Raymond Carver and his editors

As usual, the daily book pages of British papers, especially The Guardian and The Observer, put American newspaper reviews to shame.  From The Observer, this piece is a thoughtful, well-researched, impartial look at the relationship between a writer and his/her confidants (both the official kind and the ones s/he finds amongst family and friends).  In this case the writer is a he famous for his lean prose and portraits of anxious, quietly angry Americans, and his confidants may have had far more of a hand in his work than readers previously imagined.  For instance, I didn’t know that What We Talk About When We Talk About Love was not Carver’s own original title;  nor did I realize that Carver’s second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, great love of his middle age (which turned out to be his late age), often rewrote whole sentences.  I don’t think this should reduce our admiration for Carver’s brilliance.  But it does remind us that even if The Author isn’t dead, as Roland Barthes, a man who wrote no novels or poetry, once famous claimed (fooling two generations of academics into nodding their heads–seriously, how many dumb theories have come out of the French academy?), writers are also not sui generis creatures.  Even a genius needs an audience to hear and fiddle with (or suggest fiddlings with) his/her work before it actually hits the marketplace.  All that Keatsian Romantic stuff about the lone genius was a bit overblown.

It’s also interesting that poets tend to incorporate less outside input into their work than novelists or dramatists do.  A big reason for this is the basic condition of the literary marketplace: novelists work with editors (since there is actually money to be made from novels, big publishing houses demand this level of involvement in the product) and dramatists, like filmmakers, operate  in much more crowded, sociable environments–the playwright at his desk in his office cannot be separated from the playwright working with directors and actors to put his work onstage.  However, I also wonder if there is something more solitary or imperious about most poets’ temperaments.  True, if you’re a smart aspiring poet, you seek out critical readers wherever and whenever you can, but most of the final editorial decisions are yours.  Not to say there are many people eager to help with the decisions: poetry is a lonelier game, if only in an economic sense.  A novelist, though, burdened and blessed by the existence of a public willing to buy his creations in large enough quantities for a few people to make money off them, often gives up a decent measure of control.  Not to say that there are not lone wolves prowling the literary landscape or suggest that a novelist isn’t the master of his work; nevertheless, these differences are real.

Anyway, a nice fifteen-minute read for Sunday morning before football starts, or for a Tuesday afternoon when you are trying to avoid work.  I got this from Arts and Letters Daily, the best arts & culture clearinghouse on the web.  If some good literary journalism gets published anywhere in the Western world, you can be sure it will end up there.



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