updike selected the latter for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. For his part, Carver saw Cathedral as a watershed in his career, in its shift towards a more optimistic and confidently poetic style.

Personal life and death
Carver met the poet Tess Gallagher at a writers' conference in Dallas, Texas, in November, 1977. Beginning in January, 1979, Carver and Gallagher lived together in El Paso, Texas, in a borrowed cabin near Port Angeles, in western Washington state, and in Tucson. In 1980, the two moved to Syracuse, where Gallagher had been appointed the coordinator of the creative writing program at Syracuse University; Carver taught as a professor in the English department. He and Gallagher jointly purchased a house in Syracuse, at 832 Maryland Avenue. In ensuing years, the house became so popular that the couple had to hang a sign outside that read "Writers At Work" in order to be left alone. In 1982, Carver and first wife, Maryann, were divorced. He married Gallagher in 1988 in Reno, Nevada. Six weeks later, on August 2, 1988, Carver died in Port Angeles, Washingon, from lung cancer at the age of 50. In the same year, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters..
Carver is buried at Ocean View Cemetery in Port Angeles, WA. The inscription on his tombstone reads:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
His poem Gravy is also inscribed.
As Carver's will directed, Tess Gallagher assumed the management of his literary state.

Raymond and Tess

Legacy and posthumous publications
In 2001 the novelist Chuck Kinder published Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, a roman à clef of his friendship with Carver in the 1970s. In 2006 Maryann Burk Carver wrote a memoir of her years with Carver: What It Used To Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. An unauthorized biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life by Carol Sklenicka, published by Scribner in 2009, was named one of the Best Ten Books of that year by The New York Times Book Review. Carver's widow refused to cooperate with Sklenica.
His final (incomplete) collection of seven stories, titled Elephant in Britain (included in "Where I'm Calling From") was composed in the five years before his death. The nature of these stories, especially "Errand", have led to some speculation that Carver was preparing to write a novel. Only one piece of this work has survived - the unpromising fragment "The Augustine Notebooks," printed in No Heroics, Please.
Tess Gallagher published five Carver stories posthumously in Call If You Need Me; one of the stories ("Kindling") won an  O. Henry Award in 1999. Throughout his lifetime Carver won six O. Henry Awards: the winning stories were "Are These Actual Miles" (originally titled "What is it?") (1972), "Put Yourself in My Shoes" (1974), "Are You A Doctor?" (1975), "A Small, Good Thing" (1983), and "Errand" (1988).
Tess Gallagher fought with Knopf for permission to republish the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk We About Love as they were originally written by Carver, as opposed to the heavily-edited (or “heavy edits”) and altered versions that appeared in 1981 under the editorship of Gordon Lish. The book, entitled 'Beginners', was released in hardback on October 1, 2009 in Great Britain. 'Beginners' also appears in a new Library of America edition collecting all of Carver's short fiction.

Literary analysis
Carver's career was dedicated to short stories and poetry. He described himself as "inclined toward brevity and intensity" and "hooked on writing short stories" (in the foreword of Where I´m Calling From, a collection published in 1988 and a recipient of an honorable mention in the 2006 New York Times article citing the best works of fiction of the previous 25 years). Another stated reason for his brevity was "that the story [or poem] can be written and read in one sitting." This was not simply a preference but, particularly at the beginning of his career, a practical consideration as he juggled writing with work. His subject matter was often focused on blue-collar experience, and was clearly reflective of his own life.
Minimalism is generally seen as one of the hallmarks of Carver's work. His editor at Esquire magazine, Gordon Lish, was instrumental in shaping Carver's prose in this direction - where his earlier tutor John Gardner had advised Carver to use fifteen words instead of twenty-five, Gordon Lish instructed Carver to use five in place of fifteen. Objecting to the "surgical amputation and transplantation" of Lish's heavy editing, Carver eventually broke with him. During this time, Carver also submitted poetry to James Dickey, then poetry editor of Esquire. His style has also been described as Dirty realism, which connected him with a group of writers in the 1970s and 1980s that included Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff —two writers Carver was closely acquainted with—as well as  Ann Beattie and Jayne Anne Phillips. With the exception of Beattie, who wrote about upper-middle class people, these were writers who focused on sadness and loss in the everyday lives of ordinary people—often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people—who represent Henry David Thoureau's idea of living lives of "quiet desperation."

The bibliography of  Raymond Carver consists of 72 short stories, 306 poems, a novel fragment, a one-act play, a screenplay co-written with Tess Gallagher, and 32 pieces of non-fiction (essays, a meditation, introductions, and book reviews). In 2009 the 17 stories collected in What We Talk We Talk About When We Talk About Me were published in their manuscript form, prior to Gordon Lish´s extensive editing, under the title Beginners.

Gary McNair/From “What It Used to Be Like”
Maryann Burk Carver with her husband in August 1972.

When We Talk About Love

Published September 24, 2006

Why is it that so many prodigiously gifted male writers, from Shelley and Coleridge to Raymond Carver, have been hopeless as husbands — demanding vast amounts of devotion and self-sacrifice from their wives and then repaying the plucky and idealistic young women they marry with callous, unfaithful and irresponsible behavior? With such men, there seems to be an irreconcilable conflict between their need to be nurtured by women and their need to be free of all bonds, open to all varieties of experience.

A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver.

By Maryann Burk Carver.
Illustrated. 356 pp. St. Martin’s Press. 

At 17, Raymond Carver, a boy from a working-class family in Yakima, Wash., already knew that writing was his vocation and also sensed that a settled life might be a trap for him, even though he had a 15-year-old fiancée. As his first wife, Maryann, recalls in “What It Used to Be Like,” Ray suddenly announced that he was about to spend the next two years in the Amazon, where he seems seriously to have believed that diamonds could be picked up by the handful. Setting a pattern for the course of their relationship, Maryann did not think of asking him to stay home for her sake. Instead she promised to wait: “By the time you get back,” she said to him, “I should be studying pre-law.”
Like so many of the plans the young couple later made, neither Ray’s trip nor Maryann’s entry into college panned out. Ray ran out of money in Mexico and came back to his old job of driving a pharmacy delivery truck in Yakima. And Maryann, falling for the fatal pre-pill line “I want to feel you,” consented to unprotected sex during their reunion. They were married in June, 1957, just before her pregnancy began to show.
By the time Maryann was 18, she had two babies and was heroically seeing Ray through two years at Chico State College (where he would soon become the protégé of the novelist John Gardner) by working full time as a waitress, then a telephone operator — jobs that barely provided enough money for their survival. Both of them wondered where their youth had gone, but Ray at least was doing what he wanted. When he once bluntly admitted to Maryann that if he ever had to choose between her and writing, he would choose writing, she had promised to see to it that he would never have to make that choice, ruefully concluding that the sacrifice of her own ambitions was “what it means to be a woman.” She bought Ray his first typewriter with money she earned packing cherries.
If Raymond Carver had ever made it to the Amazon, he might have become a magic realist and written stories about men who found no diamonds. Instead, as Maryann Carver’s memoir makes clear, he found his subject matter in the grim circumstances of the life he shared with her for more than 20 years. In increasingly pared-down prose, as deceptively plain as speech, yet loaded with compressed poetry, Carver would write about shamed jobless men and embittered working wives, couples moving futilely from one town to another in the Pacific Northwest one step ahead of the bill collector. Imbuing his characters with his own guilt, grief and restlessness, he wrote about the loss of hope, the wearing away of love.
Of all the traps life had to offer, holding a steady job was the one Carver feared most. But even though Maryann became the principal breadwinner, he consistently sabotaged any situation that seemed to hold out some promise of security for himself and his family.
“Sometimes I think we lived on the edge almost intentionally,” Maryann Carver writes in a rare reflective passage, “as if we saw these personal situations as necessary grist for the mill. One of them might contain the raw material for Ray to write into a story or poem.” The use of “we” in this passage is telling. To the end of their marriage, Maryann was Carver’s accomplice in what she regarded as the family business, reluctantly going along with unwise choices that sometimes left the Carvers homeless and nearly destitute. She allowed everything to be sacrificed to the needs of the man she considered a great writer, even the welfare of their children.
In the mid-1970’s, the growing recognition of Carver’s work only seemed to throw him off course. Even as he was getting grants and awards and offers of teaching jobs, he found himself unable to write. His drinking escalated and he began to have extramarital affairs. Struggling to hold on to him, Maryann even followed him into alcoholism.
“What It Used to Be Like” presents us with Raymond Carver’s raw material unmediated by art. Although its accumulation of quotidian detail will undoubtedly make it a resource for Carver scholars, it reads like yet another document of dysfunctionality that sheds little light on the experience it portrays. “It’s strange,” Carver once admitted to his wife. “You never start out life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat and a thief. Or a liar.” Now in her 60’s, Maryann Carver still cannot step back far enough to take Carver’s measure or explain why she was unable to call it quits even after he split her head open with a vodka bottle. When she has at last acknowledged that Carver had “a bleak, self-centered orientation in his inner life,” she adds in the next breath, “But he was who he was. And I loved him to distraction.” She was 38 when she finally left Carver — they were officially divorced in 1982 — “because in my heart of hearts I believed that was what he truly wanted.” (By then her husband was living with the poet Tess Gallagher, who became his second wife.)
IN his essay “Fires,” Carver revealed his bitter feeling that his family life had nearly destroyed him, and that it had kept him from writing the novels he should have produced:
“The time came and went when everything my wife and I held sacred or considered worthy of respect, every spiritual value, crumbled away. ... Somehow, when we weren’t looking the children had got into the driver’s seat. As crazy as it sounds now, they held the reins and the whip.” With shocking coldness, he referred to his son and daughter as “heavy and often baleful influences.” Nonetheless, Maryann Carver contends that in writing short works Carver found the immediate “exhilaration” and “sense of completion” he craved, and she sentimentally dedicates her book to the “loving, vivid memory” of “the Daddy of our house.”

“I’m the ‘Maryann’ you find in Ray’s poetry,” she writes, staking her claim on the Carver legend. “I was a source of inspiration. ... I was the sounding board who knew his friends, his whole family and the brilliance of the man long before he was anybody’s notable author. You don’t just toss that aside when you hit a bad patch.

Joyce Johnson is the author of the memoirs “Missing Men” and “Minor Characters.”

Raymond Carver by Rob Stolzer
Raymond Carver’s Life and Stories

Raymond Carver, surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century, makes an early appearance in Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustive and sometimes exhausting biography as a 3- or 4-year-old on a leash. “Well, of course I had to keep him on a leash,” his mother, Ella Carver, said much later — and seemingly without irony.
Mrs. Carver might have had the right idea. Like the perplexed lower-middle-class juicers who populate his stories, Carver never seemed to know where he was or why he was there. I was constantly reminded of a passage in Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story”: “The man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.”
Born in Oregon in 1938, Carver soon moved with his family to Yakima, Wash. In 1956, the Car­vers relocated to Chester, Calif. A year later, Carver and a couple of friends were carousing in Mexico. After that the moves accelerated: Paradise, Calif.; Chico, Calif.; Iowa City, Sacramento, Palo Alto, Tel Aviv, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Cupertino, Humboldt County . . . and that takes us up only to 1977, the year Carver took his last drink.

Through most of those early years of restless travel, he dragged his two children and his long-suffering wife, Maryann, the mostly unsung heroine of Sklenicka’s tale, behind him like tin cans tied to the bumper of a jalopy that no car dealer in his right mind would take in trade. It’s no wonder that his friends nicknamed him Running Dog. Or that when his mother took him into downtown Yakima, she kept him on a leash.

As brilliant and talented as he was, Ray Carver was also the destructive, ­everything-in-the-pot kind of drinker who hits bottom, then starts burrowing deeper. Longtime A.A.’s know that drunks like Carver are master practitioners of the geographical cure, refusing to recognize that if you put an out-of-control boozer on a plane in California, an out-of-control boozer is going to get off in Chicago. Or Iowa. Or Mexico.
And until mid-1977, Raymond Carver was out of control. While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he and John Cheever became drinking buddies. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver said of the fall semester of 1973. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Because Cheever had no car, Carver provided transportation on their twice-weekly booze runs. They liked to arrive at the liquor store just as the clerk was unlocking for the day. Cheever noted in his journal that Carver was “a very kind man.” He was also an irresponsible boozehound who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants, even though he must have known it was the waitress who had to pay the bill for such dine-and-dash customers. His wife, after all, often waited tables to support him.

Raymond Carver
Poster by T.A.

It was Maryann Burk Carver who won the bread in those early years while Ray drank, fished, went to school and began writing the stories that a generation of critics and teachers would miscategorize as “minimalism” or “dirty realism.” Writing talent often runs on its own clean circuit (as the Library of America’s “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories” attests), but writers whose works shine with insight and mystery are often prosaic monsters at home.
Maryann Burk met the love of her life — or her nemesis; Carver appears to have been both — in 1955, while working the counter of a Spudnut Shop in Union Gap, Wash. She was 14. When she and Carver married in 1957, she was two months shy of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Before turning 18, she discovered she was pregnant again. For the next quarter-century she supported Ray as a cocktail waitress, a restaurant hostess, an encyclopedia saleswoman and a teacher. Early in the marriage she packed fruit for two weeks in order to buy him his first typewriter.
She was beautiful; he was hulking, possessive and sometimes violent. In Car­ver’s view, his own infidelities did not excuse hers. After Maryann indulged in “a tipsy flirtation” at a dinner party in 1975 — by which time Carver’s alcoholism had reached the full-blown stage — he hit her upside the head with a wine bottle, severing an artery near her ear and almost killing her. “He needed ‘an illusion of freedom,’ ” Sklenicka writes, “but could not bear the thought of her with another man.” It is one of the few points in her admirable biography where Sklenicka shows real sympathy for the woman who supported Carver and seems to have never stopped loving him.


Gordon Lish in the 1980s.CreditWilliam F. Buckley Jr.

Although Sklenicka exhibits something like awe for Carver the writer, and clearly understands the warping influence alcohol had on his life, she is almost nonjudgmental when it comes to Carver the nasty drunk and ungrateful (not to mention sometimes dangerous) husband. She quotes the novelist Diane Smith (“Letters From Yellowstone”) as saying, “That was a bad generation of men,” and pretty much leaves it at that. When she quotes Maryann calling herself a “literary Cinderella, living in exile for the good of Car­ver’s career,” the first Mrs. Carver comes across as just another whining ex-wife rather than as the stalwart she undoubtedly was. Ray and Maryann were married for 25 years, and it was during those years that Carver wrote the bulk of his work. His time with the poet Tess Gallagher, the only other significant woman in his life, was less than half that.
Nevertheless, it was Gallagher who reaped the personal benefits of Carver’s sobriety (he took his last drink a year before they fell in love) and the financial ones as well. During the divorce proceedings, Maryann’s lawyer said — this both haunts me and to some degree taints my enjoyment of Carver’s stories — that without a decent court settlement, Maryann Burk Carver’s post-divorce life would be “like a bag of doorknobs that wouldn’t open any doors.”
Maryann’s response was, “Ray says he’ll send money every month, and I believe him.” Carver carried through on that promise, although not without a good deal of grousing. But when he died in 1988, the woman who had provided his financial foundation discovered that she had been cut out of sharing the continuing financial rewards of Carver’s popular short-story collections. Carver’s savings alone totaled almost $215,000 at the time of his death; Maryann got about $10,000. Carver’s mother got even less: at age 78, she was living in public housing in Sacramento and eking out a living as a “grandmother aide” in an elementary school. Sklenicka doesn’t call this shabby treatment, but I am happy to do it for her.


Tess Gallagher and Raymond Carver, 1984. CreditMarion Ettlinger/Corbis Outline

It’s as a chronicle of Carver’s growth as a writer that Sklenicka’s book is invaluable, particularly after his career path crossed that of the editor Gordon Lish, the self-styled “Captain Fiction.” Any readers who doubt Lish’s baleful influence on the stories in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” are apt to think differently after reading Sklenicka’s eye-opening account of this difficult and ultimately poisonous relationship. Those still not convinced can read the corresponding stories in “Beginners,” now available in the sublimely portable and long-overdue “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories.”
In 1972, Lish changed the title of Car­ver’s second Esquire story — which he edited heavily — from “Are These Actual Miles?” (interesting and mysterious) to “What Is It?” (boring). When Carver, wild to be published in a major slick, decided to accept the changes, Maryann accused him “of being a whore, of selling out to the establishment.” John Gardner had once told Carver that line-editing was not negotiable. Carver may have accepted that — most writers willing to submit to the editing process do — but Lish’s changes were wide and deep. Car­ver argued that “a major magazine publication was worth the compromise.” Lish, who tried unsuccessfully to edit Leonard Gardner (who would go on to write “Fat City”) with a similarly heavy hand, got his way with Carver. It was a harbinger.
Was Gordon Lish a good editor? Undoubtedly. Curtis Johnson, a textbook editor who introduced Lish to Carver, claims that Lish had “infallible taste in fiction.” But, as Maryann feared, he was — in Ray Carver’s case, at least — much better at discovery than development. And with Carver, he got what he wanted. Perhaps he sensed an essential weakness at Carver’s core (“people-pleasing” is what recovering alcoholics call it). Perhaps it was the strangely elitist view he seems to have held of Carver’s writing, branding the characters “grossly inept” and speaking of “their blatant illiteracies, of which Carver himself was unaware.” This did not stop him from taking credit for Car­ver’s success; Lish is said to have bragged that Car­ver was “his creature,” and what appears on the back jacket of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”(1976), Car­ver’s first book of stories, is not Raymond Car­ver’s photograph but Gordon Lish’s name.


Raymond and Maryann Burke Carver and their two children on Rhodes in 1968.CreditCourtesy Maryann Burke Carver

Sklenicka’s account of the changes in Carver’s third book of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), is meticulous and heartbreaking. There were, she says, three versions: A, B and C. Version A was the manuscript Car­ver submitted. It was titled “So Much Water So Close to Home.” B was the manuscript Lish initially sent back. He changed the name of the story “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and that became the new title of the book. Although Carver was disturbed by this, he nonetheless signed a binding (and unagented) contract in 1980. Soon after, Version C — the version most readers know — arrived on Carver’s desk. The differences between B and C “astounded” him. “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Skle­nicka writes. “He had not expected . . . a meat cleaver.” Unsure of himself, Carver was only three years into sobriety after two decades of heavy drinking; his correspondence with Lish over the wholesale changes to his work alternated between groveling (“you are a wonder, a genius”) and outright begging for a return to Version B. It did no good. According to Tess Gallagher, Lish refused by telephone to restore the earlier version, and if Carver understood nothing else, he understood that Lish held the “power of publication access.”
This Hobson’s choice is the beating heart of “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life.” Any writer might wonder what he’d do in such a case. Certainly I did; in 1973, when my first novel was accepted for publication, I was in similar straits: young, endlessly drunk, trying to support a wife and two children, writing at night, hoping for a break. The break came, but until reading Sklenicka’s book, I thought it was the $2,500 advance Doubleday paid for “Carrie.” Now I realize it may have been not winding up with Gordon Lish as my editor.
One needs only to scan the stories in “Beginners” and the ones in “What We Talk About” to see the most obvious change: the prose in “Beginners” consists of dense blocks of narration broken up by bursts of dialogue; in “What We Talk About,” there is so much white space that some of the stories (“After the Denim,” for instance) look almost like chapters in a James Patterson novel. In many cases, the man who didn’t allow editors to change his own work gutted Carver’s, and on this subject Sklenicka voices an indignation she is either unwilling or unable to muster on Maryann’s behalf, calling Lish’s editing of Carver “a usurpation.” He imposed his own style on Carver’s stories, and the so-called minimalism with which Carver is credited was actually Lish’s deal. “Gordon . . . came to think that he knew everything,” Curtis Johnson says. “It became pernicious.”
Sklenicka analyzes many of the ­changes, but the wise reader will turn to the “Collected Stories” and see them for him- or herself. Two of the most dismaying examples are “If It Please You” (“After the Denim” in “What We Talk About”) and “A Small, Good Thing” (“The Bath” in “What We Talk About”).
In “If It Please You,” James and Edith Packer, a getting-on-in-years couple, arrive at the local bingo hall to discover their regular places have been taken by a young hippie couple. Worse, James observes the young man cheating (although he doesn’t win; his girlfriend does). During the course of the evening, Edith whispers to her husband that she’s “spotting.” Later, back at home, she tells him the bleeding is serious, and she’ll have to go to the doctor the following day. In bed, James struggles to pray (a survival skill both James and his creator acquired in daily A.A. meetings), first hesitantly, then “beginning to mutter words aloud and to pray in earnest. . . . He prayed for Edith, that she would be all right.” The prayers don’t bring relief until he adds the hippie couple to his meditations, casting aside his former bitter feelings. The story ends on a note of hard-won hope: “ ‘If it please you,’ he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.” In the Lish-edited version, there are no prayers and hence no epiphany — only a worried and resentful husband who wants to tell the irritating hippies what happens “after the denim,” after the games. It’s a total rewrite, and it’s a cheat.
The contrast between “The Bath” (Lish-edited) and “A Small, Good Thing” (Ray Carver unplugged) is even less palatable. On her son’s birthday, Scotty’s mother orders a birthday cake that will never be eaten. The boy is struck by a car on his way home from school and winds up in a coma. In both stories, the baker makes dunning calls to the mother and her husband while their son lies near death in the hospital. Lish’s baker is a sinister figure, symbolic of death’s inevitability. We last hear from him on the phone, still wanting to be paid. In Carver’s version, the couple — who are actually characters instead of shadows — go to see the baker, who apologizes for his unintended cruelty when he understands the situation. He gives the bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. The three of them take this communion together and talk until morning. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.
“Lish was able . . . to make a snowman out of a snowdrift” is what Sklenicka says about his version of Carver’s stories, but that’s not much of a metaphor. She does better when talking about Lish’s changes to a passage in “They’re Not Your Husband” (in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”), pointing out that the Lish version is “meaner, coarser and somewhat diminishing to both characters.” Carver himself says it best. When the narrator of “The Fling” finally faces up to the fact that he has no love or comfort to give his father, he says of himself, “I was all smooth surface with nothing inside except emptiness.” Ultimately, that’s what is wrong with the Ray Carver stories as Lish presented them to the world, and what makes both the Sklenicka biography and the “Collected Stories” such a welcome and necessary corrective.


A Writer’s Life
By Carol Sklenicka
Illustrated. 578 pp. Scribner. $35


Collected Stories
Edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll
1,019 pp. The Library of America. $40
Correction: December 6, 2009 
A cover illustration on Nov. 22 carried an incomplete credit. While Ruth Gwily was indeed the illustrator, her portrait of Raymond Carver was based on a photograph by Bob Adelman/Corbis.

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