Beautiful Shame

What We Talk About When We Talk About White Writing

Here is the voice of a man telling a story. The man is a doctor; the story is about one of his patients, an elderly rancher who along with his wife has barely survived a terrible car accident. Their names are Henry and Anna Gates. Because of their injuries, they have to recover in separate rooms, and Henry becomes severely depressed, even while knowing Anna is nearby and on the mend. When the doctor, Herb, visits him, Henry insists on telling him about his ranch outside Bend, Oregon, where he’s lived with Anna since their marriage in 1927:

Sometimes it’d be snowing outside and the temperature down below zero. The temperature really drops on you up there in January or February. But we’d listen to the records and dance in our stocking feet in the living room until we’d gone through all the records. And then I’d build up the fire and turn out the lights, all but one, and we’d go to bed. Some nights it’d be snowing, and it’d be so still outside you could hear the snow falling.

Viewed within a piece of contemporary fiction, the feeling of this passage is one of density, or richness: a density of detail and lived experience, and maybe a little too much sententiousness: Henry Gates here feels a little too wise and folksy for his own good. On the other hand, who would object to the haunting image of hearing the snow falling, the inner and outer quietness required for that kind of listening? In this case, it’s clear exactly who would: the story quoted here is Raymond Carver’s “Beginners,” which was intensely compressed by Carver’s editor, friend, and mentor Gordon Lish into “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” In the final story, Henry and Anna no longer have names, and their recovery is described by the doctor—now named Mel—in a single, offhand paragraph:

I’d get up to his mouth-hole, you know, and he’d say no, it wasn’t the accident exactly but it was because he couldn’t see her through his eye-holes… I’m telling you, the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.

What exactly is lost in this gesture of editing? Obviously, the density and richness of Henry Gates’s speech, and the governing metaphor of the audibly falling snow. Lish’s version, on the other hand, is much more sonically and structurally interesting: there’s the weird repetition of “holes,” making the injured man seem more material and less human, and then, in the next sentence, the odd repetitive construction, “that was what was.” This quality is often called “Carveresque,” but the historical record demonstrates it’s largely Lish. Witness an agonized letter Carver wrote to Lish on July 8, 1980, begging him to stop production of the edited version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. “Even though they may be closer to works of art than the original and people be reading them 50 years from now, they’re still apt to cause my demise,” Carver writes. “I feel I’ve stepped too far out of bounds, crossed that line.” He requests, among other changes, that Henry and Anna Gates be added back into “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” None of which actually happened; the book was published, as is, and became an enormous success, further cementing Carver’s reputation as a master of the short story, an American Chekhov.

The Carver-Lish dispute is almost always described as a stylistic, editorial disagreement: which version, which choice, is “better” or “worse,” which edits “serve the story”? Lingering over this kind of questioning is the question of efficacy and worldy success: were Lish’s changes the magic formula that made Carver Carver? (Lish thinks so: in a recent interview, he said, “I think the heroising of Carver is nuts.”) Often the narrative goes something like this: Carver’s earlier drafts were baggy, maudlin, sentimental, and Lish bravely cut them, killing Carver’s darlings, making them “tight,” economical, “haunting,” “telegraphic.” This language—more or less the language of the fiction writing workshop, of the lit biz—is itself highly coded and telegraphic. It implies values rarely if ever directly stated. Even Carver himself, in his desperate letter, seems reluctant to say what he means, using euphemisms instead: “stepped too far out of bounds, crossed over that line.”

When a work of art seems deliberately self-obscuring and opaque, it’s always worth asking: what is being hidden, and why? In the workshops and in the books I read obsessively as a young writer, editing was described in such violent and intimate terms that it became clear to me—though I never would have said so at the time—that the excised material, the “fat,” was metaphorically part of my body, my selfhood, which meant the story was my whole body. Which leads to another question: what was it about the specificity of Raymond Carver’s version of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” that hurt so much when Lish cut it away—so much so that it threatened his sobriety, his carefully-reconstructed life, his ability ever to write again? Think of the silence and the almost-imperceptible sound of snow falling, which is also the knowledge that the nearest neighbor is twenty miles away over dirt roads, the government-sanctioned poverty that can easily be misread as “self-reliance,” and you have a specific instance of whiteness made visible—painfully, embarrassingly, even sentimentally visible. Was that the cut that Carver couldn’t bear?

“I’m not interested in communication,” Gordon Lish said, speaking of his faith in sentences, in a 2015 interview with the scholar David Winters. “I want communion. I want mutuality. I want to enter the being of the other. I want unimprovable illumination.” Although Lish has never stayed long in a single institution, and never anchored an MFA program, he has probably had more influence than any other single teacher of fiction in the last forty years, thanks to a series of remarkable seminars he’s conducted in exactly the same way, by all accounts, since the 1970s. These seminars are founded on a technique called “consecution,” summed by his longtime student Gary Lutz: “A recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows.” The faith Lish professes—and it’s clearly a faith—has to do with an immanent quality of words and sentences, a kind of radical non-instrumentalism, which insists on treating words not as dependent on what they refer to, but as entirely self-sufficient and beautiful in themselves. A good sentence, for Lish, is one which actually carries with it “the being of the other.” Its meaning, literal or figurative, is beside the point.

To me the most interesting way to see Lish is not necessarily the way he sees himself—as an otherworldly mystic, or a defender of a lost humanism—but as a highly social thinker whose practice of literary aphasia is also kind of social aphasia, the deliberate exclusion of a certain kind of reference, observation, or sign. Virtually every writer closely associated with Lish’s teaching and editorial style is white—from writers whose heyday was in the 1980s, like Carver and Amy Hempel and Barry Hannah, to writers very much still active and influential today: Schutt, Lutz, Diane Williams, Noy Holland, Sam Lipsyte, Deb Olin Unferth, Ben Marcus. While the last four decades have seen the emergence of “multicultural literature”—that ambivalent phrase, full of coded resentment—as a significant, even dominant, element of the American literary scene, Lish has operated in a parallel aesthetic universe that deals neither in culture nor multiplicity. You could call this a practice of conscious exclusion, but not in the way it may sound. Whether Lish deliberately avoided working with nonwhite writers is a significant question for his biographers. What concerns me—because I was taught it, and absorbed it, long before I’d ever heard his name—is how his aesthetic so easily translates into a practice of shame, rooted in the white body, that makes it so difficult for white writers to recognize race at all.

Where can we see this in the story of Henry and Anna Gates from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”? Lish is erasing, or policing, in part, a gesture toward the particularity of Carver’s own whiteness. Carver grew up poor in Yakima, Washington; his father worked intermittently at the local sawmill, but was a heavy drinker and barely able to provide for his family, and his mother was deeply depressed and self-sabotaging. But—as Carol Skelnicka reveals, through painstaking research in Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life—there’s much more to the story: not only Carver’s parents, but his extended family and much of his community came from Arkansas. Carver’s great-grandfather Abram, who died in 1860, was wealthy enough to own slaves, but the family’s wealth collapsed after the Civil War, leaving them as sharecroppers and mill hands, until they left Arkansas for the Northwest in 1929. In his early life, Carver’s father was a militant unionist who once worked hauling buckets of sand in the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam, and was deeply affected by the memory of the forgotten workers who died there. Carver’s family’s experience of poverty and dislocation may have made him partly indifferent to individual places and their histories; but it also, as “Beginners” demonstrates, made him keenly sensitive to that loss. Which is why it’s not surprising that he experienced Lish’s editing as what it really was: an aesthetic form of boundary policing, a kind of symbolic violence.

In his chapter “The Hidden Injuries of Craft,” in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl describes this kind of writing as driven by an intense experience of shame, intrinsically related to the dynamic of the writing workshop and the university itself. Minimalism, McGurl writes, “has very little to say about emotion… because it was engineered as a way of beautifying shame.”

What does it mean to talk about “white writing” the way Lish practiced it? Think of it writing under pressure: the pressure to perform while minimizing the risk of shame, to manage language under highly restricted conditions. It normalizes conditions of language restriction that would otherwise appear dysfunctional, even diagnosable; but it does this without describing those conditions as problematic. Instead it treats them as normative, and often goes so far as to call them “realism.”

As a mode of writing, white writing derives much of its power from what might be described as its extreme efficacy: its repeated, demonstrable, sometimes immediate success. Gordon Lish pioneered the practice of simultaneously teaching a writing class and selecting material for publication, radically shortening the distance between apprenticeship and professional success; today MFA students in prestigious programs sometimes get substantial book contracts while still in school, or very shortly afterward. To publish under these conditions, in fierce competition with others, generates a highly noticeable uniformity among first books, and an enormous amount of what might be called magical thinking, a belief in the totemic power of certain combinations of words. Lish, of course, has always explicitly encouraged this kind of thinking.

By the time Raymond Carver died—of lung cancer, in 1988—he had broken the spell of shame, and become a different kind of mystic, interested in much more explicit forms of redemption and palpable grace. Though he never wrote in detail about his own upbringing, and never mentioned race or racism explicitly, he became almost obsessed with reconciliation in a less particular sense; his later writings are filled with sacramental gestures, from the offering of bread at the end of “A Small, Good Thing” to the champagne Chekhov drinks on his deathbed in “Errand” to the baptismal river of his poem “When Water Comes Together With Other Water,” which ends:

It pleases me, loving rivers.
Loving them all the way back
to their source.
Loving everything that increases me.

This poem was written thirty years ago. I reread it with a sense of amazement that white Americans—and particularly straight white men—are still being taught to write fiction, in workshops, in graduate programs, at conferences, without being asked to take their own bodies, their own subjectivities and limitations, into account. As if what matters is “craft,” as if a sentence can ever be fully severed from the person and context that produced it. What would it mean, instead, for a white American writer actually to write according to this premise—to write as if love, rather than shame, were the final standard, that is, non-self-protectively, but rather expansively, out of joy, rather than terror, at an expanding universe? Out of all the formal experiments of the last century and change this may be the one that has never been tried.

Excerpted from White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination, by Jess Row (Graywolf Press, August 6, 2019).

More Reads

Close Read: Thiago Rodrigues-Oliveira, et al.

Veronique Greenwood

Take the W: Entry Points

Katie Heindl

Believer Radio

Claire Mullen