Rights Battle Brews over Un-Edited Carver Stories In 1981, Knopf published a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Now Carver's widow wants his readers to see the original stories, which were edited heavily for the book. Knopf says it owns the rights — but to what?
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Rights Battle Brews over Un-Edited Carver Stories

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Rights Battle Brews over Un-Edited Carver Stories

Rights Battle Brews over Un-Edited Carver Stories

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The short story writer Raymond Carver was praised for his brevity. Critics were taken with the spare, minimalist style of his work, including the collections, "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Well, a scholar says Carver's stories may have been a little more spare than he wanted.

NPR's David Gura explains.

DAVID GURA: Ten years ago, journalist D.T. Max followed up on something he'd heard from a few New York literati. It was about the relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish. Rumor had it that Lish cut Carver's stories drastically - by as much as 70 percent. So D.T. Max went to the University of Indiana in Bloomington, home of the Gordon Lish papers. And when he leafed through the editor's manuscripts, he was stunned.

Mr. D.T. MAX (Journalist): I've looked at a lot of archives. I have never seen anything quite like the way Gordon Lish's handwritings sort of scrawls over Raymond Carver's typescript. He just cuts, and then he writes in. And his hand is confident and it's big. I mean, editors more typically make small emendations in the margins. That wasn't what Gordon was up to. In his mind, they were co-writers and he was the writer who wrote second and therefore, wrote for keeps.

GURA: In the 1970s and '80s, Gordon Lish was known as Captain Fiction. As an editor at Esquire, then at Knopf, Lish published Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, Barry Hannah and Raymond Carver. He met Carver in California in the '60s. Back then, Carver struggled with his writing and with alcoholism. By the time he wrote "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" in the early '80s, he was sober. His widow, Tess Gallagher, says that his writing meant more to him then than it did before.

Ms. TESS GALLAGHER (Gordon Lish's Widow): Ray went through a lot of drafts. And he definitely needed an editor. And Gordon Lish became that editor. And he was a very intelligent editor, and they had a very good relationship through a good part of Ray's career. But at this point, Ray was coming out of the chaos in which he'd had three systemic collapses from the alcoholism. And I think he really connected so closely with these stories in the part of his re-entry into his writing as a sober person.

GURA: Now, 20 years after her husband's death, Gallagher wants the world to see how his prose changed - or how it was changed. She says that the originals have more description, more dialogue, and that they're not as dark. One of them has already been printed in The New Yorker's fiction issue under its original title, "Beginners."

David Remnick, who edits The New Yorker, wrote an introduction to the piece.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, The New Yorker): I want to make it clear that I published "Beginners" in the spirit, not of an endorsement of "Beginners" as a, quote, unquote, "superior story" or original story, but I published it as a matter of interest.

GURA: Remnick doesn't believe that Lish made Carver, or that he was using Carver, or that Lish ghost-wrote Carver's stories.

Mr. REMNICK: Writers are not Frankenstein monsters. They're not idiot savants. Writing is really, really hard. And what Carver risked in every story is for everyone to see and to read and to feel.

GURA: Remnick also published several emotionally erratic letters that Raymond Carver sent to Gordon Lish. In one missive, Carver tells Lish that he feels closer to him than he does to his own brother. In another, he begs Lish not to publish "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love."

D.T. Max reads an excerpt from that letter.

Mr. D.T. MAX: He says, I've got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I've been up all night thinking on this and nothing but this, so help me. I've looked at it from every side. I've compared both versions of the edited manuscript. First one is better, I truly believe.

GURA: Nevertheless, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" was published with Lish's edits to resounding success. One of those who praised it was Doris Betts, who reviewed the book for the Washington Post. Betts taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for more than 30 years. She compares "Beginners" without Gordon Lish's edits to the short story she read and reviewed rather favorably a quarter century ago.

Professor DORIS BETTS (Creative Writing, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill): The first edits that he makes on page one, for instance, I thought they were pretty sensible, you know? Any writer would say, yeah, it was better to cut this word out, yes. But the deeper you go into the manuscript, the more it becomes surgical. It becomes an amputation.

GURA: Lish changed the ending.

Ms. BETTS: He literally wrote it. He wrote an extra paragraph that was not Carver's, but was Lish's. And that seems to me to be going beyond what an editor can do.

GURA: Still, The New Yorker's David Remnick says that it's impossible to overlook how Gordon Lish helped Raymond Carver's writing and his career.

Mr. REMNICK: It's my feeling that Carver learned something from Lish and internalized something from Lish's edits. And it helped him develop this aesthetic that we know as Raymond Carver's style, which may be fuller and lusher in the later stories and more spare and laconic in the middle stories, but nevertheless, it's a recognizable voice from beginning to end.

GURA: Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, says there's more of that voice to hear. But getting his unedited manuscripts to readers may be difficult. Most contracts prohibit writers from releasing books that could compete with books they've already published. But Gallagher says she doesn't envision this proposed collection of Carver's original stories as a replacement. She says readers would benefit from seeing both versions.

Ms. GALLAGHER: I think it's possible to have people preferring Lish's way of treating it or Ray's. And you will learn something in the process of that comparative work. And you'll definitely learn something about Ray.

GURA: Whether or not readers will be able to see the stories side by side may be in the hands of lawyers. Knopf says it holds the exclusive publishing license for "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." The agent for the Carver estate and Tess Gallagher says she holds the copyright to the collection. Gallagher plans to submit 17 of Carver's short stories as she says he wanted them to be printed to Knopf.

David Gura, NPR News.

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