Simple, Stupid – Minimalism in Prose




Does anyone know what this stands for?

Yes, this is the American playwright and screenwriter David Mamet’s famous formulation, which we are to imagine him muttering to himself as he bangs away at his typewriter: “Keep it simple, stupid.”

I’m not going to be talking about David Mamet today, but “Keep it simple, stupid” is a useful stepping off point for this lecture.

Why would any writer want to take this as a maxim? How might addressing themselves as ‘stupid’ be useful to them?

Today, I’ve taken minimalism as my subject – literary minimalism, the minimalism of fiction. Most of what I say wouldn’t apply to the music of Steve Reich or the architecture of John Pawson, though they are often referred to as minimal – and there are probably points to be made about a general cultural yearning for simplicity, for a stripping away of unnecessary detail.

Instead of David Mamet – who would be a very interesting case – I’m going to talk about Raymond Carver. This is for a couple of reasons.

First, he’s a writer who bugs me. I think about Carver quite often. I sometimes think about him halfway through writing a sentence: ‘Is this word necessary?’ I think. ‘Carver wouldn’t have it, would he?’

For better and definitely for worse, Carver has become something of a literary saint – or maybe a Holy Ghost. Almost everything one reads about him emphasizes his moral qualities – everything, that is, apart from the things he wrote and let slip about himself. Here’s Salman Rushdie’s quote on the front of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: ‘One of America’s most original, truest voices.’ The poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s wife and widow, wrote in the introduction to Call If You Need Me of Carver’s ‘extraordinary voice – its witnessing so clarified by relentless honesty that its stories have entered into over twenty languages around the world’. (Sorry, as an aside, I can’t help saying this is ludicrous. How does a greater number of foreign translations prove a more relentless honesty?) At the climax of the same introduction, Gallagher writes, ‘This book is like rain collected in a barrel, water gathered straight from the sky.’ Carver’s goodness and bounty have become the goodness and bounty of nature itself – the nature of the Pacific Northwest, what she called in another book Carver Country. In a long essay I particularly hate, Richard Ford wrote blandly about Good Raymond:

As long as I knew Ray – the next ten years – there was this feeling of so much good and bad that had been left behind in a single lot, so that among my friends, he seemed to be facing life in the most direct and jarring way, the most adult way – a way that made the stories he wrote almost inevitable.

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To say ‘almost inevitable’ is to turn the stories into a physiological process. No story is every inevitable – particularly no great one. Carver’s greatest friends are, in my opinion, his worst enemies. Sanctification is a great disservice to such a morally complex, morally implicated, writer.

Just to add, I wasn’t immune from this myself. I bought this copy of Where I’m Calling From in Stanford in October 1989. I was about to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus, and I wanted the right company. What I eventually wrote on the back inside cover of the book, referring to the picture on the front, was ‘So tell me, friend, is it honest?’

Look at the picture.

Look at this image of Raymond Carver.

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I’ll come back to this later. But for now I’ll pass on, because the sainthood issue brings us to the second reason I’ve chosen to talk about Carver.

I think this is a very interesting moment for Carver’s reputation. Perhaps the most interesting since his death. The general view of him is about to be permanently altered. In October this year, a brand new book by Carver is going to be published. It will be called Beginners, and will contain the original versions of the stories which became What we talk about when we talk about love. Beginners will be brought to press (against some opposition) by Tess Gallagher who believes that these stories, in these versions, have their own integrity – an integrity that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, I won’t say ‘compromised’ that might be too strong – an integrity that Lish helped to change.

You have all, I hope, read the fantastic material that was put up on the ‘New Yorker’ website – the story as Carver submitted it, which I’m going to call ‘Beginners’; the story with the edits, which I’ll call ‘Beginners,’ Edited; and the story as it finally appeared, which I’ll refer to as ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ (or ‘What we talk about…’ for short’); and also the letters between Carver and Lish.

But before I start looking at these words in detail, I’m going to backtrack a little. The book that resulted from this editing process, What we talk about when we talk about love, became one of the founding documents of literary minimalism. Yet what we see in the back-and-forth between Carver and Lish is a game that is still in play. And, since then, minimalist writing has become a far more formalised thing. It goes beyond ‘Keep it simple, stupid’ although that – or something very like that – may have been in Gordon Lish’s mind when his blue pencil was travelling so confidently through Carver’s sentences.

This definition comes from a footnote in James Dishon McDermott’s book, Austere Style in Twentieth Century Literature: Literary Minimalism. I think it’s very useful, because it is almost scientific in its distancing. Back in the 1980s, there was a poetic movement which took as its start point Craig Raine’s poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’. Taking the alienated point of view was seen as a good way of refreshing the world. I like to see this definition as something like ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home About Raymond Carver’:

“Minimalism” refers to a short or short-short story that is nearly plotless, treating isolated moments or random, insignificant events, begins in media res, is depicted, dramatic, and filmic rather than expository or novelistic; leads nowhere or to a minor vastation or anti-climax, and favours the present tense. Characters inhabit working-class environments typified by economic disenfranchisement and menial empty work; an overwhelming consumerist culture of ubiquitous brand names and loud televisions; dysfunctional and ad hoc families; violence; alcoholism and drug abuse; rootlessness; and a bleak quasi-Naturalist sense of entrapment. The language of “Minimalism” features simple diction and syntax, colloquialisms, a blank tone, lyricism directed towards surfaces and mundane objects, and an elliptical quality.

Now, I’m pretty sure that had Raymond Carver read that, sitting down to begin writing ‘Beginners’, he would have been appalled – it might even have halted him entirely. There’s an almost murderous quality to the reductionism of James Dishon McDermott’s definition. Footnotes are often where the blade breaks the skin.

For something a little warmer, we can go to Raymond Carver’s own description, not of his writing but of his tastes as a reader. This comes from ‘All My Relations’, Carver’s “Introduction” to The Best American Short Stories 1986, included in Call If You Need Me, Harvill Press.

I lean toward realistic, “life-like” characters – that is to say, people – in realistically detailed situations. I’m drawn toward the traditional (some would call it old-fashioned) methods of storytelling: one layer of reality unfolding and giving way to another, perhaps richer layer; the gradual accretion of meaningful detail; dialogue that not only reveals something about character but advances the story. I’m not very interested, finally, in haphazard revelations, attenuated characters, stories where method or technique is all – stories, in short, where nothing much happens, or where what does happen merely confirms one’s sour view of a world gone out of control. Too, I distrust the inflated language that some people pile on when they write fiction. I believe in the efficacy of the concrete word, be it noun or verb, as opposed to the abstract or arbitrary or slippery word – or phrase, or sentence.

Now, there’s a clear gap between these two descriptions of a kind of fiction. The Carver quote is recogniseably what one would expect the author of ‘Beginners’ to say. ‘Beginners’ is the sort of story that’s being described. Whereas the Dishon McDermott quote could, to some extent, be an attempt to convey the particular qualities of ‘What we talk about…’ Certainly, the finished book as a whole is one of the main sources for the characteristics Dishon McDermott is itemizing.

What we find here, then, in the editing process, is a direction – a moving-towards what became known as minimalism.

Let’s look more closely at the story itself. If you could turn to the edited version, that’s the one with the atrociously painful crossings-out.

I think a little background here would be useful. Where are we, when all this is taking place? And who is it taking place between?

Gordon Lish, aged fourty-six, is one of the most established and respected editors of fiction in America. He has published the anthology of the work he has published as fiction editor of Esquire magazine, The Secret Life of Our Time. He works at Alfred A. Knopf, one of the best fiction lists in America. He has already edited and published Carver’s first collection of stories, Will you please be quiet, please. He is also a writer of fiction, including – at this point – A Man’s Work and All Our Secrets are the Same.

Carver himself is far from being such an established presence. He is forty two years-old and, apart from his first slim collection of stories, has published three books of poetry. In his letter of July the 8th, he writes to Lish: ‘I’m not unmindful of the fact of my immense debt to you, a debt I can simply never, never repay. This whole new life I have, so many of the friends I now have, this job up here, everything, I owe to you for “Will You Please”…’ The job was Professor of English at Syracuse University. And Lish had been publishing Carver in Esquire magazine for over five years, bringing him on.

Let’s look at the paragraph in italics at the beginning of the New Yorker page: ‘The following document compares the original draft of “Beginners” with the final version of the story, retitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” edited by Gordon Lish,…’ etcetera ‘Additions to Carver’s draft appear in bold; a strike-through indicates a deletion; and paragraph marks indicate paragraph breaks that were inserted during the editing process.

This doesn’t make it clear whose changes we’re looking at, when we look at ‘Beginners’, Edited. However, a recent paper by Michael A. Powers titled ‘Double Visions – Separating Gordon Lish’s Edits From Raymond Carver’s Original Authorship in Three Stories’ deals with ‘Beginners’, and is based on consultation of the original manuscript in the Lish Maunuscript Holdings, the Lilly Library, Indiana University. It’s worth quoting Powers’ description of Lish’s alterations in full:

The original manuscript shows Lish added lines of text in his written hand (usually just above a deletion) to simplify description and to segue from one sentence to the next, and his insertions shortened dialogue, in many instances changing intonation and vernacular. He also added words to the text (after deleting certain words) to make the descriptions more poetic, more charming, even more imaginative. He added paragraph breaks and he inserted punctuation to create new, shorter sentences out of broken, longer ones, raising the case of any given word to restart a sentence or lowering the case to extend a sentence. He added question marks, and periods, and commas to provide rhythm. And he added space-breaks to divide the story into shorter sections.

This essay is an MA thesis, and there seems no reason to doubt that what it gives us is the basic liberty to take the alternations we see before us in ‘Beginners,’ Edited as being essentially Lish’s.

I’m sure you’ll already have formed a clear idea of what these changes are. But I’d like to go over them in rough before taking a more line-by-line look. (There will also be some time at the end to do this.)

The most major cuts are:

  1. The huge reduction in length of the story
  2. The radical shortening of the anecdote of the couple, Henry and Anna Gates
  3. The removal of the original ending

The most major alterations are:

  1. The title (‘Beginners’ is an okay title, a wannabe-Chekhov title; ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ is a great title, a 100% Carver title, a defining title.)
  2. The punctuation, and therefore the overall approach to what a sentence is and does
  3. The addition of a new ending
  4. The change of character name from ‘Herb’ to ‘Mel’
  5. The introduction of verbal obscenity as a marker of Mel’s character – and Mel’s increasing drunkenness.

Now let’s look at the opening paragraph. Let’s look at it as if we were in a creative writing workshop.

My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. It was Saturday afternoon. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Herb and I and his second wife, Teresa — Terri, we called her — and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque, but we were all from somewhere else. There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. Herb thought real love was nothing less than spiritual love. When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He’d left the Church at the same time, but he said he still looked back to those years in the seminary as the most important in his life.

What Lish proceeds to do to Carver’s writing is pretty basic creative writing class stuff. The change from ‘Herb’ to ‘Mel’ – if we’re going to put that down to Lish – seems to be partly a matter of taste. In my reading, Herb is one of those quintessentially seventies names (the late seventies is clearly when this story is set – Terri used to be a hippy, so some time has passed since 1968/69). Perhaps Lish thought it was just too seventies – what would come to mind is the slightly naff Tijuana brass trumpeter Herb Alpert. Or even the car-star of the Disney film series Herbie. Herb also suggests pot-smoking. Mel, whilst still a fairly seventies names, is a little less dated. The pop cultural figures it would call to mind would be Mel Brooks, the film director (notable for The Producers) and Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Pepé le Pew and many others. As Lish’s change makes the character into the equally alliterative Mel McGinnis, this might not be irrelevant. Of all the characters in the story, Mel is the one who seems most likely to become a cartoon.

Both Mel and Herb are shortened versions of fairly uncool first names, Melvin and Herbert. (Both, when I was at public school, were terms of abuse or for particular kinds of abuse.)

Unless the name Herb really didn’t seem to suit the character, (in terms of class, for example), it’s unlikely that anyone in a writing class would suggest making such a change.

At the end of the paragraph comes something a lot more straightforward. Instead of having the narrator introduce information about Mel (we’ll call him that from now on) – ‘When he was young he’d spent five years in a seminary…’ – Lish suggests that Mel brings this information into the conversation at a point we are passing over as indirect speech: ‘He said he’d spent five years in a seminary… He said he still looked back on those years etcetera’.

The biggest change, though, comes in the first sentence. To my mind, this is a fantastic improvement. Carver’s version is:

My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking.

Fine, it gets the job done. It has a similarly understated quality to some opening sentences in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? For example in ‘Neighbours’, ‘Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple.’

Lish’s version:

My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.

Bom – end of paragraph.

From these two sentences, we learn a lot more about the narrator. We learn that he has a sense of humour, and will likely be better company than the narrator of Carver’s version. We learn that he judges his friend – there is a curious mix of resentment and respect in ‘sometimes that gives him the right’. In order to find out which wins out, resentment or respect, we’ll have to read the rest of the story. On a very basic level, Lish’s changes do this – they make the story more readable. And this goes for the rest of the story as well. Carver’s original is, in places, quite dull. Lish’s, for me, only slacks off when the characters start bullshitting about knights in armour, although I can see how that fits in thematically: do you rescue charge in to rescue women on a noble steed or do you drag them round the living room by the hair, or do the two really amount to the same thing?

More importantly, Lish’s changes to the opening sentence shift the register of the entire story. I’d say that they push quite a few steps towards that of American hardboiled fiction – a fiction based on the laconic, macho voice of men of experience; a fiction largely derived from Ernest Hemingway. The syntax changes from that of the page to that of the page mimicking the voice. The formality of punctuation is violated. By itself, the sentence: ‘Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.’ doesn’t mean very much. The right to what? Well, we already know. But the function of the full-stop or period after ‘was talking’ has been changed. It’s more of a breath mark than a punctuation mark. Because even though there are two sentences here formally, in terms of meaning there is only one. That full-stop would be better as a semi-colon, but an editor like Lish almost certainly believes semi-colons are for wimps.

The change of syntax, the change of approach to punctuation – these changes necessitate a whole cascade of other changes throughout the remainder of the story.

The first of these comes a few sentences later. Carver wrote: ‘There were Herb and I and his second wife, Teresa…’ Which has to change to ‘There were Mel and me and his second wife…’ ‘Herb and I’ is too correct. It’s too written. This narrator isn’t the Queen of England!

By aligning the tone more closely to that of the spoken voice, Lish has committed himself to eliminating anything – or almost anything – that the narrator wouldn’t genuinely say, or report as having been said.

In other words, Lish is making Carver’s writing less literary. He is doing this in what remains a literary way. I don’t really believe that the narrator, if he were telling this story whilst sitting across from me in a diner, would say the sentence ‘Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink’ or the sentence ‘There was an ice bucket on the table’. He might, however, say, ‘We lived in Albuquerque, then. But we are all from somewhere else.’

This is where I start to have problems with American discourse – when it becomes folksy. Carver’s writing is full of literary conventions, and so is Lish’s revision of it. But Lish resents these conventions, would like to get away from them, destroy them. Carver’s later stories, those in his later collections, are far more conventional, in this strict sense.

Let’s go to the next of Carver’s long paragraphs, which Lish broke up, and to the description of Terri. This seems to me a fairly clear example of a creative writing teacher getting ‘Show Don’t Tell on someone’s ass. Carver’s text reads: ‘She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces of turquoise, and long pendant earrings. She was fifteen years younger than Herb, had suffered period of anorexia, and during the late sixties, before she’d gone to nursing school, had been a dropout, a “street person” as she put it. Herb sometimes called her, affectionately, his hippie.’

The second two sentences, pure exposition, pure knowledge brought into the room by the narrator, are cut. In the rest of the story, we don’t learn that Terri is exactly fifteen years younger than Mel, but we know she’s younger from the way she defers to him, speaks about him when he’s out of the room, and also from the way Mel speaks to and about her. The anorexia we don’t exactly get, but the non-appearance of the food at the end of the story becomes (with this change) less of a symptom of her condition. We don’t, in the finished story, learn how Mel met Terri. However, I think her choice of jewellery – added to the date the story is set – gives us a clear idea that she’s a bit of an old hippie.

Hemingway’s dictum comes up here. Whatever you cut leaves something behind.

I’d like to jump a long way now, into the middle of the anecdote about Henry and Anna Gates. But first a quick word about this anecdote. The story, as Carver originally wrote it, took the literary form of a story within a story. This, I’d say, he took from Chekhov, who used it frequently. At a certain point, our interest shifts from four characters sitting around a kitchen table getting drunk on gin and tonic to two characters who have been in a terrible car smash and are clinging on to life, driven by a deep and passionate love. By radically cutting the story down, Lish doesn’t allow this shift to take place. Our interest remains in the kitchen and the things that are at stake there. For Carver, I think, what he wanted to say about love resides in the story of Henry and Anna. It may even have been the germinal anecdote, and the rest was a frame for it, so it wasn’t too obvious or sentimental. When this was cut, he came out and told Lish – in his anguished letter of July 8th, 1980: ‘I’d want some more of the old couple, Anna and Henry Gates, in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’…’ (I’ll come back to this letter.)

For a moment, forget the story. Just listen to this as a piece of storytelling:

He told me they’d married in 1927, and since that time they’d only been apart from each other for any time on two occasions. Even when their children were born, they were born there on the ranch and Henry and the missus still saw each other every day and talked and were together around the place. But he said they’d only been away from each other for any real time on two occasions — once when her mother died, in 1940, and Anna had to take a train to St. Louis to settle matters there. And again in 1952, when her sister died in Los Angeles, and she had to go down there to claim the body.

To me, this is quite dull. Does it really matter whether it was 1940 or 1939?

This starts as just about believable spoken. But the writing becomes extremely flat around those dates. It’s hard for this to exist in the same story as, ‘Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.’

The anecdote of the Gates is an attempt by Carver to transcend the room. Lish denies him it.

As a final aside, there is a deep literary model for ‘Beginners’ – and that is Plato’s ‘Symposium’ (the title of which means ‘drinking together’); this philosophical dialogue also involves a group of people (all men, however) sitting around, getting drunk and arguing about the nature of love.

It would be good to spend more time on ‘Beginners’, but I’d now like to focus more on the relationship between Carver and Lish – as it played out through the editing of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Let’s look at an earlier letter from Carver to Lish.

September 27, 1977

What can I say? [Lish had left Esquire.] You’ve made a single-handed impression on American letters that has helped fix the course of American letters. And, of course, you know, old bean, just what an influence you’ve exercised on my life. Just knowing you were there, at your desk, was an inspiration for me to write, and you know I mean that.

There’s respect, and there’s sucking up.

The next letter is the one I quoted from earlier, the dark-night-of-the-literary-soul letter. Carver fights back against Lish’s brutal editing of ‘Beginners’ and the other stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

July 8, 1980, 8 a.m.

Please help me with this, Gordon. I feel as if this is the most important decision I’ve ever been faced with, no shit. I ask for your understanding. Next to my wife, and now Tess, you have been and are the most important individual in my life, and that’s the truth. I don’t want to lose your love or regard over this, oh God no. It would be like having a part of myself die, a spiritual part. Jesus, I’m jabbering now. But if this causes you undue complication and grief and you perhaps understandably become pissed and discouraged with me, well, I’m the poorer for it, and my life will not be the same again. True. On the other hand, if the book comes out and I can’t feel the kind of pride and pleasure in it that I want, if I feel I’ve somehow too far stepped out of bounds, crossed that line a little too far, why then I can’t feel good about myself, or maybe even write again; right now I feel it’s that serious, and if I can’t feel absolutely good about it, I feel I’d be done for. I do. Lord God I just don’t know what else to say. I’m awash with confusion and paranoia. Fatigue too, that too.

This shows, I think, a man being tortured. He begs, pleads, attempts to reason, elevates his torturer to a godlike status – the status of a deity who may cause the pain to stop. The letter ends with the words ‘God almighty comma Gordon.’ I’m going to come back to the idea of torture in a while.

A couple of years later, more defiantly, but still cringing in tone, Carver writes concerning his next untitled book, the book that was published as Cathedral:

August 11, 1982

..the stories in this new collection are going to be fuller than the ones in the earlier books. And this, for Christ’s sake, is to the good. I’m not the same writer I used to be. But I know there are going to be stories in these 14 or 15 I give you that you’re going to draw back from, that aren’t going to fit anyone’s notion of what a Carver short story ought to be—yours, mine, the reading public at large, the critics. But I’m not them, I’m not us, I’m me. Some of these stories may not fit smoothly or neatly, inevitably, alongside the rest. But, Gordon, God’s truth, and I may as well say it out now, I can’t undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make them someway fit into the carton so the lid will close. There may have to be limbs and heads of hair sticking out. My heart won’t take it otherwise. It will simply burst, and I mean that.

Let’s go back to Raymond Carver the literary saint. In the essay ‘Rough Cuttings: The cutting of Raymond Carver’, which accompanied the New Yorker’s publication of ‘Beginners’ and the Carver-Lish letters, there’s this paragraph: ‘After years of failure, illness, work and obscurity, Carver naturally relished the reception. The public praise also insured that he kept to himself his ambivalence about the way Lish had edited some of the stories. In Tess Gallagher’s view, Lish’s work encroached upon Carver’s artistic integrity. “What would you do if your book was a success but you din’t want to explain to the public that it had been crammed down your throat.” Gallagher said recently. “He had to carry on. There was no way for him to repudiate the book. To do so would have meant that it would all have to come out in public with Gordon and he was not about to do that. Ray was not a fighter. He would avoid conflict because conflict would drive him to drink.’

This is a very different image than that of ‘rain collected in a barrel, water gathered straight from the sky’.

The important point to make here, I think, is simply that Carver’s most distinctive stories – those most likely to be called ‘Carveresque’ – those most fitted to James Dishon McDermott’s definition of literary minimalism – were, in Gallagher’s words ‘crammed down [Carver’s] throat’. They were, as we’ve seen from Carver’s letters, the result of a form of torture.

This is where I’d like quickly to bring in Chuck Palahniuck’s essay on Amy Hempel which you have from the Los Angeles Weekly website as ‘She Breaks Your Heart’ but which later appeared as ‘Not Chasing Amy’ in Non-Fiction: A Book of Extraordinary Truths. I’ve included this is a good example of what you might call formalised minimalism, even mannerist minimalism.

The Gordon Lish role has been taken over by Tom Spanbauer. But the most crucial sentence is this: ‘Every sentence isn’t crafted, it’s tortured over.’

I’d like to take Palahniuk absolutely seriously. For there to be minimalism, there must be torture. But, usually, for there to be torture, there needs to be a torturer and a torture victim.

Palahniuk’s thinking is muddled throughout. How can something be tortured over? Perhaps in the same way something is slaved over? Who exactly is doing the torturing here?

Minimalism is torture (Lish’s torture of Carver) that has become self-torture (Amy Hempel – in Chuck Palahniuk’s view).

And this is how minimalism is passed on to creative writing students.

At the same time, however, there is a sanctification of Raymond Carver – Good Raymond – as an entirely honest man – for the very work which he should, if he had been entirely honest, have disowned.

Let’s look again at the cover of Where I’m Calling From. I’d like you to imagine how this would change if it were to have two people on: Gordon Lish sitting alongside Raymond Carver. Or even, Gordon Lish hovering behind Carver, a friendly, torturer’s hand on his shoulder. It buggers the iconography, doesn’t it.

Where this really starts to bother me is when Carver himself presents his more minimal writing as the result of his own aesthetic. Go straight from Gallagher’s ‘crammed down his throat’ to Carver’s essay – his credo – ‘On Writing’, published in Call If You Need Me:

Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else… 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. It is his world and no other.

(The word Carver is struggling towards here, but avoiding because it’s too literary, is sensibility. Each writer has a unique sensibility, which they possess but also cultivate. Each human being born probably has by adolescence a unique sensibility, but because they are not artists they are unable to express it or develop it beyond a rudimentary level. Carver would never wish to say this.)

And now let’s go straight to the final lines of the story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, published in a book with only Raymond Carver’s name on the cover:

“I’ll put out some cheese and crackers,” Terri said.

But Terri just sat there. She did not get up to get anything.

Mel turned his glass over. He spilled it out on the table.

“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.

Terri said, “Now what?”

I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

Apart from the first couple of sentences, these marvellous, memorable, distinctive lines were all written by Gordon Lish. This, I think, is what Carver is alluding to in his letter to Gordeon Lish of October 29th, 1982: ‘Please help me with this book [Cathedral] as a good editor, the best… but not as my ghost.’

The stories in Would You Please Be Quiet, Please and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which have long been held up as examples of how to write – how you should write – are soon to be be revealed as the painful achievement of not one but two men. And you, whatever else you are, are not binary. In your writing, you will be able to torture yourself – feel free, as much as you like – but you will be internalising what was (to begin with) a two-way process.

When Beginners, the book, is published, I hope there is a whole heap of recantation that goes on.

Raymond Carver knew he was not a saint. I think his exquisite awareness of dishonesties of all sorts was partly dependent upon his experience of covering up for the dual authorship of his first two books.

I think he can be blamed for not being honest about this. I think you could, quite justly, call him a liar – a sinner by omission if not commission.

He is a much more complicated writer, and much more ambiguous, than his admirers have taken him for. There’s a long distance from my pencilled motto in the back of Where I’m Calling From ‘So tell me, friend, is it honest?’ to the epigraph Carver placed at the start. It’s from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Kundera, you might almost say, was Carver’s opposite as a writer (along with Donald Bartheleme). Here, Carver is quoting Kundera paraphrasing Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return. ‘We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.’

This, also, is a universe away from Keep it Simple, Stupid.

Minimalism, as it has been propagated, could be defined as writing for stupid people.


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In 2015, Gordon Lish was interviewed by The Paris Review. He did not disappoint. The section about his work with/on Carver was excerpted for the Guardian.

In light of what I said above, ten years ago, it’s worth quoting one sentence from Lish (though you should definitely read the whole thing):

I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could fuck around with.