You can’t begin again with “Beginners”

U.K. edition
How do we read Raymond Carver now?  His literary history has been officially righted with Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, published last month by Scribner, and also the publication of Carver’s original short-story manuscript Beginners that — after heavy edits — became What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981).  Both confirm what was widely already known about editor Gordon Lish rewriting Carver’s stories and creating the minimalist style that made Carver famous.  

Back to my question.  Can those of us who read Carver before this comparative hullabaloo approach Beginners with a blank literary slate, reading it as if the stories are new? As if we had never read Carver-by-Lish? Or will we be compelled to read it side-by-side with the collection it became under Lish’s pen, rendering Beginners a representation of change instead of an original work?  

What do I recommend to someone who wants to read a Carver book? Should I recommend Beginners and say this is the real Carver? But his early stories edited by Lish were considered groundbreaking work, a minimalist style alive with a raw focus on working-class lives. Would Carver have been as successful without Lish? Which is better, Beginners or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?  

Maybe history has been righted, but readers from now on are left with reading two Carvers and thinking about him with two truths. It’s a strange and uncomfortable fence to sit on.  

  • Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life gives in-depth coverage to the Carver-Lish relationship in an account that, according to Stephen King in his Sunday New York Times book review “is meticulous and heartbreaking.” 
  • Beginners, the un-touched-by-Lish version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is included in Library of America’s Carver: Collected Stories edited by William Stull and Maureen Carroll, published August 2009. 
  • The aforementioned is not the first book Stull and Carroll edited about Carver. I came across Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver (Capra Press: 1993)  in the holiday catalogue of Between the Covers Rare Books. Edited by Stull and Carroll, this catalogue offering is signed by Carver and going for $650.
  • Jonathan Cape Publishers in the U.K. published Beginners as a stand-alone earlier this year. (Cover image above.) 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s