Which is better? Minimalist and working-class author Raymond Carver’s original manuscripts? Or the stories published after Gordon Lish’s edits? Some 20 years after Carver’s death, the answer has supporters on both sides. It’s the question on which Carol Sklenicka’s big and sometimes frustrating biography of the famous minimalist, working-class writer finds its focus. The work’s frustrations come from the fact the that Sklenica doesn’t seem to take sides, on this or other questions in Carver’s short life.
The editorial arguments are familiar to those who’ve followed them since The New Yorker published Carver’s pre-edit story “Beginners” that under Lish’s hand became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (as well as an edition that detailed the edits). A companion essay was subtitled “The cutting of Raymond Carver.” The publication last year of The Library of America’s Raymond Carver: Collected Stories, with Carver’s manuscript version of the stories eventually collected as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, gave readers the chance to make their own comparisons. What we found was good and bad; that Carver may not have been the absolute minimalist that defines his style (and influence) and that he may have been more descriptive, less ambiguous and deeper in his insight than the first-published stories let on. We also wonder how much collaborative effort went into his poetry, much of it written after he began his is relationship with poet Tess Gallagher.
The understory here is how Carver so quickly and initially without argument took Lish’s edits and rewrites. Maybe the uncertainty and lack of integrity imparted by alcohol made him doubt his own voice. Later, after he went sober, he dismissed Lish even as Lish was claiming Carver as his invention.
Lish did more than just change a word here and there. He rewrote whole sections, changed endings and turned intended meaning into something more ambigious. When Sklenicka compares the stories in Carver’s later collection Cathedral with the Lish-edited stories in What We Talk About, she finds Cathedral to have “richer perspective” and “more complex humor” than the earlier work. She also says that the stories lack “the raw pain,” “meanness” and “nihilism” of the earlier efforts. Which she prefers–humor or raw pain–isn’t said.
What Sklenicka does make clear is Carver’s selfishness–both during and post-alcoholism–and his willingness to exploit his wife. Stephen King’s review in The New York Times proclaims Maryanne Carver, the author’s first wife, as the heroine but not the benefactor of his success. Maryanne unselfishly supported her husband’s writing through a variety of odd jobs while suffering his abuse. (Sklenicka also makes clear that Maryanne was a bad drunk.) Sklenicka’s matter-of-fact treatment of Carver’s disregard and occasional meanness towards his wife upsets King, and should. He wants Sklenicka to call Carver what he was: a self-absorbed, serial spouse abuser. It’s no great revelation that Carver wasn’t much of a father. He often blamed his inability to work on the that he had two children.
Readers may have been aware of Carver’s drinking problems but not their extent. Sklenicka, through anecdotes from John Cheever, William Kittredge and others, paints a picture of a man always with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in another. Even after quitting drink for good, Carver was an insatiable pot smoker.
The biography’s biggest challenge to the Carver mystique is mentioned only in passing. Author Dagoberto Gilb, who met the short-story writer when he was teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso, questions the very source of Carver’s inspiration. Sklenicka quotes Gilb claiming that Carver’s stories weren’t really about working class people. “I could see where he came from the working class, but he wasn’t it. His stories were about graduate students’ lives, but he smartly made his characters vacuum cleaner sale-men or whatever.” That Carver went out after his first big pay-day and, after driving clunkers all his life, bought a brand new Mercedes speaks for itself.
This challenge to Carver’s working-class credentials may take from his personal reputation but shouldn’t lessen the impact of his stories. Carver spent a lot of time at menial jobs to make ends meet (his most fruitful employment was with the Reading Laboratory Series of Palo Alto’s Science Research Associates which gave him writing and editing experience). While the “he-she” incidents of his stories may have been derived from a life inside graduate student programs, his framing of them in working-class circumstances heightened their emotional squalor and gritty impact. In this, he did what most writers do: frame personal experience in the most meaningful circumstances.
Indeed, Sklenicka is at her best when she details the personal experiences that inspired Carver’s work. In doing so, she proves Gilb right. Often, it was his father’s or Maryanne’s working life that he used to frame his work. “Fat” and “They’re Not Your Husband” comes from Maryanne’s waitressing experience. Exceptions include “Nobody Says Anything,” a story that exploits his parents’ hard scrabble life and the alienation Carver felt in his early teens. The tale is “about silent, uneasy accommodations to bad situations.” The parallels Sklenicka draws between life in the Carver household and the story define the way Carver would approach all his work. Linking his real-life experiences to one of his great themes–“the divided child and divided self”–Sklenicka reveals as much about the writer than any comparison between edited and unedited work.
Sklenicka’s biography makes clears that publishing, like so much in our meritocracy, has to do with who you know. Carver’s story is full of attachments and recommendations from fellow authors, much of them cultivated in university programs. Carver was hyper-aware of this. Central to this is his meeting Lish through the pages of Best American Short Stories. Cultivating this relationship had great rewards for Carver. But it also had its drawbacks. Lish changed Carver’s captivating title “Are These Actual Miles?” to the mundane “What Is It?” and Carver, anxious to have his story published in Esquire, agreed. At that, Maryanne calls him “a whore” who sold out to the establishment. Now we know to what extent that was true.–Cabbage Rabbit