"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 threemagazines which call into question the contributions of Gordon Lish toAmerican literature in the past thirty years. The first of these, "TheCarver Chronicles" by D. T. Max, is a balanced, thoughtfulinvestigation-- generally, into the claims that Raymond Carver is notsolely responsible for some of his fiction and, specifically, into theclaim that Lish more than edited Carver's early publications, that he,on occasions, virtually rewrote them. Max operates like a seriousjournalist in this essay, revealing his initial prejudices upfront anddoing 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 itsexistence principally to the previous appearance of Max's article andthe ensuing controversy. Bowman makes no pretense at objectivity and writesrather as a columnist-- a pundit-- whose views are to be taken asestablished, for the most part, simply because he has stated them. "Typing for the Dead," though labeled a "review," is likewise simply anattack, utilizing a particularly graceless approach-- the ruse, in thename of humor, that he is "channeling" the views of Raymond Carverrather than presenting his own.
     I must state here at the outset that I am not especiallyinterested in Carver's writing. Whether that makes me dispassionate orjust plain goofy, you can decide for yourself. But I do not intend tolook 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. Someofyou will also consider it pertinent that I, as a poet, have beenpublished by Lish in the pages of his defunct The Quarterly [underanother form of my name-- Cooper Esteban.]

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

     Because Max makes no attempt to hide his own emotional interestin the issue, it is worth noting, as a place from which to begin, a fewsentences in which Max lays out his prejudices and observations. First,in questioning Lish's contribution to Carver's stories, he writes, "Lishhad written fiction, too : If he was such a great talent, why did sofewpeople care about his own work?" About midway through the article,threesentences only a few paragraphs apart are especially noteworthy. As Maxexamines Lish's papers in the Lilly Library [University of Indiana],including his copies-- often heavily edited-- of Carver's stories, hesays, "As I thumbed through various manuscripts at the Lilly, my facewasflushed. I wanted Carver to win, whatever that might mean." Then Maxmakes a judgment, on the evidence of his reading, "Lish's editorialchanges generally struck me as for the better." And then, at the end ofthat same paragraph, a conclusion: "In all cases [of edits], however, Ihad one sustained reaction : for better or worse, Lish was in there." Finally, near the end of the article, he admits, "To be sure, some oftheearly stories were so transformed by Lish that they should be consideredthe product of two minds." This is no neglible conclusion, especiallyinthe light of his earlier claim that he "wanted Carver to win" and whenone considers the devotion of the literary public to Carver's writing.
     What is most impressive about Max's article is the thoroughnessof his investigation. Rather than simply compare-and-contrast Lish'swriting [which "so few people care about"] and Carver's [which isrevered], he goes to the available raw material-- Lish's papers at theUniversity of Indiana and Carver's at Ohio State-- as well as to Lishhimself. Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, chose not to talk to Max,although he was able to access previously recorded material in which shehas spoken of her contributions to her husband's work. Theseinvestigations led him to a verdict which cannot please any Carverpartisan: in speaking of Carver's famed collection What We Talk AboutWhen We Talk About Love, he notes, "Lish cut about half the originalwords and rewrote ten of the thirteen endings." The second assessmentis, of course, far more damning-- at least on the surface-- because itstrikes 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, Ihad 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 actuallycompose sentences for Eliot's poems, he nevertheless significantlyaltered the tone and impact of the poem with his cuts. He did notmerely"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 theoriginal 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 BrianEvenson, a "Lish" author and professor of English at Oklahoma State. Evenson goes on to say, "It's no wonder Carver grew angry when criticscalled him a minimalist. That was Lish." What these statements, takentogether, testify to is a deliberate recasting by Lish of Carver's "rawmaterial." That Carver objected [or came to object] to much of thisreshaping is not, for me, the point. The point is that the reshapingoccurred, and it seems foolish to pretend that it did not. Likewisefoolish is the denial that this reshaping had a profound impact onCarver'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." Isthis not tantamount to saying that critics especially loved the "Lishelement" of Carver's stories? Or as Carver himself wrote to Lish, "I'llsay it again, if I have any standing or reputation or c[r]edibility inthe world, I owe it to you." It is here also that one can find apartialanswer to Max's early question about why Lish's own writing is notloved.
    Readers loved the early Carver because it was a hybrid-- the sharplyintelligent avant-garde technique of Lish applied to accessible,"believable" characters and situations. In Lish's fiction, the subjectmatter is entirely different, and thus many readers are "turned off"--besides which, whether Lish's fictions are currently beloved has nobearing on the issue of the quality of his work-- nobody much lovedMoby-Dick in the 1850's either.

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

    But Max, it is clear, does not relish the idea that Lish's handmoves so obviously through Carver's first two collections of stories. Hedoes not really want Lish "to win." Even so, he is too honest a criticand reader to slant his findings away from the "truth." The best thathecan do is second [or third, if you will] a contention of Pound's thatCarver himself once cited-- "It's immensely important that great poemsbewritten, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them." Byclosing with this anecdote, Max perhaps adjures us, if indirectly, tolove the stories and leave off with questions of their provenance, evenif-- only a few lines earlier-- he admits that a time might come whenGallagher reveals her own "deeper" collaboration with Carver's laterstories. If so, Max says, "I suspect I will start to feel about Carverthe way I do about [Thomas] Wolfe : namely, that he was a writer whonever left a clear record of his talents."
    Additionally, for those who want Carver's talents to remainunimpeached, Max quotes another American writer in specific relation tothe issue of Carver and Lish. That Max places this quote midway throughthe article, where its importance is somewhat blunted, cannot even soremove its sting. Max recounts the advice of Don DeLillo in a letter toLish on the matter of Lish speaking publicly about the extent of his"collaboration" with Carver. DeLillo urges Lish not to make such arevelation. "People wouldn't think less of Carver," he writes, "forhaving had to lean so heavily on an editor; they'd resent Lish forcomplicating the reading of the stories. In the meantime, take goodcareof your archives."
    And thus we reach the entire reason for Max's article-- Lish hastaken good care of his archives, and the evidence within them isunmistakable.
    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 ofLish goes beyond the Carver affair, as "Lashed by Lish" reveals. Thearticle reveals anger and a willingness to misrepresent [or an inabilityto appreciate] Lish's achievements. In fact, if one has read Max'sarticle carefully, one immediately realizes that Bowman is reckless withMax as well. Bowman summarizes Max's article as being about "claimsthat. . . Carver's early short stories were more or less ghost-written byhiseditor, Gordon Lish." Max's essay, of course, is a good deal moreinvolved than that. For one thing, "ghost-written" is an entirelyincorrect term for the kind of work that Lish put into Carver's earlystories and is not, I think, a term that Max would condone. Foranother,although I have in this column focused on the Carver/Lish issue, Max'sarticle as a whole concerns itself also with claims by Carver's ex-wivesthat they influenced his stories and with an examination of theinteractions between other editors and writers. Bowman's summarydiminishes the scope of Max's work.
    Bowman also brushes aside the evidence Max so carefully lays outin his essay by beginning the sentence immediately following that quotedabove with "Whether or not Lish played Svengali [or Rasputin] to Carver.. . ." Needless to say, Bowman's choice of metaphors also trivializesand even demonizes Lish's work with Carver. The remainder of thissentence is ". . . the white-haired former Knopf editor was portrayed asa ghost." This too misrepresents Max's more nuanced depiction, thoughone might argue that the difference is solely nuance. Max writes, "Now64, [Lish] is a widower living alone in a spacious apartment. . . . Heshuffles around in his socks, his long white hair and loose clothesmaking him look like a vanquished sorceror." Except for the word"vanquished," Max's information is neutrally descriptive, rather thanpejorative. Furthermore, if one actually means one's metsphors, thenoneknows that a sorceror, even if vanquished, is still a man of power. Inmyth and fairy tale, a vanquished sorceror is always capable ofresurgence. In additon, "sorceror" is, technically, a job descriptionand need not imply evil, except perhaps to fundamentalists. Finally itis 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 the1980'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." Byassuming a generic disdain for Reagan and Mr. T, and then linking Lishtothem, Bowman attempts to make Lish unattractive by the company "hekeeps."
    After this fairly careless introduction, Bowman reveals what willbe the meat of his case against Lish-- Lish's "notorious" [Bowman'sword]writing workshops. Let me reiterate at this point the method of mycolumn-- even as I previously looked at Max's article and thepresentation of his "evidence," here I am not presuming to comment uponthe nature of Lish's classes [which I have never attended] but ratherupon Bowman's argument.
    Bowman's initial assault on Lish's class comes via a citation ofa GQ article by Neal Karlen who, like Bowman, was a student. Theheartof Karlen's disgruntlement [at least as presented by Bowman] is thatKarlen was one of the "unfortunate" students who never got to read morethan the first sentence of any of his stories in Lish's class. Apparently Bowman intends us to find Lish's treatment of Karlen'sfictioncapricious and cruel, but since he doesn't give us any of Karlen's firstsentences, we can only wonder whether we might not, in fact, havesilenced Karlen ourselves.

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

    Bowman moves from Karlen's attack to his own. He admits thathis opinion of Lish, based upon what he had read about him beforemeetinghim, was that he "sounded like a jerk. But he was Knopf's jerk." Thisis, of course, an admission of opportunism-- Bowman will use Lish forwhat he can get from him-- a not uncommon condition among aspiringwriters. He queries Lish about sending his ms. along, and Lishresponds,"Send it." But after sending the novel itself, Bowman waits only twoweeks before recording and mailing a five-minute cassette monologue "onwhy [Lish] and Knopf should publish my book."
    Bowman's tape and rejected ms. crossed in the mail. But Lishliked 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--Ithink-- have tipped Bowman off to the nature of Lish's interest : itseems extremely significant [to me] that Lish rejected Bowman's writingbut responded favorably to his monologue. "Voice" matters immensely toLish-- even Bowman admits that Lish has a marvelous ear for the Englishlanguage. Without seeing Lish's notes to Bowman and Bowman's ms.,without hearing Bowman's tape, I cannot assert that the tape positivelyreveals a literary potential that the written Bowman did not-- but thatis exactly the situation which Bowman's narrative suggests. Lish alsosent Bowman a flyer for his class in Bloomington at Indiana University.
    "Now, at that time," Bowman tells us, "I didn't think I needed totake any damn workshop." But he does so anyway-- out of the despair ofthe unpublished novelist. This despair is nothing to mock-- after awhile, almost any struggling writer will do almost anything to get a"break." But Bowman's attitude going into the workshop certainlyindicates a predisposition to learn nothing from it. Nothing Bowmanwrites about the workshop is positive. He debunks Lish's implicationthat he is dangerous-- "I was in the bughouse twice and in jail once." He derides Lish's format-- "talking nonstop for not less than threehours." He belittles the only actual "teachings" he quotes by labelingthem pronouncements, and yet-- and yet-- "The winter after the summerworkshop, I took Lish's class for six months [he gave me a discount.]"
    What he gleaned from the extended class seems to boil down tothree items :
     1. Most of Lish's "discourses consisted of pitting usagainst each other or pitting writers he'd published againstother writers he's published."
     2. He implies that Lish was fickle in his opinions aboutAmy 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 fromclassic "ambition" in intensity-- writers have always tried to buildupon, and supersede, work from previous generations, as well as workfromtheir peers. In the second case none of us ought to comment uponunpublished writing which we have not seen, but Lish's "fickleness"seemsto have been approved by the writers themselves, since both refrainedfrom releasing the work in question. But it is Bowman's treatment ofthe"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-- thatCarver insisted on turning away from impeccable sentences and settledinto a more colloquial convention...

    Lish's remark, "Don't have stories-- have sentences," forexample, needs a context, but even out of context it would seem to implya more careful approach to writing than is so often observed in Americanliterature. "If the sentences are not good," we might amplify, "itdoesn't matter how believable the characters are, or how entrancing theplot ." After all, Lish's students ought to understand that they arenotgoing to him to learn to write bestsellers-- he is preparing them tobecome servants of Art, capital A, heavy accentuation. This would seem,likewise, to be at the heart of Lish's disappointment with Carver-- thatCarver insisted on turning away from impeccable sentences and settledinto 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 themost significant Lish "quote" he gives. He quotes Lish as saying, "Eachsentence must flow from the preceding sentence." Bowman interprets thisto mean : " 'The second sentence follows the first. The third followsthe second. The fourth the third.' That's it. That was themillion-dollar secret." There are only two possibilities for thisreductionism : 1] Bowman truly did not understand what Lish wasteaching; or 2] he wants, for whatever reason, deliberately tomisrepresent Lish's teaching. That each sentence must flow from thepreceding is a dictum akin to Poe's concept of the short story in whichevery word contributes to one, and only one, mood. What Lish's sentencemeans, to me, is that nothing in a "following" sentence can come out ofthe blue-- it must in some way convey information inherent in thepreceding sentence. Everything must relate to what has gone before, andall of that must, in some way, be conveyed by the story's very firstsentence. 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 sitthere,it will never never never be Gordon Lish. The man's books aregodawful." By the same token, his alleged review in The New York Observer mightbe reduced to "[Arcade] is godawful."
    I am, frankly, baffled as to why the Observer would assignBowman to review Arcade. While one might get an interesting rant byassigning one writer to review another whose work he despises, one isnotlikely to learn anything about the book being reviewed. In fact, what aprospective reader, curious about Lish's new novel, learns in theObserver review is very little:
     1] that the narrator sits with his injured foot elevatedas he writes [and even in reporting this Bowman makes no distinction between Lish theauthor and Lish the narrator of the novel];
     2] that the book contains blank pages, as well assentences in which "[n]othing happens"; and
     3] that Lish's "sentences beat the page like a drummerbanging 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, isclearly intended by the context to be a slam. But Bowman is obviouslymost exercised by the blank pages. "His blank pages make me chew theinsides 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 acommunication-- via celestial typewriter-- from Raymond Carver is a thinmasking device indeed, and seems especially distasteful considering thecontroversy off which it feeds.

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

    "His blank pages," Carver/Bowman writes, "mock every aspiringwriter in the U.S.A." Why? Presumably because Lish's cachet allows himto publish them when the "aspiring" writer can't get his filled pagespublished. But since Bowman himself, in the Salon article, quotesLishas teaching students to "write around the clock," he should not implythat Lish is using blank pages to suggest that struggling writers oughtnot to write. Nor does his rant against the blank pages make anyseriousattempt to deal with the aesthetic or rationale behind them. It is notas if Lish uses the device in every work : they are a feature peculiarto Arcade. Bowman even correctly cites [at least part of] thereasoning behind Lish's process when he has "Carver" write, "Hejustifiesthe empty pages with mockery. 'Page after page of genius and whatcreditdo I get for it?' "-- a question which might seem almost to responddirectly to Max's assertion of Lish's lack of "popularity." But thefauxCarver's response to this "explanation" is not understanding of thetechnique, even if he disagrees with its use, but rather outrage-- themouth-chewing noted above. There is the sense, in both pieces ofBowman's writing, that he has before him the "information" needed torespond more positively and insightfully to Lish's fiction, but for somereason-- perhaps simply an inborn disinclination to Lish's "type" ofliterature-- he is not able to make the move.
    Why does that gap so enrage him? Does it seem unjust to him thatLish have any notoriety at all? Does he resent Lish's apparent lack ofinterest in his [Bowman's] writing? Does he feel that Lish is, in someway, a huckster whom only he can "see through" and expose? I cannotpretend to answer any of these questions, but because Bowman's writingsabout Lish are so ingenuously biased, neither can I consider Bowman--unlike Max-- any sort of reliable source of insight into Lish-- asteacher, editor or writer.
    Max's lengthy and reasonable article makes it clear that Lish'sskills as an editor-- and as a [re]writer-- have had a significant handin the development of American short fiction in the past twenty-oddyears. Exactly how and to what extent he may have "co-authored"Carver'searly work is a topic for researchers with cool heads to pursue. Maxmayindeed be further involved in this investigation, but it is not likelythat 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.