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“I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111,” writes Stephen King about reading short stories.

When Stephen King walked in my door last week, on the cover of the Nov. 22, 2009 New York Times Book Review, he pushed my eject button. But not immediately.  It was Raymond Carver’s 7″ x 9” image that the New York Times displayed besides King’s words.  So I twice read “Strong Poison,” King’s  review of two books by and about Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, Collected Stories, edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, and Raymond Carver, A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka, before I realized the excellence I was drawn to was King’s voice.

Carver’s story about a family who ordered a birthday cake for a son who was then hit by a car has stayed with me since I first read it five years ago. Yes, it helped that last year I tripped across “A Small Good Thing” being acted out in Robert Altman’s 1993 movie “Shortcuts” with Lyle Lovett playing the baker.  But it was the ending of the story—the message of the story– that I’ve thought about often when eating bread or sniffing bakeries. (warning, spoiler ahead…) A conflict between the baker and the family ended when they broke bread…literally– the boy’s bereaved parents eating warm rolls just out of the oven with the apologetic baker.

So I was shocked when King wrote in his New York Times review that Carver’s controversial editor Gordon Lish had edited out that fragrant ending in a version of the story now published in Raymond Carver, Collected Stories.

Not only does King know this because the edited version is available, but Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver, A Writer’s Life describes the situation:

“Raymond Carver had urged Gordon Lish ‘to take a pencil to the stories.  He had not expected…a meat clever.’

It is a very lucky published writer who has not experienced the meat clever.  I know I have.  But I’ve been fortunate to experience the expert, light touch editor, including John Hilton from the Ann Arbor Observer.

I usually love being edited—it’s like getting your photo taken, but getting your hair and makeup done professionally first.  It’s you in the picture, but you’re looking better.

But according to King, even a good editor, nay, a famous editor, like Gordon Lish, can edit out something important.  Lish’s version of “A Small Good Thing” last shows the baker on the phone, sinister, still wanting to be paid for his cake. Carver’s version is much better, King says:

“Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says.  This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important:  heart.

I’ll take the warm bread, and the heart.

No Responses to “Stephen King’s “Strong Poison” Blew Me Away”

  1. Andy Glasser says:

    Hey Debbie – I’ve working through both versions of his stories now, and I think it is criminal the extent to which Lish changed the stories. He didn’t just edit them, he often removed what the story was originaly about. Interestingly though, for that particular story you mention, I liked the Lish ending. It showed the desperation of the moment, the mother wanting to know if there was news about her son, but unknown to her she is just talking to the Baker. In Lish’s version, we don’t know whether the son survives. This is one of the few stories where I do really like the edited version, but that doesn’t make it right. In another one Carver’s main character rapes a girl, then kills her to cover it up. Carver sets it up and you understand how it happened. But in Lish’s version he and his friend are trying to pick up these two girls and then from out of nowhere and seemingly out of character one of them just kills both girls, including the “one that was supposed to be” for the other guy – that last line presumably added by Lish. Where does he get off rewriting these stories? It’s interesting to see though from the perspective of rewriting, to see one person rewrite another’s story. In one particular instance Lish took a 10 page story to 2 pages. I guess he didn’t like it.


    here’s the article I read that got me interested in this. Not written by King, but a good article nonetheless.

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