Almost 20 years after his death, the celebrated short story writer Raymond Carver may have another book published – not new material, but rather alternative versions of the stories in the collection that made his reputation, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which was published in 1981.
Carver's widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, believes that her late husband's literary intentions were betrayed by his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, and wants to restore the stories in their original form. And that, in turn, is provoking a storm across America's literary landscape, as editors, publishers and authors debate whether the raw versions enhance Carver's literary profile or risk diminishing him.
Even while Carver was still alive, rumours spread that he was not really the author of the stories that had made him famous.
In 1998, a literary journalist called D T Max went through Carver's papers, which had been sold to the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and discovered that his early stories had been heavily edited by Gordon Lish, a towering figure at Knopf known in the industry as Captain Fiction.
Max reported that Lish's black felt-tip markings "sometimes obliterate the original text". Of the 13 stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Max found that Lish had cut about half the original words and rewritten 10 of the endings.
The spare, nuanced style that emerged from this editing became Carver's trademark, although some of his later stories, which were not edited by Lish, were lusher and fuller.
Carver's correspondence shows that he was not only unhappy but on the verge of despair over Lish's changes. "Please, Gordon, for God's sake help me in this and try to understand," he wrote in a 1980 letter. "My very sanity is on the line here... I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story."
The question, of course, is whether Lish helped Carver find his voice or whether he inserted too much of himself. In Max's judgement, some of the changes were "brilliant, like the expert cropping of a picture", while others were "bullying and competitive".
Carver himself reversed some of Lish's edits when he published his collection Where I'm Calling From in 1988, the same year that he died at the age of 50. That collection, containing 30 old stories and seven new ones, is regarded as the best introduction to his work and the best way to appreciate the breadth of his literary style.
As far as Carver's last editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, is concerned, the changes that Carver himself made to Where I'm Calling From are as much modification as is appropriate.
"I would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground," Fisketjon told The New York Times when asked about Gallagher's plans. "I don't understand what Tess's interest in doing this is except to rewrite history. I am appalled by it."
Gallagher, however, believes that her husband had only just begun the process of restoring his stories at the time of his death and wants to publish the originals to vindicate him. Her intention is not unlike that of film-makers who release a "director's cut" after their original version is altered by the studio. The difference is that film is a collaborative art while writing is essentially solitary. And, almost always, the director who approves a director's cut is still alive.
Gallagher has hired the literary agent Andrew Wylie and he has begun sounding out publishers in France, Germany and Japan as well as the US. Gallagher wants to call the collection, Beginners, which is what the story What We Talk About... was called in its raw version.
There could, however, be a legal problem with reissuing the stories in different form. If Knopf declines to publish the new versions, it might have a legal case for preventing their appearance under another imprint. Knopf said in a statement that it had made no decision but was consulting with its lawyers to explore its options.