As someone who is skeptical about editors – though committed to brutal self-editing – I must get a look at the new edition of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver’s story collection which exhibits the taut, understated prose that has influenced an entire generation, and more, of short story writers:

Lish, an editor at Esquire magazine and Alfred Knopf as well as a novelist in his own right, made major changes to many of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, cutting about half of Carver’s original words and changing more than half of the endings.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I emphatically do not subscribe to the prevailing view that literary writing is a collaborative venture for the greater good, in other words, to make a better product. That may work just fine for toothpaste – or sausages – but not for art. The question of how judgements are pronounced, and what gets published, has everything to do with personal bias, cultural expectations, the reigning literary climate, and power: What We Talk About When We Talk About Books.


3 thoughts on “Editor: surgeon or butcher?

  1. Nick 17 years ago

    I must say I like the way my own editor works. She doesn’t blue-pencil; she just points out perceived deficiencies in the text and then asks me to find ways to sort them out. For example, in my first book she identified an area where more explanation was needed, but we both agreed that mere ‘explanation’ would be dull and off-putting. I went away, racked my brains, and finally came up with something that the story was literally begging for. It should have been there all along, but I would never have thought of it but for that prompt.

    That’s how a good editor can and should work. (For the record, my book was 3000 words longer after we had worked on it together; but all those words were mine).

  2. Lee 17 years ago

    Frank, I was waiting for someone to bring up Eliot/Pound! I think it’s possible to argue that at least some of Carver’s work, as well as Eliot’s The Wasteland, are co-authored, but I’m nevertheless aware that my view of writing is essentially a Romantic one. (My MA thesis concerned Wordsworth, BTW.) To discuss the matter properly would require more aesthetic and cultural theory than I’m familiar with, though I freely admit that my dislike of collaboration is my own personal bias, perhaps idiosyncratic at best and pigheaded at worst, and fully infused with all the baggage of a 20th C upbringing. And it has to do with why I write, which is mostly about process, not product. I’ve had many lively arguments with my filmmaker daughter, for obvious reasons, and even she has difficulty with issues of artistic control.

    Who owns a text? When is it authentic, and what does this even mean? Can there be effective artistic collaboration? I can only answer these and other such questions for myself and must leave the larger issues to those able to deconstruct systems of literary production and control. Interestingly, though, I have no problem with copyright and freely offer my work to those who would like to make use of it, hence the CC licence. (However, if someone ever made a small fortune from something I’ve written – unlikely, to say the least – I hope that person would feel the moral imperative to share.)

    And despite its patent importance and influence, I have never been overly fond of The Wasteland!

  3. Anonymous 17 years ago

    What about The Wasteland then? Wasn’t that pants until Pound edited it.

    frank cb