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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Gordon Lish.
Gordon Lish

A recent article in the New York Times about the desire of Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's widow, to have Carver's stories published in their original, unedited form, has ignited a controversy over the slash-and-burn handiwork of his first editor, Gordon Lish. This contretemps has brought back memories of my own brief stint as Lish's editor.

It was Don DeLillo's fault. I was working for W.W. Norton in 1991 when he gave me a call. I'd had the privilege of being his editor on Libra, and we'd stayed friends. Lish had also been Don's editor at Esquire, and DeLillo had dedicated one of his novels to him. After some pleasantries, Don came to the point:

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"Gordon Lish is looking for a new publisher."

Uh-huh.

"He's finished a novel, and I think he's broken through into new territory."

Hmmm.

I had reasons to be both intrigued and extremely wary. As a college student all hot for literature I'd had my brain waves rearranged and my taste in fiction formed by the amazingly odd and disturbing stories Gordon Lish had published in Esquire as its fiction editor from 1969 to 1976. I still vividly remember the wave of existential disquiet that swept over me when I read Carver's "Neighbors" in those pages. What was that?There, and later at Knopf, Lish brought forth a new kind of American fiction—gnomic, stripped-down, psychologically charged but jagged and resistant to explanation—that would come to be known variously as "Minimalism" and "Kmart Realism." In addition to Raymond Carver, he'd published such striking talents as Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Cynthia Ozick, and, his maximalist odd man out, Harold Brodkey, while appointing himself "Captain Fiction"—a faintly ridiculous sobriquet that nonetheless captured with some accuracy his standing in the literary world.

Concurrently, Lish had gained notoriety as a teacher of creative writing, one whose classes bore more than a passing resemblance to such '70s-era phenomena as primal scream therapy (feel the pain!) and EST (no peeing!). In the foreword to his anthology All Our Secrets Are the Same, he defined his taste this way: "My principal concerns are paralysis, death, home, the things people live with, the violence that is in us, flight from all those concerns, a piece of brisk whistling in the long-toothed dark, and God, I just can't get enough of that wonderful stuff …" In the strict Lishian aesthetic, where silences often spoke more clearly than words, characters gave voice to their traumas with a kind of mute, cracked eloquence and off-slant detailing. "He did like kidneys, that was one thing," a young divorcee remembers of her ex-husband in a Joy Williams story. "He loved kidneys for the weekend lunch." Who knew that organ meats could have an emotional valence? This style spread through America's creative writing programs and literary magazines like measles through an elementary school, sweeping the conventional well-made story into the dustbin of literary history, or so it seemed. And that was all right with me.

Lish had also developed into a fiction writer of note, a calculating provocateur and something of a tummler. His first novel, Dear Mr. Capote (1983), took the form of letters from a serial killer inviting the author of In Cold Blood to write his story next. The book virtually invented a genre of novels featuring hyper-literary mass murderers. And Lish's short stories, first collected in What I Know So Far (1984), were, well, quite Lishian; one, "To Jerome, With Love and Kisses," was sheer genius, a hectoring lecture to J.D. Salinger from his estranged father demanding that Salinger stay more in touch, the way Phil Roth and Bernie Malamud did with their fathers.

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.

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.)

Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York.

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