- Restoration and Reconsideration
Gordon Lish was a man with a vision. He wanted be a name-giver to movements. He wrote grammar texts as his day job while receiving rejection slips for the short stories he sent out. Unable to pass through the doors of publication and acceptance, he built his own building by appropriating the stark canvasses of the minimalist art movement of the '60s and '70s and grafting to it bare-bones content and a simplicity of narrative form. Literary minimalism was born in Esquire magazine under the direction of Gordon Lish, wearing his large silver belt buckle that read "Captain Fiction."
As an editor, he sought writers who conformed to his model, and if they didn't, he edited their work to fit his vision. Maryann Burk Carver, Ray's wife at the time when Lish and Carver met, recalls, in an apocryphal story that appeared in Carol Sklenicka's award-winning biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life (2009), that Lish told Carver that if he and written "Will You Please be Quiet, Please?" it would have ended differently. "Well, that's the point, Gordon," Maryann told him, "It isn't your story. You didn't write it." But he didn't have to write a story—he could edit someone else's.
Lish proved this in May of 1980 when Raymond Carver gave him the manuscript entitled Beginners, to be published by Knopf where Lish then worked. When the retitled book was published in 1981 after two rounds of "close line edits" as What We Talk about when We Talk about Love, it had been "cut by more than fifty percent" from the original manuscript, according to William Stull and Maureen Carroll, who have appended nearly seven pages of notes to Beginners, documenting the history of each of the seventeen stories in the collection, including deletions or changes to character names, title changes to eleven of the seventeen stories, and percentages cut from individual stories, from only one percent of a story originally written as a flash fiction, "Mine," to "A Small, Good Thing," with an astonishing 78 percent cut from the original.
All this makes Beginners an important book. Stories are art, and, as Duke Ellington claimed, there is no art without intention. Beginners shows that Carver did not intend it to be a collection of minimalist stories.
Take "Gazebo," for example, where Holly is the wronged woman who suffers because of the inexplicable infidelity of her husband Duane. Readers have been baffled by his actions when the couple manage a motel for "free rent and utilities plus three hundred a month" while Duane "hold[s] down another job nights," and for the first time they were "getting ahead, rich in plans" as they run down the American dream. In the Beginners version, which is twice as long and more fully developed, Duane continues to see Juanita, the Mexican maid with whom he has a fling, visiting her home where she lives with her children; Duane is a dynamic character who finds a real home, neither the temporary existence managing a hotel nor dreaming of a gazebo in the country, as Holly does. She may run away to Nevada, with its casinos and hotels, but Duane will stay, presumably near Juanita, and Duane's reinstated epiphany that "There was a funny sense of anything could happen now that we realized everything was lost. We knew without having to say it that something had ended, but what was about to begin and take its place, neither of us could think on yet," feels truer and more earned. Lish's cut version makes it Holly's story, but in Carver's uncut version, "Gazebo" becomes Duane's story.
Similarly, Carver's situation comedy "Why Don't You Dance?" benefits from naming Max, the man who puts his and his ex-wife's furniture in the front yard so that Jack and Carla, the boy and girl, mistake...