Book review: Beginners

Beginnersby Raymond CarverJonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99

I INTERVIEWED Raymond Carver just once – in 1985 – and enjoyed meeting him. A large man, dressed all in black, he was quietly spoken, earnest and thoughtful in a way that made me feel I was lucky to have this long talk with him.

I transcribed it verbatim, in question and answer format, and Carver helpfully clarified some of his answers in proof before it was printed in the Literary Review (it's since been collected in a book called Conversations with Raymond Carver). Of all my meetings with writers I admired, this was one that I particularly valued. Carver died of lung cancer three years later, aged 50, and I wrote a heartfelt obituary of him at short notice.

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Reading that interview again for the first time this week, I suddenly realised that Carver had been far from fully truthful with me, when I would have sworn he had been.

I did ask the right questions, returning several times to puzzle over the way his style had changed from the extreme, clipped precision of his earlier collections to become considerably more expansive in Cathedral. But Carver's answers were misleading. He agreed that in that earlier work, which made his reputation, everything had been excessively pared down. "Everything I thought I could live without I just got rid of, I cut out, in that earlier collection. It felt like I'd gone as far in that direction as I'd wished to go. I felt I'd soon be writing stories I wouldn't want to read myself."

The fact that his stories had become "fuller somehow and much more generous and maybe more affirmative" he put down to the fact that things had changed for the better in his life. But he didn't even mention the existence of an editor, let alone the name of Gordon Lish.

By the time of his death, Carver had become a hero of American letters, the idol of the creative writing schools. Over the following years, though, his former editor and friend, Lish, began to say that he himself had changed the stories to such an extent that they were as much his creation as Carver's. Lish didn't ever fully explain how this could be, but he did sell his Carver archive to Indiana University.

There it was examined by the journalist DT Max who, in 1998, published a devastating essay in the New York Times called "The Carver Chronicles" (still freely available online). He found that Lish, who had started to help Carver right at the start of his published career, had drastically altered most of the stories: cutting most of them by half or even more, rewriting the endings of many, retitling them, re-naming the characters, removing whole sections, often thus creating the elliptical effect Carver was celebrated for. There are changes so radical and brutal you would think no self-respecting writer could possibly accept them.

In the archive, DT Max also found, and quoted, anguished and explicit letters from Carver to Lish. As the publication of the heavily edited What We Talk About When We Talk About Love approached in 1981, Carver tried to withdraw from it, fearing exposure. "Please, Gordon, for God's sake help me in this and try to understand ... I've got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I've been up all night thinking on this ... I'll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or cedibility (sic] in the world, I owe it to you. I owe you this more-or-less pretty interesting life I have (but] I can't take the risk as to what might happen to me."

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After its successful publication, Carver began to demand more control over his own work, telling Lish he couldn't undergo that "kind of surgical amputation and transplantation" again. "Please help me with this book as a good editor, the best ... not as my ghost," he pleaded. His next collection, Cathedral, appeared in 1984 only lightly edited and thus in quite a different style.

Carver's wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, collaborated with him in his last years and she has brought to light more of his work since his death. Now she has had this full and unedited version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love published, under the title Carver himself chose, Beginners.

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It comes with some brisk textual notes and a two-page factual preface by the editors, explaining how they have reconstructed the text from the typescripts on which Lish made his changes, but there is no critical introduction. (Incidentally, a better buy would be the 1,000-page Carver Collected Stories, in the handsome Library of America series, which includes this text among much else, and costs only a few pounds more.)

So we are left to draw our own conclusions, by comparing these recovered versions of the stories with the ones that Lish created. My conclusion, to my surprise, has been that in almost every case Lish improved them a lot and in doing so created many of the distinctive effects for which Carver is celebrated.

To take just the title story: Lish deleted half of the text, including most of the back story and the last five pages, giving it a different ending. Carver's story finished with a lengthy description of the narrator staring out of a window at an empty field, wishing there were still horses there. The Lish/Carver version ends with him still sitting at a table with the other boozers: "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark." It is better, simply.

It's not always so clear-cut. Lish cut the story about the death of a child, "A Small, Good Thing", by 78 per cent and re-named it "The Bath", leaving it unclear whether or not the boy dies. Carver's original, version is in some ways more powerful and engaging but at the cost of being over-explained, a little manipulative and sentimental.

So one of the most influential styles in American fiction was a joint creation, we now know. There have been previous examples of such creative editing, most notably Ezra Pound's liberation of The Waste Land, revealed in the 1971 facsimile edition of the manuscript. But Pound's role was honoured. In 1925, Eliot dedicated the poem to him: "il miglior fabbro" – the better craftsman.

No dicing around with the idea that all art is more than any one individual's creation will explain away Carver's case. There was so much going on in that memorable conversation I had with him that he knew and I didn't – or at least not then.