Carver vs Lish:

An overlong argument about The Bath

• This debate took place over a few days in August 2017.
• The two participants are B. and D.
• The participants will speak in the third-person via email as the intention is for this dialogue to be read in essay form.

Introductory Section – Skype Transcription

D: Ok, I’ll do the introduction. So, we wanted to have a debate about Carver, and weren’t sure whether the best medium for this would be an audio recording, like a podcast, or whether we should write opposing papers on it or what, so just decided on a sort of extended email dialogue.

B: It’s the future means of literary debate surely.

D: Exactly. Well we’re actually using Skype now but will switch to email once we get going with the debate itself, and then hopefully publish the full transcript online somewhere.

B: Yes.

D: It’s hard to discern your tone from comments on Skype.

B: Isn’t it.

D: So, despite the somewhat reductive and misleading title (probably called ‘clickbaity’ these days), this isn’t really a discussion about ‘Carver vs Lish’, since both versions of the story in question are attributed to Carver. It’s more specifically about deciding which makes for greater fiction between Lish’s edit of Carver’s work, and Carver’s untouched, unblemished originals – would you agree with that premise?

B: Aye I would, and we should mention that although you could have this argument about the entire collections, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (cited as ‘WWTA’) which was published in 1981, and Beginners (published in 2009), we’re only going to focus on the story The Bath (‘TB’), which was later re-published as A Small, Good Thing (‘ASGT’). It’s probably worth mentioning that A Small, Good Thing was actually published in 1983 as part of the Cathedral collection, but for the context of the wider Carver/Lish thing, we’ll keep referring to the Beginners publication.

D: Carver/Lish ‘thing’?

B: The whole divide. The debate. What the situation was.

D: Should we bother giving an account of the background to what you’re talking about, or just assume that anyone reading this will already know about this ‘debate’?

B: I assume they will, but we could give it a quick sentence or two anyway.

D: Go ahead.

B: Ok, so, Carver wrote these stories in the late 70s/early 80s, and submitted them to his editor Gordon Lish. Lish edited them heavily – sometimes incredibly heavily. He changed titles, characters’ names, added new endings, and often cut the stories by more than half. With ASGT, he cut it by 78% to create TB. 78%! So only 22% of Carver’s original was still on the page by publication time. And who knows what percentage of that final story was composed of Lish’s own newly-added words.

D: And when the book was released in ’81, in this highly adulterated form, it became a monster hit, a real literary sensation. Made his name as a writer, it’s fair to say.

B: Then in ’09, out came the full collection in its original, untampered-with state…

D: Untampered-with?

B: The meaning is clear.

D: I think we need Gordon Lish for this chat.

B: The book was published in 2009 with Carver’s manuscript title, Beginners, and only then did people really become aware of just how different the Lish edits were.

D: Many people did already know from the New Yorker piece.

B: Yes but they didn’t know then that it extended to the entire collection..

D: Ok, that’s true.

B: D is referring to when the New Yorker website published the edited version of the title story, WWTA, and you could see all the deletions and additions and changes and so on – is it still available online?

D: I think so.

B: Ok well, if folk Google it they should find it.

D: So that’s our topic of debate then really, whether we prefer the Lish originals – I mean not actually the originals, the originally-published versions. As opposed to the real originals, Carver’s originals, which were published much later.

B: The real debate is probably about editorial ethics.

D: Yes but for the purposes of this thing we’re doing here, this is the subject.

B: Yes.

D: We’re going to ‘talk’ (write) it out, and see if we can convince one another to the merits of our own respective argument. To take a position now, I’m firmly on the side of Lish, the Lish edited version, and B is very much in favour of the original Carver.

B: Again, we’re only going to be speaking about TB and ASGT here.

D: Although some of the other stories might creep into the discussion?

B: Maybe.

D: So we’ll both do a wee intro about why we prefer the version that we do, then we’ll send emails back and forth, each on a specific aspect of the stories, hopefully until one of us has been successfully talked round, or at least until we think we’ve exhausted the topic and have covered all of the necessary ground – would you say?

B: Sounds about right.

D: And even if neither manages to persuade the other, it should still form a fairly interesting piece on this most divisive of literary matters.

B: Jesus.

D: I’m getting in the mood.

B: Will we just start then?

D: Sure, switching over to email now. I’ll start us off. We’ll try to keep the emails as short and punchy as possible, to avoid this becoming just a boring exchange of essays that takes about two years off our lives.

B: Definitely.

D: In the words of the great David Gray, see you on the other side.

D – Opening Email
In the spirit of what we agreed on Skype, I’ll try to keep this concise, rather than bother with a long, elaborate opening monologue.

TB is the better story in just about every way I can think of. Immediately, it’s a better title than Carver’s awkward one. It’s a more polished, well-written story, and has a much better ending.

There’s an episode of Slate’s Audio Book Club on iTunes on exactly this topic, TB vs ASGT, (which I know B has heard as well) and all three of the critics on the panel choose TB as the better story. There isn’t even any real doubt or debate over it. It’s logical to assume that the same reasons lie behind their choice as behind the choice of the literary/reading public at large, because in any review or article or online conversation I ever see on this, the Lish versions are deemed to be superior.

It’s undeniable to me that Lish cut out a lot of bad writing and just unnecessary pointless sentimental stuff from Carver’s story, and it does make for better fiction. We said we’d both include an extract or quotation of some kind for our opening emails, but for mine I’m going to include a phrase from that Slate’s ABC episode that I think will pre-empt (and nullify) much of B’s case and his criticisms – a statement used by the critic Katie Roiphe, when she said the reason she prefers TB is because it changes the almost humdrum short story ASGT, a perfectly decent but flawed and overegged piece of fiction, into something much more terrifying and meaningful - an “archetypal experience” is the term she uses. This is achieved by moving the characters further away from the story, more into the shadows, which is curious because normally this makes fiction weaker, when you have characters that are less distinct. I can imagine that will be one of B’s complaints, but I do believe that in this particular case, it succeeds in making TB seem more plausible, more frightening, and more effective as a short story.

Lish’s version is the “archetypal experience”.

B – Opening Email
I’ll start with a quotation, in fact I’ll start with two, and these aren’t really points that I want to argue over as such, they’re more things to keep in mind as we go.

So firstly a phrase used by Raymond Carver himself in his introduction to ‘Best American Short Stories’, a book he edited in 1986, where he noted that short fiction at its best shows us what is “recognizably human”. That is his term. And I agree. Completely. The greatest art is always “recognizably human”, and anything that is not has to be considered inferior.

The other quote is actually not about Carver at all, it’s from an essay I read recently by James Wood on Flaubert:

But the legacy of Flaubert’s rigor of denial is, nowadays, too often a dumbness, an unthoughtful, undemonstrative literature preening itself on its inability (rather than its unwillingness) to feel, broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life. (page 62 of The Broken Estate)

The really significant part is from that last line – ‘units of hard sensation’ that are ‘merely swiping at life’. This stands in opposition to the ideal of something that is ‘recognizably human’. Fundamentally I see this as a conflict between stylization (rather than just style) and substance.

D talks about how many more people prefer the Lish versions, but this is irrelevant. There are definitely individual stories that were improved by his interventions, but we’re only concerned here with TB and ASGT, and without question ASGT is the better short story.

He also mentions how TB has a better title and a better ending, but this is just ‘bandwagoning’ to me. There’s nothing that makes TB an objectively better title, and the ending is one of the strongest points in favour of ASGT.

Carver’s original was not perfect. Some of the (minor) edits that Lish made to the story were positive, and I’ll point these out as we go, but they are far, far outweighed by what is lost.

A ‘recognizably human’ story is always better than one which is ‘merely swiping at life’.

D – Comparative Strengths of TB

You’ve touched on something there that I think is really important in this debate, although it’s an area I didn’t want to go into until we come to discuss the endings of the stories. I’ll briefly mention it before outlining the sort of structure we’re going to try and stick to here.

B is attacking from the perspective that less emphasis on developing the characters automatically makes TB the inferior story. I don’t believe this is true. Without even going into the list of writers that I think often wrote things that were not “recognizably human” (Kafka? Beckett?), I think B is making the mistake here of holding TB to a standard that it shouldn’t be held to – if that makes sense. He’s trying to paint TB as a lesser story because it doesn’t fit with a particular mode or model of realism, but it’s never attempting to conform to this, it is a story that works in an entirely different way. Here I’m referring to two articles (one which in turn quotes the other), ‘The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty’ by John Powell, which discusses the paper ‘Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver’ by William Stull. Stull describes the difference between, but equal artistic value of, both stories as the differentiation between “humanist realism” (ASGT) and “existential realism” (TB), so in Stull’s view one is not an inherently lesser form of realism than the other. They are equivalents; but they are essentially different modes of realism so to hold them both to one definition is not valid.

And that phrase from the title of Powell’s piece, ‘The Menace’, is really important to my argument. It’s a theme which runs throughout the story, and is a key reason for why I believe TB to be superior fiction.

I’ll return to these points when the endings of the stories are considered, as that’s where the distinction between the modes of realism is most significant.

As I said, we are going to try and have this debate in a kind of structured fashion, where we’re each going to first go over what the relative strengths of our chosen story is, sticking to the positives as much as possible initially, then we’ll swap stories and explain what we think the negative aspects of them are. At that stage we’ll both make any concessions we feel are justified about our preferred story, and then chat about the endings, which should take us naturally into a conclusion of sorts, where we’ll see if either of us has changed our position in any way on the basis of all of the points raised.

And so, one of the main reasons I prefer TB is that I think the quality of the writing is so much better. When you’re reading it, at no point are you just following along with mundane or mildly interesting prose, waiting to see what happens. The style and the language are such that every single line from the first paragraph onwards has this sinister sparse quality that gives it that sense I mentioned – that “menace” of “uncertainty” – and make the reading of the story such a strange, disturbing, brilliantly memorable experience.

I think it’s a real strength that the characters are largely effaced and referred to as simply ‘the birthday boy’ (instead of Scotty) or ‘the man’ (his father). This is what Katie Roiphe of Slate was meaning when she spoke of the “archetypal experience” – the effect of having ‘bare’ or ‘generic’ characters is that the story becomes more horrifying, because the reader gets the feeling that this could happen to anyone at any time (I haven’t quoted her exactly as I can’t be bothered transcribing the audio), rather than only to this very specific person and situation as given. Roiphe implies that rather than focusing on individual characters as we usually do in fiction, this method of characterization makes us think of, and be fearful for, ourselves.

On a textual level, I think the paragraphing is much better in TB, the space-breaks are used more effectively to demarcate between the focalizations through different characters, and between different scenes and moods.

There are specific points where I think the quality of the writing and narration are very obviously better and more evocative.

An example would be the scene where Scotty is knocked down:

At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car. He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.

The other boy stood holding the potato chips. He was wondering if he should finish the rest of continue on to school.

The birthday boy did not cry. But neither did he wish to talk anymore. He would not answer when the other boy asked what it felt like to be hit by a car. The birthday boy got up and turned back for home, at which time the other boy waved good-bye and headed off for school.

The birthday boy told his mother what had happened. They sat together on the sofa. She helds his hands in her lap. This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back. (p40, TB)

It would be easy to over-describe and over-dramatise an event like this, but the choice of words here, the details that are presented, the impression it all leaves the reader with, I think it’s just really superb writing. I know I shouldn’t mention ASGT, as this section is only supposed to be about the strengths of TB, but I have to note here that the particularly vivid and effective phrase, “as if he were climbing a wall”, is not present in ASGT. I think a lot is lost by not having this term included. The notion of the boy trying to climb a “wall” is much more ominous and precise, and you could say pregnant with possible meanings. It also gives a clearer, better picture of what his physical actions were as he lay there (and making any scene more lifelike and visual in the reader’s mind equals a greater form of writing).

And again, it is the reader’s distance from the characters in the story that lends TB its haunting, portentous quality – we are told that the birthday boy didn’t wish to talk, and whatever is happening inside him from that point on is not known to us. He becomes totally closed off. It is therefore more abrupt and more shocking when he does then collapse. The expression used is crucial in producing this more sinister effect, because it is Scotty who chooses to pull away and lie down, the action is not involuntary. Something is happening to him internally and he is reacting to it, trying to handle it, but we aren’t privy to this because of the distance between us and him as a character. We can only speculate and worry for him, as his mother does too.

There are a few other instances where I think this same type of word-selection/expression-construction and narration are really beautifully done, but I’ll cite just one more. This excerpt comes from when Anne, the mother, is standing in the waiting-room:

The mother went to the window and looked out at the parking lot. Cars with their lights on were driving in and out. She stood at the window with her hands on the sill. She was talking to herself like this. We’re into something now, something hard.

She was afraid.

She saw a car stop and a woman in a long coat get into it. She made believe she was that woman. She made believe she was driving away from here to someplace else.
(p45, TB)

This is brilliant writing to convey the desired effect – the effect that Powell called “menace”. That phrase “something hard” exists in both stories, but the way it’s given here is particularly good – there is something both intimate and solitary, so stark and unsettling, when we hear her talking to herself at the window. Yet what really sets this apart in my opinion is that the mother’s wish does not mention her son or them as a family; her wish in that moment is to be free of the entire situation, to be that woman in the long coat, with no connection to any of the things that are happening, free to drive away to another life. This is a completely different sentiment to that expressed in ASGT, and is both much darker and more interesting – and in a way, more human (contrary to B’s opening statements). Is it not a more intriguing aspect of humanity, to probe that impulse for people, in times of extreme strife like this, to become self-motivated and to wish for the pain to be over, to sacrifice everything at the chance for another life instead? I think this point is at the heart of why I like TB as the better story – it confronts these darker questions (Schull’s ‘existential realism’) in a way that ASGT can’t and doesn’t.

Other than that, I think TB has some excellent compressed narration at points:

They waited all day. The boy did not wake up. The doctor came again and examined the boy again and left are saying the same things again. Nurses came in. Doctors came in. A technician came in and took blood. (p44)

I often see compressed narration that’s just lazy or simply summarizes events, like a list that doesn’t really give any sense of how things are progressing within the world of the story, but this type of narrative manages to move the plot on as rapidly as required while also conveying the tension and the stasis and the routines and the hopelessness of the situation being faced by the mother and the father.

It’s really only because we’re working within this structure just now (ie, first full email = the positives of your chosen story only) that I can’t make an even stronger case for TB by pointing out that it doesn’t include a lot of what makes ASGT inferior. As I’m limited to speaking about TB, I’ve described the features I think work very well, but its strength as a story grows exponentially when compared with ASGT, because the key weaknesses of that story were largely eradicated by Lish.

So: The Bath.

It’s an exceptionally well-written story.

The case rests.

B – Comparative Strengths of ASGT
There are some things in your email I disagree with, but I’ll try to only mention them briefly so we can manage to stick to the positives for this part. I think you’re taking “recognizably human” a bit too literally – of course, in the main, the writing of both Kafka and Beckett was “recognizably human”. Of course it was. Let’s not even debate that. Fiction doesn’t have to be a strictly naturalistic form of realism, doesn’t have to be an attempt at verisimilitude, for it to be “recognizably human”. My contention that TB fails from that perspective – the perspective of true art – is not because the style is not naturalistic enough. I won’t go into why until we’re discussing the negatives of the pieces, but needed to quickly clarify that point.

This is going to be quite difficult to do without referring to TB at all, but I’ll do my best. Most of these points are valuable because TB is the inverse of each point I’m making, so whatever I’m saying is good here, the implication is that TB fails on the same criteria.

The first, and the main, reason for why ASGT is a greater story is simply that it is a story of real people. All of the characters – Howard the father, Ann the mother, the baker, even a peripheral figure like Dr Francis at the hospital – are so much more well-drawn and deeper and more believable and more interesting than in TB. It’s easy enough to say that the comparative shallowness is intentional in TB, that it isn’t that type of story, but if that’s true then ASGT is indeed automatically a better story. Even if it’s too long, even if it’s overdone at times and contains some off-notes or bad lines, if it presents more convincing, more substantial characters and they move us more and engender a greater sense of empathy, then it is better fiction. And I would say all of that is true in this case.

I should explain, this isn’t just a reductive ruleset that can be applied to any and every two stories – as I said earlier, there are Lish versions in WWTA that are unquestionably better than their Beginners counterparts, because Lish doesn’t always perform this same extreme surgery on the consciousness of the characters. Some of the Beginners stories do have a lot of extraneous, diversionary nonsense in them, too many weak lines or bad expressions or needless subplots, and have characters that don’t convince and are actually betrayed and exposed by the greater emphasis given to their characterization.

This is not so with ASGT. With some moments of exception that I’m sure will be covered during our exchange, for the most part the characterization in the story is authentic and artfully done, the writing is truly excellent, and a lot of the darkness and moral ambiguity that D spoke of is certainly present here as well, albeit in slightly different form. Indeed, and like virtually every other aspect of this story by comparison, the ambiguity is ASGT can developed further on account of its greater length, and is therefore deeper and more absorbing.

The additional sections at the outset given to the characterization of Ann (as she gives the cake order to the baker) and of Howard (upon hearing that Scotty has been taken to the hospital) allow them to give more of themselves as characters, as real people.

When Howard is sitting in his car, thinking:

So far he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man, if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned. (p56, ASGT)

This is both a very human epiphany, as he tries to rationalize the potential occurrence of something terrible in his life for the first time, and a moment of moral ambivalence. Howard is not frantically focused on Scotty as the expected reaction would be, he is thinking of this event in the context of his own life, how it relates to his own story, how he had avoided being affected by tragedy, and possibly also pondering if his own actions could have done anything to precipitate such a disaster. This may be only a fleeting moment of such introspection, but if you remove it or strip it of its particular angle (its perspective, the proximity to his consciousness), it loses its power as a glimpse of a real human psyche in a state of duress.

Ann has similar avenues for development in the story, as in the excellent long section where she leaves Scotty’s bedside and goes home to rejuvenate herself. This opportunity for thought sees her re-playing the last time she thought she’d lost Scotty:

It was plain to her what must have happened – that he had fallen in, that he must even now be lodged somewhere inside the culvert. The thought was monstrous, so unfair and overwhelming that she couldn’t hold it in her mind. But she felt that it was true, that he was in there, in the culvert, and knew too it was something that would have to be borne and lived with from here on, a life without Scotty in it. But how to act in the face of this, the fact of the loss, was more than she could comprehend. The horror of the men and equipment working at the mouth of the culvert through the night, that was what she did not know if she could endure, that waiting while the men worked under powerful lights. She would have to somehow get past that to the limitless sweep of emptiness she knew stretched beyond. She was ashamed to know it, but she thought she could live with that. (p69, ASGT)

After Scotty appears alongside Howard, she then struggles to process that train of thought she had been on:

She knew Howard had been scared and was now relieved, but he hadn’t glimpsed what she had, he couldn’t know. The quickness of how she had gone into death and beyond it had made her suspect herself, that she hadn’t loved enough. If she had, she would not have thought the worst so quickly. She shook her head back and forth at this craziness. She grew tired and had to put Scotty down. They walked the rest of the way together, Scotty in the middle, holding hands, the three of them walking home. (p70)

It should be clear even from these short extracts that this section of Ann’s memories (which was omitted entirely from TB) is not mere descriptive window-dressing or a tangential subplot, this is close narration of this woman’s soul, of organic thoughts that come to her as she tries to navigate her way through the impending tragedy. In many ways, these types of thoughts and fears are exactly what should form the basis of great fiction, and the prose is immeasurably stronger for having such darkened ruminations rendered and integrated into the story. The moral ambiguities are heightened when Ann voices in her head “Don’t have children” to the girl she saw previously in the hospital; a thought not unlike the example from TB cited by D when Ann seemed to be wishing she could escape the situation rather than have to persist through it.

These details are not static impositions from the author, nor heavy narration that sit alongside the plight of the characters. The bleak thoughts and concerns and the transient terrors do affect the way Howard and Ann behave, and it’s another strength of ASGT that we witness some of the inevitable tension and discord between them as events progress. It is important that time is given to their relationship rather than it being skirted over, as it’s fascinating to see how the trauma touches them both in different ways and affects how they relate to each other.

It is a very simple yet very effective line when Ann says to him in the hospital:

‘Why don’t you go?’ she said. ‘Feed Slug. Feed yourself.’ (p64)

There is no explicit insult or hostility here, yet the conflation/juxtaposition of Slug the dog with Howard is obvious, and there are varying interpretations that can be made of this sentence (which is always indicative of the best fiction-writing). Ann could be lashing out by suggesting he is as important in all of this as the family pet, and while they’re both topping up with food together, she’ll be close to Scotty where she belongs. The “Feed yourself” quip could just as easily be a reference to his over-reliance on her domestically and her resentment of this. It is important that in ASGT, the most meaningful, evocative and ambiguous moments originate directly from the characters, rather than the narrator’s words.

Even minor characters are given a free rein to express further aspects of how human beings cope (or falter) in situations such as these. It adds to the frustration, the disillusionment, the hopelessness, that envelopes Ann and Howard when they see how flighty, slick and evasive the doctor is – appearing in the ward “as if he could have just come from a concert” (p59), calling Ann “little mother” (p60), the way he casually slips into conversation the actual details of Scotty’s “hairline fracture” (p59), the “brain scan” (p61), and the final concession that they’ll “call it that [a coma] for the time being”, even though he expects Scotty to wake up with nothing more than a “dilly of a headache” (p63).

The baker is also permitted something closer to three-dimensions, via the chance to reveal himself somewhat, rather than remaining a disembodied voice that fulfills the function of a motif (faceless prank caller) in TB.

It is on account of the slower narrative pace of ASGT that the characters can breathe and act in this manner. The best fiction, the best explorations of real people and their real emotions, cannot be given in summary and expected to still contain a modicum of their aesthetic, evocative power. Life is not lived in summary. At various junctures, ASGT slows down to the pace of Ann and Howard’s experiential presence within the situation, and this is when the narrative is often at its most real, most engaging, and most sinister:

In a little while two orderlies came into the room with a gurney. They were black-haired, dark-complexioned men in white uniforms, and they said a few words to each other in a foreign tongue as they unhooked the boy from the tube and moved him from his bed to the gurney. Then they wheeled the him from the room. Howard and Ann got on the same elevator. Ann stood beside the gurney and gazed at the boy, who was lying so still. She closed her eyes as the elevator began its descent. The orderlies stood at either side of the gurney without saying anything, though once one of the men made a comment to the other in their own language, and the other man nodded slowly in response. (p61)

This form of close, immediate narration is not really viable if the story was written in a swift, sweeping, sparse, summative style, yet it is passages such as this where the reader feels the confusion and futility of their plight most keenly. D spoke of word-choice and details and expressions, but consider this excerpt for the quality of the prose. These orderlies behave as though the parents are not even present. They perform their duties with no acknowledgement. Ann and Howard have to follow, but they’re not really ‘with’ Scotty, they’re just “on the same elevator”. She gazes at ‘the boy’, a term which at this point actually carries weight as it hasn’t been overused and cheapened (as it is in TB, to be discussed later).

What is Ann doing/thinking when she closes her eyes? And why? What do the orderlies say and what does it mean? The prose is conveying perfectly without overstatement that Ann and Howard really are into “something hard” now, a place where they have no knowledge, no understanding, no control, no help, and no hope except to close their eyes and brace themselves for whatever is coming.

I say ASGT is by far the greater story because it gives so much more. More and better and deeper characterization; it goes much further towards the darkness and the blankness of the human heart during a drawn-out and painful crisis like this. There is more and deeper and more pleasurable written narrative, the story is quite simply bigger, deeper, larger, more complex and more real. To begin a story about bereavement then exit at the crucial point does not reach the same levels of bravery, craft and commitment that is required to see these characters through it, and on into the next life of their pain and recovery.

D – Weaknesses of ASGT
You did an even worse job than me at keeping to the positives of your chosen piece and not basing your position in relation to the other story.

Thankfully we don’t need to bother with positivity anymore. I’m not going to spend time trying to refute any of your points when I can just discuss ASGT as a whole. I’ll give an overview of what I consider its major flaws to be, then will go into a bit more detail with some examples and whatnot.

I guess the basis of my entire argument is that this tale being told in a much more verbose and conventional style robs it of its power, robs it of its sense of menace, of its overall effect as an ‘archetypal experience’, of its resonance and impact on the reader – essentially it strips away what it is that makes the events themselves and their trajectory meaningful and terrifying and sensational.

ASGT is so conventional in its style that it feels like just another story, but this premise demands and deserves better than that. The entire closing section (that was omitted from TB) is too plotted, it gives the story too much of a linear and artificial beginning-middle-end structure by comparison, and the title itself (taken in reference to the baker serving rolls at the end) is too simplistic a note to end on for a story that’s darker and more complex than that (we’ll look at that in the concluding section). There are too many deviations from the matter at hand in ASGT, too many overlong and overwritten switches into the characters’ minds rather than just moving the story forward. I’ll quickly mention here what I view as an actual error, a narrative problem, with ASGT that any good editor would have cut out. In my opinion, the story is imbalanced and without a proper sense of narrative integrity, on account of the movements in focalization. In ASGT, I feel like the story begins and opens out by appearing like a dual narrative between Ann and Howard, whereby both consciousnesses possess an equal weight within the story, and the impression is that the narrative is therefore going to oscillate back and forth between them. However, as the story progresses, it’s very much a case of Ann coming to dominate the narrative space and Howard is pushed out to a more marginalized, objectified position. Now this does occur in TB as well, but because the story is much leaner and the narrative isn’t as heavy, you don’t feel the effect of Howard being noticeably and strangely supplanted from the text to the same extent at all. Howard should either have been given equal weight and importance in the focalization of ASGT, or he shouldn’t have been afforded those moments of closeness and introspection in the story’s first-half, as it feels disjointed. It was a very good and justified edit by Lish.

There’s also too much bad, unnecessary physical character description with ASGT, in a way that feels dated and irritating, and overall I do think that the quality of writing is just a lot poorer throughout. There is an abundance of bad lines, weak expressions, poor characterization, and straightforward bad artistic decisions being made – which are all largely corrected by Lish in his edit.

I’ll justify that claim of inferior writing by looking at a few key features of the prose of ASGT.

Firstly, and it’s something I mentioned already in my ‘Strengths’ email, but some of the major scenes that I think are rendered and worded perfectly in TB are, to my mind, much more poorly-expressed in ASGT, and so lose a lot of their significance and power.

Here are the equivalent versions of those scenes I cited earlier – where in TB, the mother wished she was purely “driving away from here to someplace else” (p45), the alternative ASGT rendering is (and it should also be noted that there is an editorial oversight where ‘were’ is used in place of ‘was’):

For a minute she wished she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away from here to someplace else, a place where she would find Scotty waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say Mom and let her gather him in her arms. (p63, ASGT)

For me, this is the whole debate in microcosm. Whereas in TB you have sparse language and that menace of suggestiveness, in ASGT it’s all there on the page – over-seasoned and over-emphasized and far less interesting. I know this won’t mean anything to anyone who reads this, but it’s especially shocking to me that B prefers a story containing this form of heavy, obvious narration and saccharine language, because 99% of the time he’s the one savaging writers’ prose for just those flaws, and advocating fiction that is more ambiguous and more innovatory, stylistically-speaking.

The other instance of a critical scene of the story being presented in an inferior style is when Scotty collapses. As a reminder, the line in TB is:

This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back.
(p40, TB)

Whereas this is the ASGT equivalent:

But after Scotty went inside and was telling his mother about it, she sitting beside him on the sofa, holding his hands in her lap and saying, ‘Scotty, honey, are you sure you feel all right, baby?’ and thinking she would call the doctor anyway, he suddenly lay back on the sofa, closed his eyes, and went limp. (p55, ASGT)

I don’t see any case for believing the ASGT sentence to be comparable as a line of literary prose. The TB line is so much more sinister, the way the narrative shifts with these words, it seems to be coming from a different perspective and somehow a different tense as well. It’s as though the event of him collapsing like this is being rendered by the mother as she tells it to someone else, although the narrator is still the one formulating the words. It’s a strange, unnerving, brilliant technique that goes further towards the ‘archetypal experience’ than a plain conventional phrase like he “went limp”, as in ASGT.

There is a succession of moments when I think the Carver original labours a point, stays too long with a character, indulges in too much “tell”, and doesn’t trust in you as a reader – B said ASGT “gives” us more, but my response would be: that’s the problem. It gives too much, which is detrimental to the fiction. Consider this sequence of unnecessary, overly explicit expressions:

‘That’s good,’ she said. Almost for the first time, she felt they were together in it, this trouble. Then she realized it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn’t let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along. She could see he was tired. The way his head looked heavy and angled into his chest. She felt a good tenderness toward him. She felt glad to be his wife. (p61)

They both stared out into the parking lot and didn’t talk. They seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way. (p63)

Ann saw the lips moving silently, making words. She had an urge to ask what those words were. She wanted to talk more with these people who were in the same kind of waiting she was in. She was afraid, and they were afraid. They had that in common. She would have liked to have said something else about the accident, told them more about Scotty, that it had happened on the day of his birthday, Monday, that he was still unconscious. Yet she didn’t know how to begin and so only stood there looking at them without saying anything more. (p66)

This is the sort of narrative overkill that totally blunts the effectiveness of ASGT. It’s bad writing. All tell, no show. All three instances could have been adequately conveyed to the same point of understanding without having to go into Ann’s mind and have her thoughts and feelings described in this way. It’s heavier, poorer writing.

Another feature of Carver’s haphazard and problematic grasp of the narrative in the ‘unadulterated’ version is the way he uses tense in the introspective section discussed by B. B references those later parts in Ann’s mind (where she recalls the previous fright with Scotty) as a strength, but they’re actually quite badly written. In addition to the fact they’re too long and again quite heavy, the flashback scene starts on page 68 using the past participle (ie: use of “had” as in, ‘The friend had left Scotty there’), but then on page 69, while still within the same unbroken stream of memory, the narrative snaps abruptly into straightforward past tense (‘She dropped to her knees’). Once more I’d say this is flawed writing that needed to be edited, and is all the better for receiving extensive treatment by Lish.

Another popular irritant for serious readers of fiction is totally needleess and pointless physical description of characters, and there’s a few times where this creeps in to ASGT – again, something that isn’t an issue in TB:

The nurse was a big Scandinavian woman with blond hair, and heavy breasts that filled the front of her uniform. There was a trace of an accent in her speech. (p58)

In an hour another doctor came in. He said his name was Parsons, from radiology. He had a bushy moustache. He was wearing loafers and a white smock over a western shirt and a pair of jeans. (p61)

Now I do agree with B in the point he made earlier, that physical descriptions of the doctor do have a purpose and an effect within the text, but the ones listed above do not. These are characters who appear once and are not seen again, so to describe them in this manner is silly, misleading, purposeless, and strikes me as an outmoded means of writing (again, this is something I’ve seen B attack in fiction many times so I really do fail to see why it’s justified in this one case).

The negativity I felt while reading really builds towards the scene of Scotty’s death, which Lish removed from TB:

The boy looked at them again, though without any sign of recognition or comprehension. Then his eyes scrunched closed, his mouth opened, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through the clenched teeth. (p73)

It’s not only that I don’t think this is well-written (which it isn’t – ‘scrunched’, ‘howled’, that he does have a ‘last breath’), it’s the very fact that Scotty wakes up and gives them that dramatic moment of joy and hope before he slumps down again and passes. Of course any decent editor is going to slash that kind of thing out of a story. It’s akin to something that would happen in a bad Hollywood movie – far too fake and over-emphasized, and horribly conventional in the worst way.

This is taking me dangerously close to talking about the ending directly, which I know we’re not to do yet. I’ll just finish by saying, without reference to the closing of the story, that the whole end section (everything that happens after the point where TB ends) is, in my opinion, badly executed.

I’ll briefly draw attention to the inexplicably weird and pointless remark made by Ann as they enter the bakery:

She had stepped inside the doorway anyway. Howard came in behind her. The baker had moved back. ‘It smells like a bakery in here. Doesn’t it smell like a bakery in here Howard?’ (p77)

I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean or signify, it just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Then there’s this moment a page later:

A look crossed Ann’s face that made the baker move back and say, ‘No trouble, now.’ He reached to the counter and picked up a rolling pin with his right hand and began to tap-tap it against the palm of his other hand. (p78)

This is verging on the farcical; in what’s supposed to be the more realistic/naturalistic version of the story, the baker does something so implausible and silly as behave like he’s in an old cartoon and actually start hitting the rolling-pin off his hand. It is pure caricature.

This is the image I’ll end on.

I ask: how can this be the superior short story?

B – Weaknesses of TB
What’s particularly interesting for me is how you continually mention a ‘narrative heaviness’ when talking about ASGT. I think there’s a fundamental difference at play in how we each think of a narrator and in what we consider to be ‘heavy’ narration.

In the time when I was able to actually study Creative Writing, I learned that fiction can either be narrator-led or character-led (only on the very rarest instances from literary history – selected works by a Beckett or a Borges – could it be said to be neither). To use D’s word of the week, an ‘archetypal’ narrator-led book would be something like Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding, where there is a sort of ‘storyteller’ entity who sits between the story and the reader, who comments on the events but is not directly involved in them and isn’t close enough to interact with the characters (but does have access to their conscious and subconscious thoughts and feelings at all times – and uses this access to tell the reader things about the protagonists, while not actually involving the character him/herself). This storyteller is not of the characters’ world, but is the vessel that brings their tale to us. The character-led book is, quite obviously, either narrated by a character who is active in the story itself, or (and this is crucial to the current debate) by a narrator who is not a character but who is close enough to one or more characters to allow us to see what they think or feel on their terms.

What D objects to in ASGT is not ‘narrative heaviness’ by the definition I would subscribe to, because ASGT is a character-led story, and therefore has ‘lighter’ narration (ie: less mediation) than a narrator-led story such as TB. The narrative in ASGT is character-led because the role occupied by the narrator is used solely for trying to bring us as much of the characters as possible; there’s no other position being taken or function being fulfilled. What D is calling ‘narrative heaviness’ is really just basic overwriting – too much narrative explication that could easily have been remedied with a sensitive edit.

‘Narrative heaviness’ occurs in narrator-led novels or stories, where the voice of the narrator is that of a mediation between the reader and the story’s characters and events. The example of superior writing used by D is itself one of the instances of an obvious and problematic ‘narrative heaviness’ in TB:

They sat together on the sofa. She held his hands in her lap. This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back. (p40)

This form of intervention occurs again on the next page:

‘There’s a cake that wasn’t picked up.’ This is what the voice on the other end said. ‘What are you saying?’ the father said. (p41)

In the first quotation, the narrator forcibly removes the reader from the experiential ‘real-time’ of the actions of the mother and son on the couch in order to insert him/herself into the narrative, to control how these events are being filtered back to the reader, and to mediate things through the consciousness of this nebulous narrative presence. And by stopping for a spacebreak here (temporal and ‘scene’ shift), we are pulled out of the real-time of the story and into the medium of narrative control.

The second quotation again sees an insertion from the narrator where there shouldn’t really be one. Why is this line needed? Who is actually saying this, and why? Is anything lost (in terms of efficacy) if that line was omitted (or more appropriate to this discussion: if that was line was never superimposed in there in the first place)?

To prefer the heavier narrator is to prize ‘menace’ over authenticity. To want the cleverly cultivated dramatic touches of that narrator over ASGT’s closer involvement with the souls and minds of the characters is to choose effect over truth.

This dichotomy needed to be explained in such terms, as otherwise the phrase ‘narrative heaviness’ is being used wrongly and would be wholly delusive here.

There was a couple of other points where I thought D was being hypocritical, or at least, a little unfair/inaccurate.

To complain that the title is too simplistic is just silly, because TB is in fact worse, in terms of how it relates to the text. ASGT might refer to the serving of the rolls in that time of crisis, but at least there is some semblance of meaning there, oblique though it may be, or trite though it may be. However, TB is an attempt to do the same thing (to throw significance on one specific motif of the story):

The man drove home… But fear made him want a bath. (p40)

It’s symptomatic of TB that this doesn’t really seem to mean anything. Why does/would fear make him want a bath? Why would/should the story be called after this innocuous and seemingly meaningless moment that doesn’t involve either Ann or Scotty? Again it’s all about effect, it’s prizing style over substance, and is yet another facet of the overstylization I’ll speak of shortly.

I’d apply the same argument to D’s problem with description and focalization – both do still exist in TB, the same ‘flaws’, so Lish’s edit didn’t eradicate either issue. Yes they’re both in shorter supply in TB, but only because TB is so much shorter, I would contend. The issues are proportionally the same volume/weight in both stories – Howard’s focalization is still supplanted by Ann’s in TB (the last 3 sub-sections are all focalized through Ann). The family in the waiting-room are described physically, and then never seen again. If you worked out a percentage of the word count that these ‘flawed’ features comprise of, I doubt there’s be much difference between TB and ASGT.

With regard to the descriptions given in ASGT, D lambasted them for being ‘silly’, ‘outmoded’, ‘misleading’, etc, but I don’t think this is a valid criticism in light of the type of story that ASGT is. As already discussed, ASGT is a character-led story where the narrator is attempting to convey the experiential nature of the parents’ perceptions as closely as the style and medium will allow. In reality, when we are in a scenario such as a hospital ward, a casualty, a waiting-room, I believe we are constantly looking at people, recording them in our minds, assessing them, even judging them, based on their looks, clothes, mannerisms, etc etc. In a situation where you have no control, you try to assert some in any way that’s still possible – when you have no power or function, taking in information and making judgements is something done to ease frustration/boredom and to remain involved and up-to-date with events and news. Therefore, I think it’s entirely natural that the narrator of ASGT is reflecting the parents’ experience of the hospital setting, following their gazes and recording those details. Does it improve the story that such recordings are made? Possibly not, but it feels natural and is no great detriment. And on page 46 of TB, the same thing is done via the family of Nelson when Ann sees them all through the doorway. That section of TB is not a great negative to that story, just as other succinct examples in ASGT aren’t either.

I disagree with D’s own description of the “flawed writing” in respect to the tenses used in Ann’s flashback. Yes, the tense within the flashback sequence changes from past participle to just past, but I view this as Carver’s way of demarcating between the different layers of time that are at work. There is the actual ‘present’ point of the story (eg: page 68, Ann driving back to the hospital), there is the ‘present’ scene of the flashback (page 69 – the moments when Ann made her prayers and promises), and there is the ‘past’ scene of the flashback that Ann’s actions are in response to (earlier that day when Scotty was in the process of doing what Ann later came to fear had resulted in his death). This may not be the best description, but I see it as a minor point anyway. It didn’t have an adverse effect on my reading experience at all, I found the shifts valid, understandable, fine.

When I read D’s email there, I was going to quickly just post back specific examples of where I think the writing is weaker than those chosen by him, but that would be a bit insubstantial. My primary issue with TB isn’t that it’s badly-written, so quoting individual lines wouldn’t really develop my argument. It’s more that I think the story suffers from such ‘overstylization’ that it renders the whole thing quite hollow, and results in expressions and sentiments being present in the text that are essentially silly, not believable, or just too overtly contrived.

This is really the heart of the matter as I see it. This is why TB is a much more flawed and all-round inferior story to ASGT – overstylization and contrived movements or expressions that result in weak, implausible art.

One of the main features of overstylization in TB is its ‘summary’ style, which I find enormously problematic as a reader. To me, TB is the summary of a story, it isn’t actually the story itself. The narrator has too much control over what is and isn’t being represented from the events at hand (again that heaviness), and often elects to omit so much. Too much, to the point that it cuts the heart out of the story and euthanizes the characters.

Consider this example, which is the equivalent section from both stories:

A technician came in and took blood.
‘I don’t understand this,’ the mother said to the technician.
‘Doctor’s orders,’ the technician said. (p44, TB)

Then a young woman from the lab knocked and came into the room. She wore white slacks and a white blouse and carried a little tray of things which she put on the stand beside the bed. Without a word to them, she took blood from the boy’s arm. Howard closed his eyes as the woman found the right place on the boy’s arm and pushed the needle in.

‘I don’t understand this,’ Ann said to the woman.

‘Doctor’s orders,’ the young woman said. ‘I do what I’m told to do. They say draw that one, I draw. What’s wrong with him anyway?’ she said. ‘He’s a sweetie.’

‘He was hit by a car,’ Howard said. ‘A hit-and-run.’

The young woman shook her head and looked again at the boy. Then she took her tray and left the room.

‘Why won’t he wake up?’ Ann said. ‘Howard? I want some answers from these people.’

Howard didn’t say anything. He sat down again in the chair and crossed one leg over the other. He rubbed his face. He looked at his son and then he settled back in the chair, closed his eyes, and went to sleep. (p62, ASGT)

I do intend to make a few different points in this email, but even just this one alone should make it fairly clear what Lish lost by going so far with his edit. The flatness of effect that he achieves by turning the prose into a dull list of actions and utterances doesn’t only (or even mainly) mean that a lot of the story’s events and details disappear into the ether; the critical factor here is how the characters lose their humanity, have it stripped from them, and in the process the story loses its real, personal and emotional resonance. Read the passages above again and think about what is lost, and what it is replaced by. The character of Howard (how he can’t look at the needle entering his son but how he is the one to verbalize the situation they’re in, what has happened to Scotty, and how he can’t or won’t rise to his wife’s questioning) evaporates completely in the TB extract, and so we lose the value of the experiences and reactions of this largely muted, troubled, impotent, fearful father from the story. We lose the presence of Ann’s growing anger and frustration, and the ambiguity over whether she is angry at the doctors or at Howard. Or at herself. We lose that realism of how the parents have instances of fleeting contact with professionally-cheery hospital staff. And what is there instead? A stylized flatness. Emptiness and absence. A dispassionate summary, bereft of life. Writing so sparse that it approaches nothingness. How can this be preferable?

This is another comparison from further on in the stories:

‘That could be it,’ the husband said.
‘I’ll go home and take a bath and put on something clean,’ the woman said.
‘I think you should do that,’ the man said. (pp45-6, TB)

‘I’ll be right here,’ he said. ‘You go on home, honey, and then come back. I’ll be right here keeping an eye on things.’ His eyes were bloodshot and small, as if he had been drinking for a long time, and his clothes were rumpled. His beard had come out again. She touched his face, and then took her hand back. She understood he wanted to be by himself for a while, to not have to talk or share his worry for a time. She picked up her purse from the nightstand, and he helped her into her coat.

‘I won’t be gone long,’ she said.

‘Just sit and rest for a little while when you get home,’ he said. ‘Eat something. After you get out of the bath, just sit for a while and rest. It’ll do you a world of good, you’ll see. Then come back down here,’ he said. ‘Let’s try not to worry ourselves sick. You heard what Dr Francis said.’

She stood in her coat for a minute trying to recall the doctor’s exact words, looking for any nuances, any hint of something behind his words other than what he was saying. She tried to remember if his expression had changed any when he bent over to examine Scotty. She remembered the way his features had composed themselves as he rolled back the boy’s eyelids and then listened to his breathing.’ (pp64-5, ASGT)

I won’t labour this point much more, as it’s patently obvious from these quotations that Lish sacrificed humanity for ‘effect’. Here we lose so much reality – real details, gestures, real thoughts. It is right and important that we know the physical toll of all this on Howard, and how Ann recognizes this and attempts to console him while simultaneously realizing that he wants her away from him, as being together is making things harder to handle. Conventional wisdom is that huddling beside each other makes trauma more bearable, so Ann’s recognition is yet another interesting and thought-provoking human aspect that is lost if the story gets reduced down to a summary. The same applies to the removal of the section where she tries to remember, to decipher or decode the doctor’s words and actions the last time he saw Scotty. These moments are the story itself! This is what the story of parents struggling to cope with incidents like this one surely must be composed of. It is so much more real and meaningful than Lish’s stylistic exercise.

Look back at my previous email, and compare the reading experience of the excerpt from ASGT of when the parents follow the orderlies and Scotty in the lift, to its TB counterpart:

Two orderlies came in. They wheeled a thing like a bed. They unhooked the boy from the tube and slid him over onto the thing with wheels. (p44, TB)

This is inferior as a reading experience, surely. It just is. By comparison, this is flat, boring, devoid of feeling. And it hints at a point I’ll move on to shortly: the obvious attempt at ‘effect’ by way of very clearly contrived expressions. By saying “a thing like a bed”, “the thing with wheels”, Lish is making a naked grab for sinister effect, and it doesn’t work. Everybody knows that beds in hospitals have wheels. Everybody has seen patients being transported in them. Calling one a “thing” is an attempt to make it seem strange and alien and threatening. His intention is just too blatant at times like this.

The next matter to highlight is regarding the wider writing/narrative style and some of the techniques used in TB; particularly how the summary style doesn’t work very effectively in the story because the narrator is too haphazard with it. There are temporal shifts throughout that dramatically speed up or slow down the action, and make the text feel erratic and uneven.

This is from immediately after the accident:

This is what she was doing when the boy pulled his hands away and lay down on his back.

Of course, the birthday party never happened. The birthday boy was in the hospital instead. (p40)

And this is once Scotty has been in the hospital for some time:

He moved to the bed and touched the boy’s wrist. He peeled back an eyelid and then the other. He turned back the covers and listened to the heart. He pressed his fingers here and there on the body. He went to the end of his bed and studied the chart. He noted the time, scribbled on the chart, and then he considered the mother and the father. (pp42-3)

In one instance, experientiality is jettisoned entirely, where the narrator has chosen to omit those moments where the mother reacts to her son’s collapse, frantically contacts an ambulance, journeys to the ER, and comes to terms with his unconscious residence there. The shift in time, setting and situation has no connection to a naturalistic representation of events, and is again proclaimed by the sweeping voice of the narrator instead: “The birthday boy was in the hospital instead”.

Yet two pages later, the narrative has slowed down so much that we have a sequence of the doctor’s movements given in succession as they are performed. It is now as though the story is caught between these two poles – wishing to have both the stylized effect permitted by the powerful, discursive, controlling narrator, and the naturalistic detail of the ‘real-time’ experiential narrative. Of course there is no literary or artistic law that states a story cannot (or should not) accelerate and decelerate (or move between the telescopic and the microscopic), but for me this dissonance compromises the reading experience somewhat. Although ASGT does the same thing (indeed, most fiction does), it does so in a far less extreme manner, where the shifts are more minor and much smoother. This is on account of ASGT’s greater commitment to the representation of character experience, which means it’s tied more closely to their perceptions, so such sweeping narrative movements across time and event are not possible.

My final criticism of TB is one I mentioned earlier, the use of highly contrived and artistically dubious expressions within the story, which were inserted by Lish with the intention of making the prose appear more unorthodox and unconventional. Now, unquestionably, he does accomplish this. Of course there is a highly singular effect produced by the prose of TB, I wouldn’t dispute that. It is a strange and dark and interesting story on its own merits. I think that in this case however, the editing process goes too far in that direction, and ends up making the fiction cheap, barren, and affected – whereas in some of the other WWTA stories, Lish succeeds in striking the perfect balance with his edit and does improve significantly on Carver’s initial version.

Not here though. His grabs for effect are too ham-fisted. Consider again the pivotal scene where Scotty is hit by the car:

He fell on his side, his head in the gutter, his legs in the road moving as if he were climbing a wall.

The other boy stood holding the potato chips. He was wondering if he should finish the rest or continue on to school. (p40)

Is it remotely believable that a small boy would watch his friend get knocked down, see him lying prostrate on the road, and only be thinking of whether or not he should eat the remainder of a bag of crisps?

Similarly baffling and tiresome is the end of the encounter between Ann and the family in the waiting-room. In ASGT, the male member of the family begins his speech with “Our Nelson, he’s on the operating table…” (p66) before going on to tell Ann what they know of the incident that brought Nelson here, which is in direct and immediate response to Ann explaining Scotty’s situation. In TB, Ann gives more or less the same description, and in reply the man offers merely: “Our Nelson.” And then comes the spacebreak to close the scene. How very cryptic. Except it isn’t really, it’s merely another attempt at the sinister and inexplicable that comes off as pure contrived artifice.

The spacebreak being conveniently timed and positioned for maximum effect (and minimum commitment to character-perception or verisimilitude) also occurs after Howard answers the phone for the second time during his early trip back to the house. In ASGT, there is no answer when Howard says his hello, so there isn’t really anything for him to react to or wonder about. Lish evidently thought this didn’t provide the reader with sufficient ‘menace’, to use D’s preferred phrase, so changed it to having the caller saying “It’s ready”, which would of course have drawn both verbal and mental questions from Howard, and most probably a subsequent period of fear, uncertainty, or anger. We get nothing, because Lish chose to have the artful absence of a spacebreak at a point of mid-conversation.

Like so much of TB, this struck me as hollow and false. Transparent fiction, “swiping at life” but failing to actually touch it firmly. I find it silly and manipulative that after being with the characters of the parents for page after page of their traumatic ordeal, we still see them referred to as ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’.

I’ve gone on enough.

D. on The Ending(s)
In the interests of trying to get this all concluded as quickly and satisfactorily as possible, I’ll limit myself to only responding directly to one of the points you made there, even though there’s a few I could focus on.

I have to re-ignite the argument about character-led versus narrator-led. I still think you’re wrong, regardless of what you’ve said there. In my opinion, neither story is truly character-led, they are both narrator-led, and both equally so, despite the differences in style and perspective.

I’ll choose a couple of arbitrary examples from ASGT to illustrate this point:

He took the wet, dark streets faster than he should have, then caught himself and slowed down. Until now, his life had gone smoothly and to his satisfaction – college, marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business, a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood. He was happy and, so far, lucky – he knew that. His parents were still living, his brothers and his sisters were established, his friends from college had gone out to take their places in the world. So far he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man, if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned. He pulled into the driveway and parked. (p56)

She drove into the parking lot of the hospital and found a space close to the front door. She felt no inclination to pray now. She felt like a liar caught out, guilty and false, as if she were somehow responsible for what had now happened. She felt she was in some obscure way responsible. (p71)

Now of course these sections do refer to the characters, but this style of writing is not ‘character-led’, because the observations don’t really emanate from the characters themselves. They may appear to, but it’s a narrative trick. This is information coming from the narrator (by extension, the writer), and the proximity of the character is being used as a vessel in order to impart this information. We are here being told about the character, not observing the character him/herself in the process of actions and thoughts. Would Howard really be driving home, giving us a nice little potted history of his life, neatly defining himself as the safe and unexciting husband, just in time to finish this reflection as he’s pulling into the driveway? No, this is us being handed a shortened and tailored version of his backstory by the narrator-writer, in order to make Howard’s role in the story more poignant. None of this information is coming out in dialogue or actions or behaviour, nor organically through a longer period of close, sincere introspection within the character’s own mind, in his own words. It’s simply an omniscient narrator plucking convenient data from his past for our benefit.

The example featuring Ann is even further from being ‘character-led’ because it’s not at all clear whether she is even aware of the feelings being attributed to her by the narrator. If someone does genuinely feel guilty about something, they don’t really express it in this way, because this means of expression is how someone else would discuss a person’s guilt, as it implies the guilt is ill-founded (which wouldn’t be thought by the person, lest they would realize they didn’t really have a reason to be guilty and would stop feeling it).

That’s an incredibly clumsy sentence. But I think it’s true. A guilty person thinks: ‘This is my fault.’ They don’t think: ‘I’m guilty and false. In some obscure way this is my fault.’ The ‘some obscure way’ must come purely from the narrator, it can’t come from Ann, it’s an imposition on her that she doesn’t have knowledge of.

Therefore, the story is narrator-led prose, not character-led.

Ok, to the ending(s).

I’ve already covered some of the reasons why I think ASGT has a weak ending, if we’re taking the ending to be everything that comes after the point at which TB finishes (even though ASGT runs for a further thirteen pages). The drama of the death scene with Scotty comes in that appended section and I think it’s poor writing, as discussed and described earlier. Specifically I disliked some of the expressions used, the actions taken, and the entire baker scene (especially that ludicrous rolling-pin – sorry, had to mention it again).

I’ll quickly run through some other things as well.

There was a point made on that Slate’s Audio Book Club episode about the believability of the ending in ASGT; the basis being, would the baker not surely realize that something was wrong from the way Ann behaves on the phone? On page 67 when he calls, she shouts: “Is it Scotty, for Christ’s sake?”, then on page 75 she screams at him: “You evil bastard!” and “How can you do this, you evil son of a bitch!” I agree with this point – he would surely intuit that something was wrong from the question about her son, and then the hysterical reaction later. This wouldn’t ring true as the responses of someone merely receiving a prank call. It relies on a certain credulity in the reader. A concession of authenticity for the sake of plot and drama – precisely what B has been arguing against this entire time!

My main issue with the ending of ASGT is that it’s a closed ending. By contrast, TB has a totally open ending, which is by nature more interesting, more thought-provoking, more affecting, and is a more exciting, sensational close to the reading of the story.

With ASGT, we know everything. We know Scotty died. We know the parents wept and mourned. We know that the caller was the baker, and that the parents worked it out, and that the baker wasn’t such a bad old fellow after all.

There’s nothing left after that ending, it’s all tied up for us.

The narrator describes Ann’s feelings for us, so we know the right interpretation of what she’s going through in the immediate aftermath of Scotty’s passing:

Dr Francis put his arms around Ann once more. He seemed full of some goodness she didn’t understand.

And there are more heavy moments of told narration like this as we move towards the last scene, before it reaches a peak when they sit eating with the baker:

Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. (p80)

It’s a very trite and saccharine ending, in heavy prose, for a situation and a story that deserved better.

I’ll here quote Gadi Taub’s essay ‘On Small, Good Things: Raymond Carver’s Modest Existentialism’:

What is offering hot rolls with butter in the face of the loss of a child? But it is a small good thing… The best one can do then and there. (p14, Taub)

Taub is very positive about this ‘moral’, but is such a point really enough to constitute the kernel of meaning to be extracted from such a story as this one? I can’t agree to this.

The way TB ends, the parents still don’t know who the caller is, we know nothing of the baker, and we don’t know if Scotty is going to live or die… and isn’t the situation itself, the emotions it elicits, the true importance of this work? The sensations of menace and fear and confusion and terror and helplessness that have intruded on these lives? That they cannot escape them or make sense of them, and this is of course exactly what happens to many of us in life at some stage or another.

Everything won’t get tied up for us. In fiction, in art, sometimes it is better to not know. This strikes me as a far more apt and chilling and real denouement than that put forward by Carver (and Taub).

B on The Ending(s)
You make a fair point on the narrator-led vs character-led question, but this may have just descended into a semantic argument now, as most debates tend to. I see what you’re saying regarding my use of the term ‘character-led’, yet for me the issue is not and shouldn’t be whether ASGT fits the definition of one term or another term. The importance lies in whether there is a helpful distinction to be made between what I suppose you could call the ‘guiding focus’ of either piece. Is the force that guides us in the story the words of the narrator, or the essence of the character(s)? Is the narrator closer to us, or is the character? I will refrain from poring over the same quotations and explaining the same rationale as I’ve already done, though it is crucial, in my opinion, to recognize and appreciate that, unquestionably, TB is a narrator-led or narrator-driven story, and ASGT, while perhaps not being fully character-led, is certainly ‘character-centric’ in a way that TB is not. The narrator is a tangible entity in TB, an entity who passes comments, makes decisions, controls exactly how and when the story about the characters is transmitted to the reader. The sole function of the narrator in ASGT is to reveal as much about the characters as possible. Nothing more or less.

Yet this point of argument isn’t really about saying one of these modes of writing is inherently or definitively superior to the other. It’s about understanding the difference in terms of artistic choice and effect, and thinking of this when deciding on your own personal preference between the two.

Like D, I’ll only confront a point or two from the preceding email directly. D complains that (a) we “know everything” from the ending of ASGT, and that (b) the ending is “trite and saccharine”, that the story “deserves better”.

I must stress that these comments are based on D’s apparent assumption that his reading/interpretation of the ending of ASGT is (a) the only one and (b) the right one.

I believe it’s neither of these things.

It’s just criticism based on a misreading of the text.

To express this point fully, I’ll return to a paper quoted earlier, The Stories of Raymond Carver: The Menace of Perpetual Uncertainty by John Powell. Powell is here discussing his own divergence of opinion from the received wisdom of two other critics:

The ending of A Small, Good Thing also owes much to the extreme minimalism of Popular Mechanics and The Bath, but Carver's method, at the same time, goes far beyond the minimalist technique of mentioning the talk without giving the dialogue. "They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving". Most critics read this last line as positive, as meaning that this communion with the Baker is such a wonderful experience that the thought of leaving never enters the Weisses' minds. But there is another, chilling reading to this line: the departure from sanctuary that the Weisses deny, just as they still deny Scotty and his death, is nonetheless imminent - it must be faced; it still menaces. Therefore, for both the last line and the entire story to have their fullest Carveresque effect, both the existential realism that Stull removes and the minimalism which Shute denies must be put back into A Small, Good Thing.

D is reacting to the assumption that Carver’s words are to be taken in their most obvious, or shallow, meaning – “they did not think of leaving”. To believe that this phrase ‘ties up’ the situation and emotions of those parents is naïve. Of course we must consider why they did not leave. Why they were not thinking of it. D calls into question the credence of the baker not guessing that something awful had happened to Scotty – is that really as much of a stretch on credence as readily accepting that a grief-stricken couple, in a state of utter disarray, are very quickly and very convincingly soothed by some rolls and some stories? This ending is more chilling than that of TB because it was not constructed artificially to be a good, conventional short-story ending that will hold obvious, easy appeal for readers of the genre. Its horror comes from the fact that again we are witnessing genuine human reaction within the continuing nightmare of this aftermath. That the narrator cannot, or at least does not, explain what is going on because it is being actively suppressed by both protagonists at the moment the piece concludes.

It really is a tremendous ending, when Powell’s point is considered.

So I’ve made my riposte to D, but unlike him, my entire section on endings is not going to be negativity towards the other book. It is going to be a positive look at the features of my chosen version (as it should be).

I suppose my overarching case here is that I totally disagree with D on the ending of ASGT. I think there is some superb writing across that whole ‘post-TB’ closing section. Indeed, some of the best prose in the entire story. I like that the baker is characterized, and believe it’s a meaningful part of the greater characterization going on towards the end.

I guess there isn’t really any practical way to determine whose claim carries more weight in this impasse between D and myself, so I’ll simply present some (compelling) evidence and it’s really up to the readers of the stories which version contains something closer to people’s own subjective evaluations of what great prose is.

I’m not going to post more extensive quotations, but the instance where Dr Francis is ushering Ann and Howard out of the hospital is extremely well-rendered, in a manner that brings us very close to Ann and allows us to really experience her stunned, numb confusion. This fragile mental state is developed further two pages later when she lurches into a savage, vengeful fury at the thought of the baker’s involvement.

Their twilight journey on down and into the bakery lends this section a beautiful, poignant realism, and brings to the story a highly atmospheric shift from the intense, sterile stasis of the hospital setting.

Maybe the baker’s character doesn’t get the time or space to evolve into a bona fide three-dimensional person that we get to know and understand, and maybe that is a drawback to introducing him as a physically-present, speaking entity. However, there is something intriguing about a person who has, due to economic necessity, become so intertwined with their daily work that they lose track of their own personality, or humanity, and are brought back to reality, society, by an event such as this.

He stood a minute looking at them with a dull pained look… (p78)

Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being, I’ve forgotten, I don’t know for sure… (p79)

You have to eat and keep going. (p79)

These are just some lines selected from the last couple of pages that are centred on the baker. Is all of this trite and saccharine? I think there’s real value to the reader in all of this, as you shouldn’t really need to have an exhaustively-detailed and fully-rounded character in order to convey something worthwhile about people and their methods of coping and behaving through an intense working life.

To finish, I can’t resist passing a quick final comment on the ending of TB… it’s rubbish. Sorry to you D. It is a bad ending for a short story. To close on a ‘cliffhanger’ where nothing is known is, for an artist of Carver’s incredible ability and compassion, not just a concession to commercialism, but it’s beneath him, and beneath his characters as well. It degrades them, and the story. And the sequence of six consecutive sentences of the same repeating pattern (‘She did this… she did this…’) looks like lazy, dull writing… but it isn’t, it’s Lish making the contrived move towards that flatness of effect again, that same familiar false note.

Yes, it is inferior art.

D – Concessions
I won’t even come back on that point, as we really need to wrap this up.


I don’t think Lish went too far with his editing of the story, but I can concede that maybe TB would have been a richer, deeper story if Lish hadn’t stripped away the characters of Ann and Howard quite as much as he did. I think he could have removed a lot of the fat from the narrative and still obscured them to a degree (to enhance the ‘archetypal experience’ aspect that was of obvious significance to Lish with this style), without sacrificing that air of dark menace and uncertainty that pervades TB so wonderfully. I agree with B, to an extent, that too much was omitted of them as people, and so the ending could have been more resonant and emotional if we felt we knew Ann and Howard more or were closer to them when this situation really started to close in.

And yes, there is the very rare and occasional dud line, such as that ‘potato chips’ moment that B highlighted a few times.

That’s all I can really muster for this.

B – Concessions
I’d also concede there are some weak lines and expressions in ASGT: it is a story that would always have benefitted from an edit. Just not the type of edit that transformed it into a completely different thing in so many ways.

D has already isolated some bad sentences, like Ann’s “doesn’t it smell like a bakery” moment, and I’ll add another one myself to show the sorts of edits I think would have improved ASGT, without changing it in a drastic way. This is more with a mind to obliterating a certain kind of narrative expression than to pick out any isolated instances of weak writing.

This example is from page 63:

They both stared out into the parking lot and didn’t talk. They seemed to feel each other’s insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way.

It’s a kind of writing that is so very conventional that the vast majority of readers just readily accept it as standard, good narration and good fiction, but I find myself always revolting against phrases like feeling each other’s insides or becoming transparent in a ‘perfectly natural way’. I really dislike these forms of ‘writerly’ phraseology. It’s just not precise enough to be acceptable. It feels and sounds like writing, not like anything real. I could write here ten questions arising from those sentences that irritate a reader with the same sensibility as myself, but have no answer because these lines are simply writerly expressions that mean nothing. Thankfully though, I will not. You get the gist I hope. Precision and reality over writerliness and figurative expressions; a preference that Carver does share in many other instances in ASGT.

My final point before we conclude is that this Concessions section has demonstrated that ASGT is much closer to being a truly great short story than TB is. The problems I’ve identified here would so easily have been remedied by an astute, sensitive edit. D’s concession that Lish effectively erased all of the characters in TB is something that would require far, far more extensive surgery to redress.

D - Conclusion
I’m not going to take that closing bait, as of course I didn’t say the characters had been “erased”. Ann was clearly not erased in TB. In fact, on reflection, I will take the bait, as ‘far more extensive surgery’ is also a gross overstatement. Certain lines could have been selectively left in or modified to just enhance the sense of the parents as characters. Like B said, an astute and sensitive edit would have been sufficient. Lish’s edit is magnificent, a timeless monument of the dark arts of his editorial work, but in that one aspect he may have strayed a little too far. Only a little, mind you. To have the narrative sag and droop the way it does in ASGT during those periods of heavy narration and backstory from within the characters’ perspectives would butcher the beautiful haunting intensity of TB, so any additions to the text of TB would have to have been so very selective, minimal, and well-observed.

Yet even without that, it is an exquisite short story.

I’ll be extremely concise to end: it is the effect of TB that makes it a special story. There isn’t only one means of becoming a piece of great fiction, and there’s no template for how it can or should be achieved. Of course TB lacks in some of the myriad of features and techniques that are conceivable in literary prose – primarily because it’s only a few pages long. The effect however, is what touches the reader, what makes the story memorable, and what it sets it apart from so many other classic short works. This is an example of when the style is the story, and to greatly modify that style, that ‘flatness of effect’ as B has called it, would be to kill the unique presence of TB, and to abolish what makes it special.

TB is the definitive version in the public artistic consciousness because it is the superior short story. It is so much more singular, so much darker, so much more interesting and innovative as work of fiction, and of art.

That’s my position, and overall it has not changed over the course of the debate, although I acknowledge B made some strong points. With that in mind, I don’t want anyone who reads this to be hoodwinked by B’s linguistic verve and debating prowess into thinking that Beginners is an infinitely better collection, or even to think that’s what B’s saying, because he has mentioned once or twice here that in his opinion, some of Lish’s edits in WWTAWWTAL are indeed the greater versions of these stories. B, as your final point and for anyone who ever reads this tome and wants something constructive to take away from it, can you name a story that’s better in WWTA, and say briefly why you think so?

Ok, thank you for reading my part in this email debate on literature, our inaugural one. No idea if we’ll do another.

Cheers. Goodbye.

B – Conclusion
The only thing I have left to say is I don’t believe the comparative historic significance or enduring popularity of the two stories should count for one iota when it comes to simply reading both as they are on paper, and deciding which one you believe to be greater.

TB is the more high-profile and more widely-known version, it had a great impact and influence in succeeding writers and generations, and it is the story that the majority of readers seem to prefer.

I’d even go so far as to say that if Lish had not edited the stories and had instead released Beginners in its original and unadulterated form in 1981, then the collection would have had anything like the same seismic impact that WWTA did, and Raymond Carver may not have become the major and revered figure of American literature that he now unquestionably is.

But none of this matters.

WWTA was the right collection in the right style at the right time to capture a mood and a moment in American fiction, and its popularity exploded from that. It was the extreme power of the literary zeitgeist. And since when did such popularity ever translate into a measure of literary genius?

Never, is the answer. WWTA’s unconventional, minimal style is not automatically commensurate with artistic greatness. As readers, we need to go deeper than that in order to really establish which work more truly expresses the values of great ficton as we know them.

To answer D’s question, I Could See The Smallest Things from WWTA is a superior short story to Want To See Something? from Beginners. Reading these two, it’s very clear that the editing at work is much more restrained and efficient.

That’s that. Cheers for reading! ●

For anyone who is such a Carver fan that they’ve struggled on to the end of this overlong piece of work, I give an extract below that perfectly and beautifully underlines what Carver’s work means to those of us who love his writing. This is from Tom Perrotta’s introduction to ‘The Best American Short Stories 2012’:

I first read Carver in 1983. I was a senior in college, a working-class kid at Yale, moving uneasily between what felt to me like two very different worlds. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was confused about my potential audience. Was I supposed to write for my professors, who seemed to think Thomas Pynchon was the greatest living American novelist, or should I be writing for the people I’d grown up with, the ones whose stories I was hoping to someday tell? What about my parents, who hadn’t gone to college and hadn’t even heard of Pynchon? Where did they fit in? These were the kinds of questions that were floating, half-formulated, in my mind when I picked up Carver’s first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and read the opening lines of the story ‘Fat’:

"I am sitting over coffee and cigarets at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.

It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station."

The story is short and cryptic, part workplace anecdote, part fable, about a melancholy compulsive eater gorging himself at a diner and the strange compassion he elicits from his waitress, who is telling the story to an uncomprehending friend. Later that night, when the narrator’s boyfriend – a heartless chef named Rudy – forces himself on her in bed, the narrator experiences an even deeper moment of connection with her overweight customer:

"I turn on my back and relax some, though it is against my will. But here is the thing. When he gets on me I suddenly feel I am fat. I feel I am terrifically fat, so fat that Rudy is a tiny thing and hardly there at all."

It’s hard for me to describe the excitement I felt when I read that story, and the ones that followed. It felt like Carver was offering an answer to my personal dilemma, proving it was possible to write sophisticated literary fiction about ordinary people in language that was both authentic and accessible.