I got a note yesterday by the editor of the latest edition (number 6 if you are counting) of the Instructor’s Guide to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature. Some years back, I wrote the headnote, selected the story and wrote the Instructor’s Guide section for the wonderful short story writer, Raymond Carver. I had chosen “A Small, Good Thing” as the story. In part, because it was a nice length. In part, because it represented a story that was a rewrite of earlier story “The Bath.” But mostly because it represented the power and skill of Carver in his later stories as they began to focus on redemption rather than desperation. An added bonus was that after the first editions of the Anthology hit the street, Robert Altman did a movie, “Short Cuts,” based on several of Carver’s stories including “A Small, Good Thing.” A great story with a lot of opportunities for teaching about writing and story-telling.
But Edition 6 will not, does not, have “A Small, Good Thing” as the story. A better story (I would say) and a better known story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is in its place. Time to rewrite the Instructor’s Guide! I wish it had been an opportunity to rewrite the head note as well.
If you follow Carver’s posthumous literary life, you will have seen that “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a disputed story with a disputed history. Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, favors an earlier version of the story, then called “Beginners,” as the true Carver and says, then shows that Carver’s editor Gordon Lish radically rewrote “Beginners” cutting half of its length, changing characters’ names, retitling the story and more. Gallagher attempted to publish the original story and several others including the pre-Lish, pre-”The Bath” “Small, Good Thing.” Last I noticed, Carver’s publisher, Knopf had refused her requests and had blocked her for seeking another publisher.
As noticed here about a year ago (December 24, 2007 issue), Gallagher found a home for her argument that Lish overreached and overedited in the New Yorker. The New Yorker published the entire pre-Lished “Beginners” and in an online only version published “‘Beginners,’ Edited.” I and others think that these publications make the case that Lish improved Carver, but there is plenty of room for debate — but little room for all of that in the Instructor’s Guide. Still the teaching opportunity is now even greater! Below is my rewrite of one section of the Instructor’s Guide on Carver. I can now point teachers and students to a great and highly debatable example of a writer and editor in a highly engaged interaction.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Carver’s work and the versions published have been subject to much controversy – most of this occurring posthumously – concerning the heavy involvement of editor Gordon Lish in the published versions of Carver’s stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in particular. In December 24 2007, the New Yorker published the manuscript that Carver sent to Lish as “Beginners” as well as a version showing the edit imposed by Lish as he converted that manuscript into what we now call “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Immediately readers and critics took sides as to which was the better story. This is a great opportunity to talk about the role of an editor and to discuss and evaluate Lish’s changes and Carver’s original.
Nonetheless, you would want to talk about “minimalism” in fiction. The style has become so pervasive that students may just assume that this pared-down method of storytelling is simply how one writes fiction. Frederick Barthelme writes that as a minimalist “you’re leaving room for the readers, at least for the ones who like to use their imaginations.” John Barth counters with this definition of a minimalist aesthetic: “[its] cardinal principle is that artistic effect may be enhanced by a radical economy of artistic means, even where such parsimony compromises other values: completeness, for example, or richness or precision of statement.” Carver was at first the most influential practitioner of minimalism (perhaps because of Lish’s editing), and then, through the rewriting (or reclaiming) of his earlier stories, a writer who repudiated the style.
Luckily, Carver’s stories can be used to show both the power of the so-called minimalist approach and its limits. Have the students first read the brief (ten-page) story “The Bath,” which was the earlier version of “A Small, Good Thing.” “The Bath” is an excellent example of what minimalism does well and can be more terrifying and unsettling than anything by Stephen King. Contrast-ing and comparing “The Bath” and “A Small, Good Thing” from Carver’s later, more expansive period will allow the students to participate in the intense debate about style. Carver preferred the second version, but he didn’t pass judgment on those who like “The Bath” best.
Another useful approach for showing the nuances of revision at work in Carver’s writing is to look at a few other versions of his stories. A particularly illustrative case is a short-short-story of under five hundred words that has been known as “Mine” (Furious Seasons), “Popular Mechanics” (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), and “Little Things” (Where I’m Calling From). The last two differ only in title, but there are significant differences in “Mine.” Students need not be textual critics to talk about the choices that Carver has made in the various versions of his stories.
Finally, students can be asked to consider the effect of translating Carver’s story into film narrative by watching the relevant portion of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
UPDATE: Just heard from the Health editor and the Heath production folks. They are sending Volume E, the one with Carver in it, to production now! But they will accept a brief update to the headnote! I sent this as the penultimate paragraph:
Yet there is new controversy about Carver’s rewriting and of his relationship to his editors, particularly Lish. The recent publication of “Beginners” in the New Yorker, the story that would become – after extensive editing by Lish – “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and the accompanying article and an online exclusive displaying Lish’s edits in detail show that Carver’s rewriting may have been as much an attempt to recover his stories as an enlargement of earlier minimalist works. Once some legal issues can be resolved, we will be able to have a much closer look at Carver’s process, intentions and art as well as an ability to evaluate the relationship between Carver and Lish.