Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: raymond carver

Not a book deal. Yet. Hopefully soon there. Querying and such.

Sitting there in Miami airport, which currently has free Google wifi that doesn’t actually work, or didn’t on my iPhone. My phone goes off with a number I don’t have stored in my contacts. Usually I let such calls go straight to voicemail. Usually it’s a creditor or something. I’m a writer, so payment due dates are like deadlines, both of which I love for the whooshing sound they make as they shoot past.

I’m glad I didn’t. It was the chair of the English department at the college where I’m currently teaching composition. Or was teaching composition last semester. There’s been a lot of alteration to my schedule; when they asked me onboard, they offered me two classes, but they only had one for me by the time the semester started. I took it anyway. This semester around, they’ve switched me out of not one but two classes. I get it, of course; there are a lot of other faculty members who have been there for ages, so seniority gets dibs. I’m still a new guy, only having been there for a semester, and it’s not like I’m tenured or anything. Technically, in fact, I’m still an adjunct instructor, and not a professor, even though they still call me a professor.

The chair told me there was good news and bad news. The bad was that they had shuffled me out of the composition class. I was disappointed by this; they had begun me in one only to shuffle me into the second-half of my first semester class, which I was actually looking forward to as a challenge; I’ve never taught a two-semester course. Never had any student for more than one semester.

The good news, though, was that they had a prose fiction course offered. Which is, like the composition course, a part of the core curriculum, but which is an actual literature course.

This is ludicrously exciting for me. Then again, I’m a giant geek, so of course it is.

I’m leaving in a moment to discuss the syllabus and book choice with the chair. So far I’m hoping to use a few stories by Poe, one by Hawthorne, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Stephen King’s Night Shift and Different Seasons collection (for my money, the finest collections ever published, in any language), and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I think this will work. I know Gatsby will fly, and I saw a few other syllabi include both A Thousand Splendid Suns and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, both of which are rather contemporary and the former of which is decidedly popular (if not exactly genre), but I have a good feeling.

I have a great feeling, in fact. This is gonna be fun.

Edit to add: All books approved. Also given a big book of short stories I can select from. So there’s my week/end.

In light of the discussion on what editors actually do, and why they may or may not be necessary, I thought I’d point to a piece I found over at the New Yorker (though I’m not sure whom I found it by. Someone in my blogroll, probably). The article concerns Raymond Carver and his editor, one Gordon Lish.

I’ve not read much Carver. My sister is a big fan of his, and even won a bet concerning plot and structure by showing her professor a copy of one of Carver’s collections, but I’ve not really yet explored much of his stuff. I don’t know much about Carver at all, really. He just ain’t my cup of tea, to be honest. I make jokes all the time about blowing shit up, but Carver’s stories, while minimalist, also seem a careful study in the “not much happens” school of short story telling. Which always makes me say, “Wait, nothing happened? Then why the fuck are you telling me the story? Is there a point?”

Personal predilections aside, his voice is distinctive. Nothing may happen, but somehow, you still sort of feel the nothing happening. His stories are weird that way.

Anyway, Gordon Lish was editor of Esquire for several years. Judging by his Wikipedia entry, he was involved with the “Merry Pranksters,” including Kerouac, Casaday, and Ginsberg in SF before he and his second wife moved to NYC. He earned some renown through his career: DeLillo, Kundera, Nabokov . . . the list goes on.

From the Wikipedia entry on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”:

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is actually a heavily edited version of Carver’s original draft, “Beginners.” His editor, Gordon Lish, cut out nearly half of Carver’s story, adding in details of his own. Carver’s version, released by his widow, Tess Gallagher, in December 2007 to The New Yorker magazine, shows the extensive, and sometimes apparently arbitrary edits.

Now I’m going to speak about this from some personal experience, and admit something; I was, for other writers, not a very good editor. I always tried to make the writing better, the story better, but often to the detriment of the original material, the original voice, and the original content. A good editor maintains that original content; I really wasn’t one. I wasn’t bad, exactly; I just wasn’t good.

Here’s the New Yorker article on the story.

I think it’s worth reading if only for the glance into the sometimes esoteric realm of what occurs behind the scenes in writing and publishing. Considering Lish’s edits, is the story really any better, or is it, in fact, worse for the wear? I’ll admit I found Carver’s original final several paragraphs rather poignant, especially the horses bit, and especially the end; does their loss negatively affect the story? Or was Lish correct that they were stronger without them?

Or is Lish just some editor who was never good enough to be a writer and so had to butcher other author’s works? Sure, he “introduced” major writers of the 20th century, but what did he do to their stories? Considering the finalized state of Carver’s story compared to its original, I cringe to think what he did to Nabokov and Kundera, personally. And I don’t even really like either of them.

Questions, questions.

At what point do you, as Carver say, “You know what? Sorry, but that’s not the story I wrote. You can publish that, if you like, but you’ll have to write it yourself.”

It’s almost like Lish was the P. Diddy of his time, sampling a classic song, laying a bit of new vocal on it, calling it his own, and cashing in.

Or maybe it’s almost like Lish helped those writers transcend their otherwise mediocre writing?

I’ll admit, I haven’t a clue.

Which is, largely, the reason I chose to self-publish my collection. Not because I didn’t want editorial input; I’d already gotten it, several times over. Rather, just because I just don’t know how important editorial input is to short stories anymore.

Finally, also, some thoughts on how to become an editor, over at et cetera.