When I posted about the NYT story on Tess Gallagher's latest move in the Carver-Lish legacy chess match, Michael Hemmingson was kind enough to e-mail me to say that he had recently sold a book on Lish and was working on a biography of Carver. I asked him if he'd be willing to do a short interview on the matter and I'm happy that he said, "Yes."
Hemmingson is the author of 43 books, including several acclaimed novels, and studies of Bukowski, Carver, and Vollmann. His study of Lish will be published by Taylor & Francis in 2009. His first produced screenplay, The Watermelon, will be released by LightSong Films and Hand Picked Films in 2008. Check out a trailer here--and Hemmingson's blog about the two-year process from script to production here.
Carver took a long time to find success (his first story was published in 1961)--beyond the editing, what did it mean for him to find Lish as an editor?
“Finding” Lish was one of those serendipitous things that you’ll see evident in many successful writers' lives. Dumb luck, right place at the right time. Lish was working across the street at a behavioral research lab while Carver was working as a text book editor, and later head of publicity, of Science Research Associates. They took a liking to each in drinking and literature. Lish was publishing a journal called Genesis West that only had seven issues come out, but was a fairly well-respected publication—that’s what got him in the door to interview for the fiction editor position at Esquire. Not only did Lish publish Carver in Esquire, he got Carver’s work into Harper’s and Playgirl (“So Much Water So Close to Home,” with a female narrator).
Without Lish, there would be no Carver, plain and simple; Carver would have continued to publish but not in New York. He would have remained an obscure little magazine writer. Despite getting into some of the Best of anthologies and the O. Henry Award, no one wanted to publish Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Because it was considered too bleak and too realistic at a time when experimental and symbolic fiction was published. In fact, the manuscript was twice short-listed for the prestigious Univ. of Iowa Press contest (the first two years); the professors picking the finalists strongly wanted Carver to win but the judges they hired picked other people (no one who became a name, oddly). This irked the Director of the program so much he offered Carver a job.
With Lish—when Lish went from Esquire to McGraw-Hill, a condition of his employment was that he would publish Carver’s collection. There was no hope for that book by McGraw-Hill, then the rave reviews came in and it was nominated for the National Book Award. Despite the nomination, I understand it still didn’t sell in great quantities. As I know from personal experience, it is very difficult for a writer to deal with having well-received books and still be destitute. Sherwood Anderson once remarked that something was wrong when he had to borrow money to survive and his work was being studied in classrooms all over the nation. When Lish changed jobs to Knopf, he took Carver with him. So it just wasn’t the physical editing, but having a champion. William T. Vollmann is in the same boat with Viking Penguin—he had a champion who fought hard and went up to bat for each book. Now his champion is the president of the conglomerate.
It's always been curious to me how mortified Carver was by Lish's edits. Eliot, for instance, seemed proud of the work Pound did on The Wasteland--and dedicated it to him as "il miglior fabbro." Was it Lish's heavy-handedness or some other thing internal to Carver the put him in such a frantic state when WWTAWWTAL was coming out? How heavy-handed, really, was Lish?
Lish was much more aggressive with Carver’s first book, and developing his minimalist philosophy at that point. Part of it was that Carver had just stopped drinking and viewed this work as part of his salvation. He was afraid he would go back to drinking. Most of the stories had been previously published in journals and magazines in their original form and titles, and many well-known editors and critics had read them, so he was worried about answering questions about the paring down—how could he defend it when he didn’t agree with it?
He wasn’t the only writer who would become dismayed at Lish’s editorial hand—look at Barry Hannah’s spare style change when he went to Knopf. But since Lish had even changed the endings, adding his own words, and these quirky endings became part of Carver’s signature style and the norm for minimalism and Dirty Realism, he was worried about his readers finding the man behind the curtain, which they eventually did. So, first he was worried pre-publication; then after all the praise, he was distraught at being known for a style that really was not his literary philosophy. I can understand how that could make a recovering alcoholic want to go back to the bottle.
Lish was a famous editor--but also something of a famous egotist: tales abound about his tyrannical workshops. But... he had a fantastic eye and ear for talent, didn't he? How's his legacy going to shape up?
I was in Lish’s class in the late 80s. Over the years, I have learned to think before admitting that—it has been met with both awe and disgust. I learned a lot, though; I didn’t agree with it all, but Lish’s philosophy did change the way I looked at sentence structure. His egoism was, I believe, an act, and it came to a point where he began to parody himself. I really do believe he was trying to prove the fallacy and bullshit of the literary and publishing world by messing with people’s heads, which you see if you look at many of his quotes:
Never be sincere – sincerity is the death of writing.
I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
Don't end with a blowjob, start with one.
Beat the tap against death by writing -- write around the clock.
Never use adverbial participles.
Don't have stories -- have sentences.
With your language, you are looking for a new heart.
When the voice isn't your voice, it's the voice of death.
The second sentence must negate what is prior. Everything that follows is a negation of what began. The second sentence recurs to the previous sentence, but revises. It moves to collect what is behind it—always with a difference. The form of the story will develop as a result of this procedure.
We should all feel we are on the threshold of our greatest beginning.
Nothing is fiction. Everything is fiction.
Make of your littleness a muchness.
I find Lish’s own work fascinating, which is why I am writing what will be the first critical study on both his fiction and those he had a heavy editorial hand with. The book should be out mid to late 2009…maybe 2010…academic publishing is slow, and I’m not finished with it yet.
Tess Gallagher is a famously quarrelsome executor: who's going to--and who should--win this battle over the shape of Carver's stories? Should it even be a battle?
I don’t think it should be a battle. The unedited stories should be published alongside the edited ones. Why not. It will be fodder for years of debate and academic discourse. People will write their Ph.D.’s on it and get jobs. I think Gallagher may be in for a shock when the popular consensus will be that the edited versions are—I won’t say “better,” but canon. Viking recently published On the Road in its original scroll version and it seems many contemporary readers find it difficult to follow and prefer the classic version. For history’s sake, it should have been published, just to see the evolution from manuscript to book. Publishing Carver’s unedited versions could prove to be helpful to aspiring writers so they can see the editing process at work.