‘What we Talk About When We Talk About Love’ Vs ‘Beginners.’

Over the month or so from 15th April – 18th May, I have been reading Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Love,’ and the original unedited versions of the stories published two decades after Carver’s death in the collection ‘Beginners.’ The level of editing of Carver’s stories undertaken by Gordon Lish has long been the subject of literary debate, but it isn’t until you read the stories in tandem that the effect of the changes truly becomes apparent.

The end notes of ‘Beginners’ reveal the extent to which Lish cut the original texts with anything from 27% to 78% cut from any given story. The minimalist, pared down style the stories were praised for upon publication of the original collection seem as much a product of Lish’s editing as Carver’s ability to carve ‘stark and unadorned prose-objects, paring away everything but the very core of human emotion’ (Tim O’Brien, Chicago Tribune).

As I read the stories in pairs, moving from the Lish edited collection to the original stories and back again I developed a preference for the leaner, meaner versions found in ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.’ The original stories contain all the elements of the edited versions, but the extension of certain passages and, in the cases of the more heavily edited stories, whole additional swathes of narrative action seem to dilute the power and point of the key sections focused on in the Lish edits.

In his review of ‘Beginners,’ Blake Morrison described the extent of Lish’s interference.

‘Lish did much more than lop. Read the stories in Beginners alongside the reduced versions (there’s not much point in having the book unless you do), and you see the scale of his interference. He re-titled the stories, re-paragraphed them, put in section-breaks, changed the names of characters, created new endings (in one case, a murder becomes a double murder), modified the tone and tampered with motive and psychology.’

Many of the stories in their original form are over-egged with detail and back story. Certain events draw attention away key relationships or images and it is clear why Lish felt the need to slash the stories in what Carver thought was an excessive fashion. For example, ‘The Fling’ in ‘Beginners,’ the original version of ‘Sacks,’ is made melodramatic with the addition of the cuckolded husband’s emo-suicide. In ‘Want to see something?’, the original version of ‘I could see the smallest things,’ attention is drawn away from the death of Sam’s wife with the addition of an albino child being born into his second marriage. Some of the original stories just seem overly crammed, breaking one of the ‘rules’ of short fiction, telling the reader too much.

Comments such as ‘Lish edit is tighter,’ and ‘original version just too long,’ litter the notes I jotted as I read each pair of stories. Only in one or two cases did I prefer the original version of a story. One of these was ‘A small good thing,’ the original version of ‘The Bath,’ deals with the injury and possiblt imminent death of child and is so radically cut for the two versions to stand as a completely different stories. The Lish edit conveys a bleak, caustic view of petty human nature in the face of such a tragedy, while the original Carver draft is filled with compassion and hope, if not that the child will survive, then hope that human nature is not quite as small and petty minded as it might first appear.

It has been said in some reviews that the original, ‘Beginners’ edits of these stories reflects how Carver was moving into a more expansive and emotional style of writing. It will be interesting to see how true this is when I delve into his later collection ‘Cathedral’ later on in this challenge. While the stories in ‘Beginners’ are filled with all the trademark Carver qualities, the precise openings, the focus on relationships, and the proliferation of alcohol and alcoholics in the stories, and while the extra room afforded them in some cases pays dividends, creating a softer, more developed emotional aspect in many cases, I do feel much more likely to return to the edited stories originally published in ‘What We Talk about When We Talk About Love.’ Whatever your feelings about whether Carver should have allowed Lish to cut his work so dramatically, the edited stories, for this reader at least, give credence to the idea that, in short fiction as elsewhere, less is more.