Sunday, November 01, 2009

Definitive versions?

Today in the Observer Tim Adams reviews Beginners, the unexpurgated version of Raymond Carver's second story collection, published by Gordon Lish as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He finds the differences startling, but that the 'new' version is nevertheless 'an extraordinary book, more generous and rambling in tone than its distilled counterpart', more nuanced, yet 'still recognizably Carver's'.

Struck by the incongruity of that last thought - presumably that we should be looking for, and hoping for, what we think of as Carver's 'real' voice in his more original work - Adams muses most interestingly on the power and practice of editors:
Editing of Lish's kind is a dark art, but not so unusual. I used to work for a literary magazine, Granta, where the editor, Bill Buford, brought a Lish-style idea of editing to all the content. In some pieces, long stories of 10,000 words or more, not a sentence of the writer's original draft stood. Many writers were grateful for these interventions: they had never sounded so good. Some, of course, balked at the mauling. Carver's friend Richard Ford, for one, would always take Buford back through any story and painstakingly argue for the choice behind every word and comma until the original was restored exactly, not in every case better, but all his own.
One does wonder if this still happens: the Booker judges this year complained at the apparent lack of editing. But you never know, really: as a once-editor myself, I know that it's perfectly possible to overlook the typos but still mess about with a writer's prose, and anyway I suspect that in general nowadays an obsession with the market promotes a cavalier attitude towards authors' intentions which allows for the former and leads to the latter.

The Carver-Lish debate and these Granta revelations focus on the issue of prose style. My experience with my first novel was to have to submit to a change of structure - simple but radical: chapter four was moved to the beginning - specifically designed to create a very different type of novel (as I indicated recently) which would appeal to a very different market. As a new young writer I felt I didn't have a leg to stand on in this matter, but I was never happy with the result, and later republished the book with its original structure restored. Adams predicts that the publication of Beginners will start a trend in this direction - 'the author's cut'.

(If anyone is interested, the revised edition of my first novel The Birth Machine - The Author's Cut, which includes a preface discussing the implications of the changes, is available on Amazon or direct from me via my profile along with a limited number of used copies of the original edition.)
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