Saturday, January 22, 2011

Literary Lives: Raymond Carver

On my run this morning, I listened to a New Yorker Fiction Podcast featuring David Means reading Chef's House by Raymond Carver.

Raymond Carver was one of America's preiminent short story writers and, famously, a once troubled alcoholic. Gordon Lish, his longtime friend and editor, launched Carver's writing career after accepting Carver’s story “Neighbors” to Esquire in 1971. Carver achieved critical acclaim but struggled financially. He also began drinking heavily. In the fall semester of 1973, Carver became a teacher in the Iowa Writers' Workshop with John Cheever, but "Carver stated that they did less teaching than drinking and almost no writing." After joining AA in 1977, Carver began a second life at Syracuse University where he taught English alongside his second wife Tess Gallagher. He published his first collection of short stories Will You Be Quiet, Please? shortly thereafter. Carver died of lung cancer in 1988.

As Acton has pointed out before, one of the best bits of the New Yorker podcast series is having Deborah Treisman guide you through the text at the beginning and end of each segment. After Means read the story, Treisman and Means began discussing the influence of Gordon Lish on Carver's writing. It's interesting because in the dialogue it became clear that Means was Pro-Lish. He liked what Lish did to Carver's style in the early years at the New Yorker. He even went as far as to say (albeit jokingly) he wished Deborah Treisman would edit his essays/ stories in a similar fashion to a similar degree. Treisman felt, in certain instances, that Lish changed the nature of the story enough so that the Carver stories became, in her words, 'co-productions' and not the author's own.

What readers notice when they begin reading Carver is his style. His work has become synonymous with a plain spoken presentation of quotidien struggles. His strength often lies in restraint, in what he leaves out. So I was curious to see the extent to which his style was a manufactured product. After a little research, I found an original draft of Carver's Beginners or as it was later titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love with the New Yorker's edits visible. What side of the debate do you fall on? Pro or Con?

Additions to Carver’s draft appear in bold; a strike-through indicates a deletion; and paragraph marks indicate paragraph breaks that were inserted during the editing process.

My friend Mel Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.  The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel Herb and me I and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, then.  But but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Mel Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. He said When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back on to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

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