What We Talk About When We Talk About Authorial Intent

You know how all Raymond Carver's short stories are like, "We sat in the kitchen. It was raining. I poured another scotch. I drank it. She sat on the chair, drinking. We drank together a while"? Apparently they weren't always so minimalist. In fact, according to Raymond's widow Tess Gallagher, they were downright "expansive" before his editor Gordon Lish got hold of them, radically cutting them and in some instances changing their titles and endings. And in a recently-unearthed letter, Raymond seems to plead for Gordon to stop publication of the altered book. So Tess wants to bring out an alternate edition of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" that contains the unedited stories. Is this a terrible, terrible idea?

Gary Fisketjon, who was Raymond's editor later in his life, certainly thinks so: "I would rather dig my friend Ray Carver out of the ground. I don't understand what Tess's interest in doing this is except to rewrite history. I am appalled by it." The reader who brought this to our attention agrees with Gary: "This is possibly the worst idea of all time. Next to Stephen King refilming The Shining with the dude from 'Wings.' When it comes down to The Author Thought This' and 'The Editor Thought This' Everyone ought to go with the one who ain't The Artiste."

Even if you tend to agree with those dudes, this teapot-tempest still raises some interesting questions about the role of the fiction editor. It's not something that's actually talked about that much outside of book publishing and graduate English and writing programs: how do the books we read get to be that way? The work of the editor is supposed to be stealth and unnoticeable, but savvy readers can recognize a certain person's imprimatur, like a stealth voice behind the voice that amplifies what the author is doing without ever getting in the way of it. In this instance, it seems clear that Gordon did this job admirably well. But for various weird reasons, some having to do with booze, Raymond acknowledged that, though Gordon had improved the stories, he didn't want to accept the changes. So what's more important, the "better" book or the book the author wanted to write and see published?