"The Carver Chronicles" [aka "Raymond Carver's Afterlife"]
by D. T. Max : New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1998

"Lashed by Lish"
by David Bowman : Salon Magazine, September 1, 1998

"Typing for the Dead : Carver Reviews Gordon Lish"
by David Bowman : New York Observer, November 23, 1998

    A Review by Cooper Renner

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Over the past several months, three articles have appeared in three magazines which call into question the contributions of Gordon Lish to American literature in the past thirty years. The first of these, "The Carver Chronicles" by D. T. Max, is a balanced, thoughtful investigation-- generally, into the claims that Raymond Carver is not solely responsible for some of his fiction and, specifically, into the claim that Lish more than edited Carver's early publications, that he, on occasions, virtually rewrote them. Max operates like a serious journalist in this essay, revealing his initial prejudices upfront and doing the legwork to get as near the truth of these claims as he can. David Bowman's articles, "Lashed by Lish" and "Typing for the Dead," more nearly resemble hatchet jobs. "Lashed by Lish" seems to owe its existence principally to the previous appearance of Max's article and the ensuing controversy. Bowman makes no pretense at objectivity and writes rather as a columnist-- a pundit-- whose views are to be taken as established, for the most part, simply because he has stated them. "Typing for the Dead," though labeled a "review," is likewise simply an attack, utilizing a particularly graceless approach-- the ruse, in the name of humor, that he is "channeling" the views of Raymond Carver rather than presenting his own.
     I must state here at the outset that I am not especially interested in Carver's writing. Whether that makes me dispassionate or just plain goofy, you can decide for yourself. But I do not intend to look into the writing of Lish or Carver per se, but rather at the "evidence" of Lish's hand in Carver's work as presented by Max. Some of you will also consider it pertinent that I, as a poet, have been published by Lish in the pages of his defunct The Quarterly [under another form of my name-- Cooper Esteban.]

Bowman makes no pretense at objectivity and writes rather as a columnist-- a pundit-- whose views are to be taken as established, for the most part, simply because he has stated them.

     Because Max makes no attempt to hide his own emotional interest in the issue, it is worth noting, as a place from which to begin, a few sentences in which Max lays out his prejudices and observations. First, in questioning Lish's contribution to Carver's stories, he writes, "Lish had written fiction, too : If he was such a great talent, why did so few people care about his own work?" About midway through the article, three sentences only a few paragraphs apart are especially noteworthy. As Max examines Lish's papers in the Lilly Library [University of Indiana], including his copies-- often heavily edited-- of Carver's stories, he says, "As I thumbed through various manuscripts at the Lilly, my face was flushed. I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean." Then Max makes a judgment, on the evidence of his reading, "Lish's editorial changes generally struck me as for the better." And then, at the end of that same paragraph, a conclusion: "In all cases [of edits], however, I had one sustained reaction : for better or worse, Lish was in there." Finally, near the end of the article, he admits, "To be sure, some of the early stories were so transformed by Lish that they should be considered the product of two minds." This is no neglible conclusion, especially in the light of his earlier claim that he "wanted Carver to win" and when one considers the devotion of the literary public to Carver's writing.
     What is most impressive about Max's article is the thoroughness of his investigation. Rather than simply compare-and-contrast Lish's writing [which "so few people care about"] and Carver's [which is revered], he goes to the available raw material-- Lish's papers at the University of Indiana and Carver's at Ohio State-- as well as to Lish himself. Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, chose not to talk to Max, although he was able to access previously recorded material in which she has spoken of her contributions to her husband's work. These investigations led him to a verdict which cannot please any Carver partisan: in speaking of Carver's famed collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, he notes, "Lish cut about half the original words and rewrote ten of the thirteen endings." The second assessment is, of course, far more damning-- at least on the surface-- because it strikes to the heart of the claim that Lish did not simply edit Carver, but rather reshaped him. But editing can be a reshaping too.

"In all cases [of edits], however, I had one sustained reaction : for better or worse, Lish was in there."

     Max refers, for example, to an earlier case of "deep" editing-- that of Ezra Pound and "The Waste Land." As Max points out, Pound "eliminat[ed] the strong element of parody. . . . [He] found a voice-- not necessarily the voice Eliot intended-- and honed it brilliantly." What this means, simply, is that even though Pound did not actually compose sentences for Eliot's poems, he nevertheless significantly altered the tone and impact of the poem with his cuts. He did not merely "tighten it up"-- he changed it. But Lish's work on Carver's stories, according to Max, goes much farther than that:

    "There are countless cuts and additions to the pages; entire paragraphs have been added. Lish's black felt-tip markings sometimes obliterate the original text."
    "In Lish's hands, fatness becomes sexual potency, fullness, presence. He finds the resonance Carver missed."
    "What's noteworthy about ["Tell the Women We're Going"] is the way Carver makes a boring afternoon build to murder. Lish didn't care about this. He was after more abstract effects."
    ". . . the minimalist tone, for good or ill, was Lish's. He was more avant-garde than Carver. . ."

     This last contention, though the wording is Max's, comes from Brian Evenson, a "Lish" author and professor of English at Oklahoma State. Evenson goes on to say, "It's no wonder Carver grew angry when critics called him a minimalist. That was Lish." What these statements, taken together, testify to is a deliberate recasting by Lish of Carver's "raw material." That Carver objected [or came to object] to much of this reshaping is not, for me, the point. The point is that the reshaping occurred, and it seems foolish to pretend that it did not. Likewise foolish is the denial that this reshaping had a profound impact on Carver's career.
     As Max points out, critics and reviewers of "What We Talk About" "praised its minimalist style and announced a new school of fiction." Is this not tantamount to saying that critics especially loved the "Lish element" of Carver's stories? Or as Carver himself wrote to Lish, "I'll say it again, if I have any standing or reputation or c[r]edibility in the world, I owe it to you." It is here also that one can find a partial answer to Max's early question about why Lish's own writing is not loved.
     Readers loved the early Carver because it was a hybrid-- the sharply intelligent avant-garde technique of Lish applied to accessible, "believable" characters and situations. In Lish's fiction, the subject matter is entirely different, and thus many readers are "turned off"-- besides which, whether Lish's fictions are currently beloved has no bearing on the issue of the quality of his work-- nobody much loved Moby-Dick in the 1850's either.

...Max perhaps adjures us, if indirectly, to love the stories and leave off with questions of their provenance...

     But Max, it is clear, does not relish the idea that Lish's hand moves so obviously through Carver's first two collections of stories. He does not really want Lish "to win." Even so, he is too honest a critic and reader to slant his findings away from the "truth." The best that he can do is second [or third, if you will] a contention of Pound's that Carver himself once cited-- "It's immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them." By closing with this anecdote, Max perhaps adjures us, if indirectly, to love the stories and leave off with questions of their provenance, even if-- only a few lines earlier-- he admits that a time might come when Gallagher reveals her own "deeper" collaboration with Carver's later stories. If so, Max says, "I suspect I will start to feel about Carver the way I do about [Thomas] Wolfe : namely, that he was a writer who never left a clear record of his talents."
     Additionally, for those who want Carver's talents to remain unimpeached, Max quotes another American writer in specific relation to the issue of Carver and Lish. That Max places this quote midway through the article, where its importance is somewhat blunted, cannot even so remove its sting. Max recounts the advice of Don DeLillo in a letter to Lish on the matter of Lish speaking publicly about the extent of his "collaboration" with Carver. DeLillo urges Lish not to make such a revelation. "People wouldn't think less of Carver," he writes, "for having had to lean so heavily on an editor; they'd resent Lish for complicating the reading of the stories. In the meantime, take good care of your archives."
     And thus we reach the entire reason for Max's article-- Lish has taken good care of his archives, and the evidence within them is unmistakable.
     That this is a state of affairs which David Bowman, unlike Max, cannot tolerate is immediately obvious from "Typing for the Dead," his "review" of Lish's most recent novel Arcade. But Bowman's disdain of Lish goes beyond the Carver affair, as "Lashed by Lish" reveals. The article reveals anger and a willingness to misrepresent [or an inability to appreciate] Lish's achievements. In fact, if one has read Max's article carefully, one immediately realizes that Bowman is reckless with Max as well. Bowman summarizes Max's article as being about "claims that . . . Carver's early short stories were more or less ghost-written by his editor, Gordon Lish." Max's essay, of course, is a good deal more involved than that. For one thing, "ghost-written" is an entirely incorrect term for the kind of work that Lish put into Carver's early stories and is not, I think, a term that Max would condone. For another, although I have in this column focused on the Carver/Lish issue, Max's article as a whole concerns itself also with claims by Carver's ex-wives that they influenced his stories and with an examination of the interactions between other editors and writers. Bowman's summary diminishes the scope of Max's work.
     Bowman also brushes aside the evidence Max so carefully lays out in his essay by beginning the sentence immediately following that quoted above with "Whether or not Lish played Svengali [or Rasputin] to Carver. . . ." Needless to say, Bowman's choice of metaphors also trivializes and even demonizes Lish's work with Carver. The remainder of this sentence is ". . . the white-haired former Knopf editor was portrayed as a ghost." This too misrepresents Max's more nuanced depiction, though one might argue that the difference is solely nuance. Max writes, "Now 64, [Lish] is a widower living alone in a spacious apartment. . . . He shuffles around in his socks, his long white hair and loose clothes making him look like a vanquished sorceror." Except for the word "vanquished," Max's information is neutrally descriptive, rather than pejorative. Furthermore, if one actually means one's metsphors, then one knows that a sorceror, even if vanquished, is still a man of power. In myth and fairy tale, a vanquished sorceror is always capable of resurgence. In additon, "sorceror" is, technically, a job description and need not imply evil, except perhaps to fundamentalists. Finally it is important that Max specifies that Lish simply looks like a sorceror. This is a far cry from Bowman's "portrayed as a ghost," who has power, presumably, only to haunt.
     Bowman then moves on to belittle Lish by equating him with the 1980's, a decade Bowman obviously despises. "[T]he 1980's," he writes, "were a cartoon. . . Reagan's and Mr. T's and Gordon Lish's decade." By assuming a generic disdain for Reagan and Mr. T, and then linking Lish to them, Bowman attempts to make Lish unattractive by the company "he keeps."
     After this fairly careless introduction, Bowman reveals what will be the meat of his case against Lish-- Lish's "notorious" [Bowman's word] writing workshops. Let me reiterate at this point the method of my column-- even as I previously looked at Max's article and the presentation of his "evidence," here I am not presuming to comment upon the nature of Lish's classes [which I have never attended] but rather upon Bowman's argument.
     Bowman's initial assault on Lish's class comes via a citation of a GQ article by Neal Karlen who, like Bowman, was a student. The heart of Karlen's disgruntlement [at least as presented by Bowman] is that Karlen was one of the "unfortunate" students who never got to read more than the first sentence of any of his stories in Lish's class. Apparently Bowman intends us to find Lish's treatment of Karlen's fiction capricious and cruel, but since he doesn't give us any of Karlen's first sentences, we can only wonder whether we might not, in fact, have silenced Karlen ourselves.

Bowman moves from Karlen's attack to his own. He admits that his opinion of Lish, based upon what he had read about him before meeting him, was that he "sounded like a jerk. But he was Knopf's jerk."

     Bowman moves from Karlen's attack to his own. He admits that his opinion of Lish, based upon what he had read about him before meeting him, was that he "sounded like a jerk. But he was Knopf's jerk." This is, of course, an admission of opportunism-- Bowman will use Lish for what he can get from him-- a not uncommon condition among aspiring writers. He queries Lish about sending his ms. along, and Lish responds, "Send it." But after sending the novel itself, Bowman waits only two weeks before recording and mailing a five-minute cassette monologue "on why [Lish] and Knopf should publish my book."
     Bowman's tape and rejected ms. crossed in the mail. But Lish liked the tape when he received it and told Bowman [in Bowman's words] that "he could make something of me." This sequence of events should-- I think-- have tipped Bowman off to the nature of Lish's interest : it seems extremely significant [to me] that Lish rejected Bowman's writing but responded favorably to his monologue. "Voice" matters immensely to Lish-- even Bowman admits that Lish has a marvelous ear for the English language. Without seeing Lish's notes to Bowman and Bowman's ms., without hearing Bowman's tape, I cannot assert that the tape positively reveals a literary potential that the written Bowman did not-- but that is exactly the situation which Bowman's narrative suggests. Lish also sent Bowman a flyer for his class in Bloomington at Indiana University.
     "Now, at that time," Bowman tells us, "I didn't think I needed to take any damn workshop." But he does so anyway-- out of the despair of the unpublished novelist. This despair is nothing to mock-- after a while, almost any struggling writer will do almost anything to get a "break." But Bowman's attitude going into the workshop certainly indicates a predisposition to learn nothing from it. Nothing Bowman writes about the workshop is positive. He debunks Lish's implication that he is dangerous-- "I was in the bughouse twice and in jail once." He derides Lish's format-- "talking nonstop for not less than three hours." He belittles the only actual "teachings" he quotes by labeling them pronouncements, and yet-- and yet-- "The winter after the summer workshop, I took Lish's class for six months [he gave me a discount.]"
     What he gleaned from the extended class seems to boil down to three items :
     1. Most of Lish's "discourses consisted of pitting us against each other or pitting writers he'd published against other writers he's published."
     2. He implies that Lish was fickle in his opinions about Amy Hempel's and Harold Brodkey's writings.
     3. He calls Lish's teaching "the cult of the sentence."

     The first item Bowman castigates as making writers neurotic, though Lish's teaching in this regard is probably only different from classic "ambition" in intensity-- writers have always tried to build upon, and supersede, work from previous generations, as well as work from their peers. In the second case none of us ought to comment upon unpublished writing which we have not seen, but Lish's "fickleness" seems to have been approved by the writers themselves, since both refrained from releasing the work in question. But it is Bowman's treatment of the "cult of the sentence" which I must take particular exception to.

This would seem, likewise, to be at the heart of Lish's disappointment with Carver-- that Carver insisted on turning away from impeccable sentences and settled into a more colloquial convention...

     Lish's remark, "Don't have stories-- have sentences," for example, needs a context, but even out of context it would seem to imply a more careful approach to writing than is so often observed in American literature. "If the sentences are not good," we might amplify, "it doesn't matter how believable the characters are, or how entrancing the plot ." After all, Lish's students ought to understand that they are not going to him to learn to write bestsellers-- he is preparing them to become servants of Art, capital A, heavy accentuation. This would seem, likewise, to be at the heart of Lish's disappointment with Carver-- that Carver insisted on turning away from impeccable sentences and settled into a more colloquial convention [or as Max says Evenson says-- Carver's "real voice was closer to his plain-spoken poetry."]
     More inexplicably, Bowman seems to misunderstand what may be the most significant Lish "quote" he gives. He quotes Lish as saying, "Each sentence must flow from the preceding sentence." Bowman interprets this to mean : " 'The second sentence follows the first. The third follows the second. The fourth the third.' That's it. That was the million-dollar secret." There are only two possibilities for this reductionism : 1] Bowman truly did not understand what Lish was teaching; or 2] he wants, for whatever reason, deliberately to misrepresent Lish's teaching. That each sentence must flow from the preceding is a dictum akin to Poe's concept of the short story in which every word contributes to one, and only one, mood. What Lish's sentence means, to me, is that nothing in a "following" sentence can come out of the blue-- it must in some way convey information inherent in the preceding sentence. Everything must relate to what has gone before, and all of that must, in some way, be conveyed by the story's very first sentence. But Bowman, somehow, misses this idea.
     Bowman concludes his essay, after some genuine praise for Lish [including his ear], with a denunciation of Lish's writing. Lish wants, Bowman says, to sit at the head of the "table of American letters." Well, sure. Don't we all? But, Bowman says, "Whoever gets to sit there, it will never never never be Gordon Lish. The man's books are godawful." By the same token, his alleged review in The New York Observer might be reduced to "[Arcade] is godawful."
     I am, frankly, baffled as to why the Observer would assign Bowman to review Arcade. While one might get an interesting rant by assigning one writer to review another whose work he despises, one is not likely to learn anything about the book being reviewed. In fact, what a prospective reader, curious about Lish's new novel, learns in the Observer review is very little:
     1] that the narrator sits with his injured foot elevated as he writes [and even in reporting this Bowman makes no distinction between Lish the author and Lish the narrator of the novel];
     2] that the book contains blank pages, as well as sentences in which "[n]othing happens"; and
     3] that Lish's "sentences beat the page like a drummer banging his skins."

     This metaphor continues, "Gordon Lish writes like Ringo Starr. Or, better, Gene Krupa. The rhythm of his sentences beats on after they're finished." This final sentence, which sounds suspiciously like praise to me, is clearly intended by the context to be a slam. But Bowman is obviously most exercised by the blank pages. "His blank pages make me chew the insides of my mouth. I think about all those kids in writing school. Fill up the page, I used to say. The blank page is not to be feared." That this rant, along with almost all of the review, is purportedly a communication-- via celestial typewriter-- from Raymond Carver is a thin masking device indeed, and seems especially distasteful considering the controversy off which it feeds.

There is the sense, in both pieces of Bowman's writing, that he has before him the "information" needed to respond more positively and insightfully to Lish's fiction, but for some reason...he is not able to make the move.

     "His blank pages," Carver/Bowman writes, "mock every aspiring writer in the U.S.A." Why? Presumably because Lish's cachet allows him to publish them when the "aspiring" writer can't get his filled pages published. But since Bowman himself, in the Salon article, quotes Lish as teaching students to "write around the clock," he should not imply that Lish is using blank pages to suggest that struggling writers ought not to write. Nor does his rant against the blank pages make any serious attempt to deal with the aesthetic or rationale behind them. It is not as if Lish uses the device in every work : they are a feature peculiar to Arcade. Bowman even correctly cites [at least part of] the reasoning behind Lish's process when he has "Carver" write, "He justifies the empty pages with mockery. 'Page after page of genius and what credit do I get for it?' "-- a question which might seem almost to respond directly to Max's assertion of Lish's lack of "popularity." But the faux Carver's response to this "explanation" is not understanding of the technique, even if he disagrees with its use, but rather outrage-- the mouth-chewing noted above. There is the sense, in both pieces of Bowman's writing, that he has before him the "information" needed to respond more positively and insightfully to Lish's fiction, but for some reason-- perhaps simply an inborn disinclination to Lish's "type" of literature-- he is not able to make the move.
     Why does that gap so enrage him? Does it seem unjust to him that Lish have any notoriety at all? Does he resent Lish's apparent lack of interest in his [Bowman's] writing? Does he feel that Lish is, in some way, a huckster whom only he can "see through" and expose? I cannot pretend to answer any of these questions, but because Bowman's writings about Lish are so ingenuously biased, neither can I consider Bowman-- unlike Max-- any sort of reliable source of insight into Lish-- as teacher, editor or writer.
     Max's lengthy and reasonable article makes it clear that Lish's skills as an editor-- and as a [re]writer-- have had a significant hand in the development of American short fiction in the past twenty-odd years. Exactly how and to what extent he may have "co-authored" Carver's early work is a topic for researchers with cool heads to pursue. Max may indeed be further involved in this investigation, but it is not likely that Bowman will be.

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About Cooper

Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner. He is a published poet and a very eclectic fellow.