I'm sure you know the old publishing saw about how editors don't have time to edit any more, so busy are they with acquisitions and catalogue copy. It's a tragedy, book people opine: where would, say, Wolfe have been without Perkins, Faulkner without Erskine, Conroy without Talese?
So how could anyone fail to appreciate the irony of last week's revelation that Tess Gallagher, the widow of Raymond Carver, is seeking to publish the wholly unedited versions of some of Carver's most famous stories? Gallagher, herself an established author, told the New York Times that some of Carver's stories, as published in the collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Where I'm Calling From, were so heavily edited by his first editor, the legendary Gordon Lish, that she regularly answered to fans who believed that Lish had actually written the stories. Never mind that, despite some balking at the time—imagine: a writer who fights an editor's suggestions!—Carver himself signed off on the stories both when Lish published them and when his next editor, Gary Fisketjon, republished them right before Carver died. Clearly, it was Carver's right—and some might argue that it is now the right of his estate (headed by Gallagher)—to question the changes an editor makes or has made, and Gallagher is not suggesting that the existing versions be pulled from the shelves. If publishing a new version of the collections is a way for the Carver estate to reap some financial benefits (as the Kerouac estate has done, only modestly, with the recent publication of the On the Road scroll, which has sold 15,000 copies since publication in August, according to Nielsen BookScan), then why not? But the whole brouhaha—Fisketjon absolutely opposes the republication; Gallagher has traded in famously tough agent Binky Urban for famously tough agent Andrew Wylie, who told the Times there is a lot of interest in the restored stories—raises a question as old as Gutenberg: what does an editor do and how should he do it?
To judge from the portion of a story that ran with the Times article, Lish did lop off whole paragraphs to create the sort of “minimalism” for which Carver soon became famous. And in his lifetime, Carver did voice some doubts about the edits—and even “restored” some of his stories from their Lishification when Fisketjon republished them. But for his final collection, he allowed some of the Lish-edited stories to stand mostly as is, which suggests that he ultimately appreciated at least some of the editor's input. “I haven't heard any voices from the grave suggesting he has changed his mind,” Fisketjon told me.
Still, I can't shake the feeling that to release the unedited stories as the “real” ones is to suggest that the previously published ones are somehow compromised—and does a disservice to both the specific editors involved and to editing in general. I thought we wanted editors who edited. Nobody can quantify exactly what goes on between editor (or, increasingly these days, agent) and writer any more than we can truly understand someone else's marriage—but there is not a writer alive (or perhaps even some dead) whose work doesn't need another pair of eyes. Sure, editors also need marketing acumen—and maybe a genius for flap copy. But let's not diminish the value of a sharp mind and sometimes, an even sharper pencil.
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