What we talk about when we talk about editing

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.

2 thoughts on “What we talk about when we talk about editing

  1. KB

    As someone who’s fairly new to the job of editing, I’ve found that after performing many, many, many edits (because, you know, there just aren’t many good writers out there in terms of grammatical correctness [or maybe there just aren’t a lot of good writers out there, period]), the short story/article/novella/essay/academic journal or whathaveyou begins to take on my personal writing voice. Suddenly I read the piece as a whole and I’m like, “Jesus, this totally sounds like I wrote it!”

    Editing someone else’s work to the point where it sounds like it came straight from my flash drive is not a conscious choice, obviously – it’s just that when people turn in crap, there’s no choice but to practically rewrite the whole damn thing (especially if you’re working under tight deadlines and/or asking the writer who turned in said crap to go back to the drawing board is out of the question and/or completely cutting the piece is not an option). Sometimes I feel like a fraud when I look at the published piece and see another author’s name attached to it.

    C’est la vie in the world of editing, I suppose (at least an editor who’s still totally green at this point, anyway).

  2. GOTHAMGIRL

    Extreames are bad. In the novel Jaws the publisher or editor said it didn’t have enough sex in it. So the writer, to appease them, added a whole bit about a affair the scientist has with the sheriffs wife. When spildberg got a hold of it he cut it out because he knew it was unnessary crap. Some writers have now reached a point where they don’t have to listen to a editor and so they don’t but their work isn’t nessarily better for it. No editing can lead to a lack of improvement or reduntency. Too much editing can lead to a work that’s not really the authors but worse, a peice the’s what the editor “thinks” people want to read instead of what they want to read. Imagine if vampies are really popular at the moment and your editor says you need to add a vampire to your story that’s about plague out break. You would be ever so pissed.

    Now for my nerdiness to show. Because of the editorial changes that would be made at marvel some writers would purposely turn their work in late to prevent story changes, mind you it would also allow mistakes to be made. A prime example of why writers would feel this is nessesary involves Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler is the son of Mystique and a demon like mutant from a sub dimension. However, orginally Nightcrawler was suppose to be born from Mystiques lesbian lover Irene Adler, aka Destiny, after morphing into a man for the conception. Marvel wouldn’t allow it stating it was too “controversal.”


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