Blogging anything in the New Yorker is a total sucker’s bet. Lots of people consume the magazine cover to cover, and so the idea that I’ll bring something new to a reader’s attention is a long-shot. At best. Still, this article by Paul Rudnick, on the professional relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish, is one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in some time.

Here’s Rudnick’s lede paragraph, which is its own primer on good writing.

On the morning of July 8, 1980, Raymond Carver wrote an impassioned letter to Gordon Lish, his friend and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, begging his forgiveness but insisting that Lish “stop production” of Carver’s forthcoming collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Carver had been up all night reviewing Lish’s severe editorial cuts––two stories had been slashed by nearly seventy per cent, many by almost half; many descriptions and digressions were gone; endings had been truncated or rewritten––and he was unnerved to the point of desperation. A recovering alcoholic and a fragile spirit, Carver wrote that he was “confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid.” He feared exposure before his friends, who had read many of the stories in their earlier versions. If the book went forward, he said, he feared he might never write again; if he stopped it, he feared losing Lish’s love and friendship. And he feared, above all, a return to “those dark days,” not long before, when he was broken, defeated. “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here,” he wrote to Lish.

It seems, based on Rudnick’s reporting at least, that Carver’s inimtable style — stripped of any fat, leaving only the sparest prose — wasn’t really his. It was Lish’s. Lish often cut huge chunks away from the stories Carver sent him, leaving behind what I’ve always understood to be Carver’s distinctive voice.

Here’s an example of the impact Lish’s editing had on Carver’s writing, a paragraph from the story “Beginners” as submitted by Carver to Lish:

“I’m worried about Herb, Terri said. She shook her head. “Sometimes I worry more than other times, but lately I’m really worried.” She stared at her glass. She didn’t make any move for cheese and crackers. I decided to get up and look in the refrigerator. When Laura says she’s hungry, I know she needs to eat. “Help yourself to whatever you can find, Nick. Bring out anything that looks good. Cheese in there, and a salami stick, I think. Crackers in that cupboard over the stove. I forgot. We’ll have a snack. I’m not hungry myself, but you guys must be starving. I don’t have an appetite any more. What was I saying?” She closed her eyes and opened them. “I don’t think we’ve told you this, maybe we have, I can’t remember, but Herb was very suicidal after his first marriage broke up and his wife moved to Denver with the kids. He went to psychiatrist for a long while, for months. Sometimes he says he thinks he should still be going” She picked up the empty bottle and turned it upside down over her glass. I was cutting some salami on the counter as carefully as I could. “Dead soldier,” Terri said. Then she said, “Lately he’s been talking about suicide again.”

And then Carver went on for ten more paragraphs before ending the story. But Lish cut the whole paragraph above and instead suggested the following:

I could hear my heart beating. As a matter of fact, I could hear everyone’s heart. It was awful, the human noise we sat there making, not a one of us moving even when the room went totally dark.

Lish said the story should conclude at that point. Which it did in published form.

In the paper version of the magazine, Rudnick includes a photo of the original manuscript, in which Lish has crossed out Carver’s long paragraph (transcribed above). Carver’s prose is typed in what appears to be Courier, and a huge X runs through its entirety. The shorter paragraph I’ve reproduced above, Lish’s work, is handwritten in a loopy print-cursive hybrid at the bottom of the page. The impact of seeing the editorial process depicted in graphic form is stunning.

On the one hand, all of this is hardly surprising. The legends, almost like tall tales, of great editors transforming a writer’s good work into something transcendent are legion. Ezra Pound cutting T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in half, and the job Maxwell Perkins did on Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel” — lopping off more than 65,000 words — are just two of the instances mentioned by Rudnick. And, frankly, these kinds of stories elicit in scholars more than a bit of envy. In the academy, we’re often lucky to find an editor who’ll read our work at all, much less make it better. I’m not bashing editors, by the way. Some of my best friends are editors. But the structural constraints of academic publishing make it incredibly unusual — not unheard of, mind you — for any substantive editing to get done. So even after reading about how painful the experience of being edited by Lish was for Carver, I find myself thinking that I’d live with the agony for the payoff.

But, on the other hand, I’m shocked to read about the case of Carver. Carver’s style, I always supposed, was sui generis, totally unto itself. I remember the first time I read him, an extra-credit assignment for my wonderful tenth-grade English teacher at Shaker Heights High. The book was Will You Please be Quiet, Please. I was stunned by the narrative style, by the use of language, by the confidence to say only what absolutely had to be said. The only similar literary experience I can think of involved devouring Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, which, after I’d spent years browsing only in the “History” section of bookstores while working on my dissertation, taught me to read fiction again as an adult.

And now I learn that much of what I read when I was fourteen should have been attributed to Lish. Or not. Perhaps a great editor is only a counter-puncher, unable to generate offense on her or his own. Perhaps the collaboration is what unlocked the genius in Carver and in Lish. Having never experienced anything like this, I can’t say. All of my mediocre work, in other words, is mine alone.

Anyway, other people, including Geoffrey Wolff in the link above, have done a much better job describing Carver’s prose. So I won’t bore you with my feeble and pretentious efforts at literary criticism. But I will say this: to learn that much of Carver’s work wasn’t his, at least not in the conventional sense, unesettles me, raising all sorts of questions about the nature of authorship.

Most of all, though, it makes me think that I need a good editor.