Editing the infamous Gordon Lish.

All about fiction.
Oct. 31 2007 6:12 PM

I Was Gordon Lish's Editor

Not that he let me do any editing.

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My wariness had to do, however, with Lish's reputation as a bit of a madman, of the sort publishing houses no longer welcome. I was at Viking in 1988 when we published his second short story collection Mourner at the Door, and I'd seen his antics up close. He'd bulldozed his editor into allowing him to write his own over-the top flap copy which ends in this way: " … no reader will go away from these pages unshaken by the force of his sentences, nor will any reader not know why it is that Gordon Lish has so powerfully and indelibly entered the literary history of this century." Don't break your arm patting yourself on the back! An office wag dropped a dime on Lish's authorship to Harper's, and they ran the jacket copy verbatim in their "Readings" section, under the heading "Enough About You." It was mean and it was funny and Lish went ballistic, stopping just short of suing.

So in a distinctly ambivalent mood I asked Lish's agent if I could see his new novel, and what arrived was a slim, subversive, mind-bending volume titled My Romance. Forget Rodgers and Hart; the presiding influences were more Spalding Gray and, perhaps, Dostoyevksy's The Underground Man. *It pretended to be (and, in part, was) a monologue that Lish himself had delivered at a writers conference, a brilliant impromptu (or was it?) disquisition on such matters as his psoriasis, his medications, his drinking, his wife's terminal illness, his office hanky-panky, the value of the vintage Audemars Piguet watch that he'd inherited from his father (which he proposed to auction off right there), and the possibility that he may have accidentally killed his father in the process of trying to save him from an attack of esophageal dilation. It was a real high-wire act that erased the barrier between fact and fabrication and dared the reader to think the worst of its creator. Not unlike, come to think of it, Curb Your Enthusiasm—Larry David and Gordon Lish are brothers under the (itchy) skin.

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Well, I thought, this is great. And I somehow got my employer to agree to publish it. At this point it would make a great ironic story if I told you that I proposed to do to Lish's novel something similar to what he'd done to Carver and doubtless many others. But I didn't, because I thought that My Romance could not be improved upon nor could I see any way one could improve it. In my jacket copy, I was to write with complete sincerity: "Lish uses his voice the way another virtuoso, Charlie Parker, used his saxophone." How in hell do you "edit" a Charlie Parker solo, a construct so dependent on its moment-to-moment immediacy? You don't—and I thought that Lish's work had something of the same riveting this-only-happens-this-way-once quality.

However, I can tell you this with complete certainty: Had I had any bright editorial ideas, Lish would have summarily rejected them. His control-freak obsessiveness redoubled itself when it came to his own work. He demanded that he get to pick the art director for the cover. We strategized over the sending out of galleys like Ike planning D-Day—"Howard, I have enemies everywhere," he said ominously, and he was right. And no author I have ever worked with concentrated more compulsively on the precise way each line of type fell on the page, driving me and the production department almost nuts. (This is a pattern of behavior, I have learned, that he's repeated with his other editors.) He wanted what he wanted, and that was that. He was a living no-editing zone. Except, of course, when it came to his author's work; then out came the pick and the shovel and the scalpel and the drill.

Publishing My Romance turned out to be a chastening act of critical and commercial futility for me and my employer. Between the jacket copy episode and the many press accounts of his writing-class shenanigans, by 1992 he had made himself into such a figure of controversy and a target for mockery that bookstores ordered the book in meager quantities and only a couple of critics allowed themselves to be captivated by what I felt—and still feel—was its nervy brilliance. That same year, Lish did sue Harper's, for libel and copyright infringement, for their publication of a private letter of instruction addressed to his students. As a result I got to read in the Village Voice that the net sale of My Romance amounted to slightly over 500 copies. (I had avoided learning the sales figures until then.)That is not just bad; that is pathetic. Five hundred copies means you sold about half that amount to friends, family members, and former students, maybe a few dozen to civilians, and the rest to libraries with standing orders for contemporary fiction by just about anybody.

Still, I don't regret publishing My Romance for a second. I grew very fond of Gordon and remain so, as do most people who come under his eccentric spell. The rights and wrongs of the Carver business will take years to sort out and will become part of American literary history, comparable in some ways to Pound's inspired editorial rolfing of Eliot's first draft of "The Wasteland." (Of course, Lish and Pound and Maxwell Perkins, at least in respect to his work with Thomas Wolfe, are the extreme outliers in the craft of editing. Most of us put ourselves at the service of helping the writer realize his or her particular vision with a mixture of nurturing and commercial calculation and, I suppose, passive aggression.) What I hope does not get lost in this dust-up is what an energizing figure, as mentor, cheerleader, trickster, and Svengali, on the literary scene that Lish was, how many invaluable talents in American fiction he brought to light, and how very interesting and influential a writer he himself is.

Correction, Nov. 2, 2007: This article originally misspelled the name of composer Richard Rodgers. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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