Beginners by Raymond Carver

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Beginners by Raymond Carver

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Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: In 1981, Raymond Carver's great short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was published. Now, over twenty years after his death, Carver's widow has published the original, unedited version of those stories. Longer, and less downbeat, they demonstrate Carver's reputation as a minimalist owed much to the work of his editor.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: October 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099540328

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One thing you soon surmise from reading Raymond Carver is that he was an alcoholic. Carver's characters tend to drink excessively, and his stories often examine the negative impact of drinking on his central character's relationships. But nowadays, what we talk about when we talk about Carver is the role of his editor, Gordon Lish.

Carver first met Lish, then the editor of a small press magazine, in 1968. Lish began to heavily edit and publish Carver's stories and Carver's reputation grew. He was particularly admired for his sparse, pared-down prose. The sense of mystery and of unspoken tension in his stories led them to be labelled as 'minimalist fiction'. But the minimalism was down to Lish's editing; Carver hated being called a minimalist.

The collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was published in 1981, but Carver had become increasingly unhappy with the way Lish edited his stories. In particular, a story that appeared in the collection as 'The Bath' was so severely cut back it had little left in common with Carver's version. Carver wrote to Lish begging him to reinstate the original of this and other stories. The implication of his letter is that Carver no longer considered them to be 'his' stories.

Last year (2009), after much pressure from Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, the unedited stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love were published under Carver's original title, Beginners. The book is now available in paperback.

The stories in Beginners are not only longer versions of those edited by Lish they also tend to be a little less downbeat. But that doesn't necessarily make them better. I may be biased here, because 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' was the first Carver story I ever read and it blew me away. But in my opinion the changes Lish made to the original story were a great improvement. Here's the original opening, for example:

My friend Herb McGinnis, a cardiologist, was talking. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin.

Here's the edited version:

My friend Herb McGinnis was talking. Herb McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right. The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin.

For once, the Lish edit (in this extract) is longer than the original but that's unusual. He usually cuts. Which isn't to say his cutting is always successful. For example, the original version of 'The Bath' – 'A Small, Good Thing' – is a much better story than the much shorter, much more sinister Lish version and is probably the highlight of this collection. The problem is, 'A Small Good Thing' has already appeared elsewhere (in the later collection Cathedral and in the 'best of' compilation Where I'm Calling From).

The majority of the stories in this collection, though, are looser and somehow less satisfying than the tightly edited versions that appeared in 1981. The endings of many of them are also completely different and usually, again, not quite as perfect as the 'Lish version'. It's odd to think that the style that became known as 'Carveresque' owed less to Raymond Carver than it did to Gordon Lish.

I found Beginners a fascinating read, but overall the stories are not quite as good as the edited versions that appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Having said that they are nevertheless very good stories, and the book is definitely worth buying if you're already a fan or a dedicated student of Carver's work. Beginners, though, might be more inclined to go directly to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which was, after all, the volume that made Carver's name.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Apart from the Carver collections referred to above, you might want to try The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis or Colm Toibin's The Empty Family.

Buy Beginners by Raymond Carver at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Beginners by Raymond Carver at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Beginners by Raymond Carver at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Beginners by Raymond Carver at Amazon.com.

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