In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books (LVII, 7), Giles Harvey probes a close collaboration between Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. Perhaps the right word here is not collaboration as much as ‘co-writing’. In the article, Carver’s original passages are compared with final versions pruned by Lish, which were often as much as 70% shorter. It is captivating to watch the metamorphosis – from mawkish prose that, in Harvey’s words, “flails and stammers” to the subtle, poignant, understated style that we have come to known as Carveresque. Once we get over the fact that the style was Lish’s and not Carver’s, and that without Lish we would probably have never heard of Carver, we have to wonder – does it matter?
Not so much, according to Harvey. He quotes Pound: “It’s immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them.” And it is a lovely idea, placing the work at the center and writer at the periphery. A writer, instead of thinking what he wants to do with the work, can think of what work wants to do with him. It scales things properly, making writers midwives rather than mothers to their works. While this may seem not much of a bargain – for midwives take only the blame but not the pride for the miracle they usher into being – it may bring about collaborations and transformations that the work needs. And the work’s needs are often rather different from those of the author. The author’s needs can often, inadvertently, destroy the very thing he desires to create – a work liberated from mediocrity, and turned, like Carver’s stories, into something great.