Culturebox Rules: Lish vs. Carver

When you read your New York Times Magazine this Sunday (or Saturday, if you live in New York), you will learn about a raging controversy (ok, minor dispute) in the literary world: Does former Knopf fiction editor Gordon Lish deserve credit for author Raymond Carver’s success?

A quick summary: In the early stages of Carver’s career, Lish–a famous writing teacher and author in his own right–went far beyond the traditional role of fiction editor, cutting as many as half the words in a given story, rewriting entire passages, changing titles, and adding final lines himself. In short, he carved out of a prolix man’s copy Carver’s trademark minimalist style. Carver never admitted to being Lish’s creation, but he chafed and finally rebelled, forbidding Lish to edit heavily or rewrite anymore.

The piece is scrupulously fair, airing all sides and concluding that collaboration, if that’s what it was, may not be such a bad thing, especially for readers. However, the article also includes a certain amount of vituperation of Lish by Carver’s friends. (Lish is an easy target, since he’s enormously controversial for a number of reasons: his mannered writing style, for one, and his interventionist editorial style, for another, which made other authors’ careers and also earned their enmity.) “I’ve wondered in my head why Lish did what he did,” comments the poet Donald Hall, a friend of Carver’s who objected strongly to Lish’s edit of one story, “The Bath,” and republished the original version as “A Small, Good Thing.” “Was it unconscious jealousy?”

It may be possible that, as Carver’s fans claim, he wrote his best pieces after he ended his relationship with Lish, but Culturebox is here to tell you that Lish’s version of the story Hall republished is infinitely better–sparser, cleaner, and much more menacing, which just what the story needs. On the other hand, Culturebox may be biased, since she is also an editor, and had her own moments of sulking at her ungrateful writers. So compare and contrast the opening scene and decide for yourself. (Email Culturebox at if you violently disagree).

Lish’s version:

Saturday afternoon the mother drove to the bakery in the shopping center. After looking through a loose-leaf binder with photographs of cakes taped onto the pages, she ordered chocolate, the child’s favorite. The cake she chose was decorated with a spaceship and a launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars. The name SCOTTY would be iced in in green as if it were the name of the spaceship. The baker listened thoughtfully when the mother told him Scotty would be eight years old. He was an older man, this baker, and he wore a curious apron, a heavy thing with loops that went under his arms and around his back and then crossed in front again where they were tied in a very thick knot. He kept wiping his hands on the front of the apron as he listened to the women, his wet eyes examining her lips as she studied the samples and talked.He let her take her time. He was in no hurry.The mother decided on the spaceship cake, and then she gave the baker her name and telephone number. The cake would be ready Monday morning, in plenty of time for the party Monday afternoon. This was all the baker was willing to say. No pleasantries, just this small exchange, the barest information, nothing that was not necessary.

Carver’s version:

Saturday afternoon she drove to the bakery in the shopping center. After looking through a loose-leaf binder with photographs of cakes taped onto the pages, she ordered chocolate, the child’s favorite. The cake she chose was decorated with a space ship and launching pad under a sprinkling of white stars, and a planet made of red frosting at the other end. His name, SCOTTY, would be in green letters beneath the planet. The baker, who was an older man with a thick neck, listened without saying anything when she told him the child would be eight years olf next Monday. The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back, and then to the front again again, where they were secured under his heavy waist. He wiped his hands on his apron as he listened to her. He kept his eyes down on the photographs and let her talk. He let her take her time. He’d just come to work and he’d be there all night, baking, and he was in no real hurry. She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child’s party that afternoon. The baker was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them. Just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information. He made her feel uncomfortablre, and she didn’t like that. When he was bent over the counter with the pencil in his hand, she studied his coarse features and wondered if he’d ever done anything with his life besides be a baker. She was a mother and thirty-three years old, and it seemed to her that everyone, especially someone the baker’s age–a man old enough to be her father–must have children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties. There must be that between them, she thought. But he was abrupt with her–not rude, just abrupt. She gave up trying to make friends with him. She looked into the back of the bakery and could see a long, heavy, wooden table with aluminum pie pans stacked at one end; and beside the table a metal container filled with empty racks. There was an enormous oven. A radio was playing country-Western music.The baker finished printing the information on the special order card and closed up the binder. He looked at her and said, “Monday morning.” She thanked him and drove home.

Judith Shulevitz