Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Lishy Writing

I finished the redraft of The Long Week (the novel formerly known as An Honourable Man) yesterday. I’ve cut nearly 4,000 words from it, which was quite distressing at the time but I think it makes it a much better, tighter read. I’m trying very hard to teach myself to RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) everything, leaving things for the reader to work out or just leaving them unsaid.

I’ve always considered the master of concision to be the great Raymond Carver. I read a few weeks ago that his widow was planning to bring out the original ‘unexpurgated’ versions of some of his short stories, unsullied by editorial intervention, and I was eagerly awaiting their publication. Imagine my distress, therefore, to learn from last Saturday’s Guardian that most of the things I really like about Carver's writing weren’t written about Carver at all – they were written by his editor Gordon Lish.

Of course, I knew about Lish’s influence on Carver. I was once told for instance that Lish made him rewrite the 8,000 word A Small, Good Thing which resulted in the 2,000 word The Bath (although I've since learnt that Carver wrote the longer version two years after the shorter story). But I always assumed it was Carver that had penned the rewrites. Now it seems it was Lish all along. I’m pleased to say I’m not alone in feeling somehow let down. Marcel Berlins shares my sense of . . . well, if not betrayal then at least disappointment.

It’s not the fact that the stories are less good, or in any way devalued by not being entirely by the hand of the great man. It’s more that I like to aspire to describing my writing as ‘Carveresque’. From now on, I suppose I’ll have to say it is a bit ‘Lishy’.


Kanani said...

Oh, yes.... Lish had a huge influence on Carver's work. He was the fiction editor at Esquire magazine in the 70's and 80's, and he did more to bring writers like Carver to the forefront than anyone.

He's still mentioned by USA national book winners Lily Tuck and ...oh... was it Amy Hempel(?) as having a big impact on their writing. In other words, "Do you really love the sentence?" If you don't, take it out.

However, Lish's own work is sometimes very hard to read.

Mary Witzl said...

This is just amazing: I had no idea! All this time, all that terse athletic prose was really just something garrulous, neatly trimmed down.

Hmmm. I could use a Lish myself.

Eryl Shields said...

I was rather dissapointed by that article too.

Paul said...

Kanani - I've never read any of Lish's own work. What sort of stuff did he write?

Mary - I once came runner up in a writing competition and at the awards ceremony the winner, in his acceptance speech, thanked his editor 'without whom . . .' etc. I confess I felt cheated that I didn't have an editor, too!

Eryl - So will you be reading the unexpurgated stories . . ?