Raymond Carver in his own words

SHORT STORIES: EILEEN BATTERSBY reviews Beginners By Raymond Carver, Cape, 212pp. £16.99

SHORT STORIES: EILEEN BATTERSBYreviews BeginnersBy Raymond Carver, Cape, 212pp. £16.99

IN HIS ESSAY, On Writing, the gifted American realist Raymond Carver wrote: "Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes."

Carver's insight certainly helps explain the art of fiction, but his clarity here renders all the more bizarre his unhappy, yet apparent acceptance, of the radical editing, extensive rewriting and virtual narrative disembowelling imposed upon his second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which was published in 1981 – ironically, about the same time as On Writingfirst appeared in the New York Times Book Reviewunder the title "A Storyteller's Notebook".

By then, Carver was no rookie, having been shortlisted in 1976 for the National Book Award with his debut collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?Carver, a recovering alcoholic who had battled his demons to return to writing, was an obviously vulnerable man, but exactly how vulnerable an artist was he? He expressed his distress about the editing and the cuts which had reduced his original manuscript by about 50 per cent in a letter to his then editor, Gordon Lish, who insisted on keeping the changes he had made. Claiming that his "very sanity" was "on the line" he wanted to abandon the edit, but he didn't. Reading the Carver and Lish versions side by side proves an exercise as irritating as it is interesting: one wonders at how Lish could possibly justify what is best described, solely on the comparative textual evidence supplied here, as a slash and burn approach to editing.

YET FAR MORE unsettling is how Carver could have allowed such radical stylistic intervention, often resulting in a distortion of meaning, and a frequent, total loss of nuance? Why did Carver allow his editor to meddle, to change the plots, alter dialogue, insert a literal and heavy-handed crudeness, rename characters, and renumber a hotel room? Why? Whose stories are these? There is no doubt that if Lish altered newspaper copy in this fashion, reporters would have been baying for his blood. Carver was a creative artist, but where was his artistic courage? If Lish is to be questioned; so too should Carver. Why didn't he fight harder for his stories as written by him? Why didn't he defend his voice, never mind his characters? Better still, why didn't he simply pull his manuscript and walk away? Lish had, as a magazine editor, published Carver's early work in Esquiremagazine. It appears that Carver's subsequent gratitude and/or loyalty compromised him and his art. Now, more than 20 years after Carver's premature death in August 1988 at the age of 50, those 17 stories have been restored to their original versions. This is important and has caused readers to look again at Carver. Not that they needed any incentive; long acknowledged as a master, readers and writers have never stopped reading Carver. Now the problem is, for some readers, who were they reading? It's a big story.

There have been textual sagas before. Look at Ulysses. But that messy history is due partly to the novel having been initially typeset in France, to the various manuscripts having been interfered with by well-intentioned copy editors who "thought" they were correcting typographical errors and, of course, to Joyce's habit of making changes on whatever manuscript he happened to have to hand. There is also his tendency to lose pages – and, always a difficulty, his failing eyesight.

But if Maxwell Perkins helped his authors, treating F Scott Fitzgerald as a son and sustaining Thomas Wolfe with immense emotional support, while William Maxwell always urged his writers to take a second look, Lish emerges as a schoolmaster who decided how Carver should write. Anyone who ever wondered why Carver so objected to the label “Dirty Realist”, as invented by Granta editor Bill Buford, should begin here in this “restored” edition. Many writers have had, after their death, unfinished books completed by others; Carver was still alive when Lish rewrote his stories, causing Carver to appear less artistically sophisticated than Tobias Wolff, Richard Yates, Richard Ford and Richard Bausch, never mind Cheever and Updike. Artistic sophistication is not about content: it is about style and execution; a reality Lish appears to have missed. In endeavouring to make Carver working-class, Lish made him appear hasty and stylised.

Firstly, though, it is vital to point out that two of the most outrageously butchered stories, A Small, Good Thing– which Lish destroyed – and So Much Water So Close To Home, in which Lish utterly demeaned the female narrator, were restored by Carver to their original versions and many readers, thankfully, know these stories only in Carver's version in widely available editions.

Publishers love having shock stories, but it is to the credit of poet Tess Gallagher, Carver's widow, that she has kept this story alive and has encouraged the publication of the original texts. Carver promised her he would publish his stories in their original form – and had begun doing so, but then he died. There is also the wider fact that Carver had written himself out of his initial minimalist style towards a richer, more thoughtful vision. The voice that is so apparent in Cathedral(1983) and in his wonderful final collection, Elephant(1988) with that magisterial closing story, Errand, which recreates Chekhov's death, was emerging as early as his beleaguered second collection.

It would seem that Lish wanted Carver to retain his initial cryptic voice, whereas Carver wanted to evolve artistically. The story we now know as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was titled Beginnersby Carver. Lish renamed it. There is no disputing it is a striking title and a very famous one, one that Carver had no trouble in assuming. But that one title-change does not counter the multitude of serious changes. In that story Carver's Herb becomes Lish's Mel. Why? Herb/Mel is a cardiologist with a story to tell. Well he tells that story, albeit far more truncatedly in Lish's version, but, and this is, crucial – Lish introduces a coarseness that is not Carver's.

IN THE OPENING story, Why Don't You Dance, Carver's depressed Max who becomes Lish's "the man" is having a yard sale to dispose of the contents of his home. Carver's version has a tender beauty about it. A young couple about to start life together arrive and begin bargaining. Max is generous and the young girl responds. She later tells her friends "we got drunk". Lish amends this to "pissed". Carver's girl is trying to articulate the event, but in Lish's version, she sneers at "the old guy". Similar distortions of nuance recur throughout.

In Viewfinder, a man with iron hooks for hands who takes pictures of houses for a living, asks the narrator what he thinks of the photograph. Carver writes the exchange as follows: "Personally, I think it turned out fine, but then I know what I'm doing and let's face it, it's not that hard shooting a house." But Lish injects more bravado, "Don't I know what I'm doing? Let's face it, it takes a professional." In Carver's Tell The Women We're Going, in which two lifelong buddies decide, as married men, to follow two young girls in the hope of quick sex which ends in gruesome violence, Jerry's wife is referred to being "pregnant again". Lish's rewrite announces: "Carol had one in the oven again." In Dummy, the narrator recalls his father's deaf friend as "always watching your lips when you were speaking, though sometimes they'd roam familiarly over your face, or your body". In Lish, this becomes far more sinister as the deaf man's eyes "stayed fastened on your mouth when you were talking – and if you weren't, they'd go to someplace queer on your body". In that same story, the narrator's father, a Southerner, is a romantic capable of recalling the experience of seeing a pond full of imported fish as "a sight to behold". Carver's version is again, brutalised. Elsewhere, Carver writes of a hippy who arrives unexpectedly at a bingo evening: "he had a tiny gold ring in his ear". Lish felt compelled to change this to "a tiny gold loop through his earlobe." Why? But then he also changes "sofa" to "couch", yet elsewhere leaves "sofa" as "sofa". The inconsistency of the editing is also irritating: if Carver is capable of the odd clunky phrase, so too is Lish. When Carver writes "You couldn't beat it", Lish had to add, for reasons of his own, "with a stick." Why?

IN CARVER'S The Fling, renamed Sacksby Lish, there is a beautiful passage at the opening of the story in which an adult son with problems of his own deliberates over the day he finally contacted his father while on a business trip: "Yet something else tells me that he was beyond help, beyond anything I could do for him, and that the only thing that transpired between us in those few hours was that he caused me – forcedmight be the better word – to peer into my own abyss . . .". Lish took all this, and the rest of the paragraph, out.

Highlighting the drastic, unsubtle editing and linguistic insensitivity which was imposed on these stories would take a book in itself, lining up the original work with examples of the very different edited versions. In Lish's edit, the characters are more brutal, harsher; they are denied their confused humanity just as Carver is denied his literary voice. A Small, Good Thing, renamed as The Bath, loses its immense heart. This is the famous story in which Scotty's birthday cake is forgotten when the boy is injured by a hit-and-run driver, and later dies in hospital. Lish guts the narrative, leaving it ambivalent. Why?

Lish’s editing method is a story unto itself and opens a debate about the role of an editor, particularly nowadays when the proliferation of typographical errors causes readers to ask whether editors are still involved.

Exactly why Lish would seem to have caused Carver to appear crude and cryptic can be answered only by Lish. It is interesting to see that Tobias Wolff choose Cathedral, a post-Lish story, to anthologise in The Picador Book of Contemporary American Stories(1993), while both Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates selected Are These Actual Miles, from Carver's debut, for their respective anthologies, yet when Ford revised his Granta Book of the American Short Storyin 2007, Carver was represented by Errand.

Beginnersis important, but for readers shocked by the notion of editor as absolute master and writer as passive victim, before feeling that you have been denied the real Raymond Carver, check the editions you have read; you may not be as cheated as you fear. Where I'm Calling From – The Selected Storieswas published as early as 1988 and contains some corrected versions. For those readers who never much liked Carver, think again; you may have been reading the wrong edition. Hopefully, thanks to Gallagher, every small, vital nuance, every moving observation, each choice of word as Carver wrote it, is there to be seen; that is why Carver cared enough to begin setting it right, and others have now finished the task.

Eileen Battersby is literary correspondent of The Irish Times