The reputation of Gordon Lish precedes him. He’s known as a master of avant-garde prose and as a controversial editor (dubbed Captain Fiction in his stint at Esquire) whose slash-and-burn style has made bestsellers out of many nascent authors. His infamous writing workshops have been described as grueling and hellish, a form of torture. He used to instruct his students to “seduce the whole world” with their writing; the classes apparently went beyond mere intellectual seduction.
Reading about him, and reading his latest book, White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings (Little Island, Aug.), an autobiographical group of linked stories, one is not predisposed to like him. But Lish is 83 now, a somewhat mangy lion in winter who leads “a reclusive life” and who doesn’t “let people in,” metaphorically and perhaps literally. It’s hard to feel antipathy for a man whose brain is sharp but whose sight and hearing are dimmed, and for whom getting about is no longer easy. When I leave his Upper East Side apartment a few paces from Central Park after a 90-minute chat, I kind of like him. He has been polite and kind, looking for antihistamines to temper my sudden allergy attack, concerned lest my perch on a high stool prove uncomfortable.
The kitchen is where Lish prefers to sit, our chat conducted across the breakfast bar. He misses teaching, he says, and misses the students, though he occasionally sees them one-on-one, giving them tutorials at the local Starbucks and sometimes at his home, where he has lived alone since his second wife died. “Columbia has hinted that in the autumn they might want me back to give some lectures,” he says. “I’ll do them if I’m invited. One ends up talking about oneself.”
Our encounter is prompted by the publication of White Plains. Lish, who has no tolerance for editorial interference in his own work, has nothing but high praise for his publisher, Andrew Latimer (“He’s crackerjack”), whose U.K.-based independent, Little Island Press, is publishing the book worldwide. Latimer’s intercessions were made with “such adroitness,” but, according to Lish, there was “no line editing of a kind that I would do.” Of course not!
As for the collection’s subtitle, witherlings is “stolen” from Wallace Stevens. “What did he mean by it?” Lish asks. “I think it says what it says. It’s not of great consequence anyway.” An odd reply for an editor, but Lish likes the “acoustical sound” of the word and wishes American writers concerned themselves more with the “acoustical aspects” of writing, which he believes British writers do.
Lish says he has already written another book but he won’t talk about it. Yet he says he’s not a writer and told the Paris Review in 2015 that he has “no stake in... being thought of as a writer.” So why, as an editor with famously exacting standards, does he write? “I’m accused, and I have no alibi for doing so,” Lish says. “It keeps me busy. There’s a Yiddish word, potzer: somebody who horses around, plays, moves a thing here, moves a thing there—who devises what would seem a personality via language. But do I have, can I do, any of the things those people I admire do? No, not by a long chalk.”
Comparisons of his own work to Joyce and Beckett are “preposterous,” he says, but then Lish is not a fully paid-up fan of either. “I like Joyce marginally, I like Beckett greatly—not the novels, his plays. In the instance of Joyce, the short story ‘Araby’ is better than the rest of Dubliners—just that one story, and there’s not much in it. The one thing in Ulysses that’s been read by me more than once is Molly’s soliloquy at the end of the book. I don’t care for the rest of it at all. It’s a lot of hoopla over nothing.” He adds that he can see “merit” in Finnegan’s Wake.
“I used to hang around with [Denis] Donoghue and [Harold] Bloom,” he says. “We’d have lunch a couple of times a week, and also with Harold Brodkey and Don DeLillo. Bloom would toss a new book back at you and then two decades later write an introduction and say what a great book it was. I find that behavior shameless.” Rhapsodizing about the long dead is easy, he says, but critics should have “no alibi in not being able to apprehend excellence right off the bat.” He adds: “If not, then fuck them! What are they doing as critics?”
Lish has no such problems, and his ability to make immediate judgments—on the basis of just one sentence that a student has read out—is legendary. “I have a gift,” he says. “Or I have an opinion, or I have a prejudice, or a bias. Would that I were otherwise, but I’m not. I have a quick sense of the destiny of what’s before me by having a taste of what’s there. When I was at Esquire”—where he was the fiction editor from 1969 to 1977—“I could not have made my way through as much stuff as came over the transom had I not had that ability. In those days I could look at a page of text and arrive at some kind of view of its qualities, its value.”
Rarely if ever did Lish use readers, and it was many years before he dealt with agents. “Instead of paying $10,000 to Saul Bellow or John Updike, I’d pay $1,000, hoping to conserve the budget of Esquire so I could spread the money among people they’d never heard of,” he says.
Lish worked hard, arriving in the office at 6 a.m., and is scathing about editors and agents who can’t be bothered to read their slush piles. Publishing has “already gone into the crapper—it’s a business,” he says. The thrill, we agree, is in the discovery. “These editors in publishing houses, do they know or do they care? They’re order takers.”
Lish is no less damning about writing courses. “It’s all nonsense,” he says. “They’re ghastly, institutionalized. The only [teacher] I admired was John Barth,” who taught at Buffalo and SUNY in the 1960s. “The rest I thought was absolutely a way of the teacher getting income support for his or her own writing adventures.” Courses are full of no-hopers, he thinks, writers’ retreats are “a way of conducting affairs or romances,” and the workshops are “shameful—no teaching goes on.”
Lish is “good at teaching,” and even students who bemoan his “sadism”—hours and hours without a break, though students were permitted to go to the bathroom—would agree they owe their careers to him. (He himself made a point of not going to the bathroom, causing what his novelist son Atticus calls “a boggy bladder,” which has twice required surgery.) Some argue that Lish launched many books but rather fewer careers, a characterization with which he disagrees.
As an editor, he championed authors such as Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford, and, of course, Raymond Carver, on whose 1980 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love he did so much surgery, as papers in Indiana’s Lilly Library attest. That revelation, in 1998, left Lish feeling “abused, because it was promptly construed in the worst light.”
It’s hard not to like, or at least admire, a feisty octogenarian. As a young man, Lish wrestled with Ken Kesey in his front yard in Stanford. The Merry Prankster rammed him into glass, and Lish ended up requiring sutures. “It was impossible not to be in thrall of him, given that I’d been in the bughouse and he wrote about the bughouse,” Lish reflects. But still, he refused to get on the bus. Probably just as well.
Liz Thomson is a London-based journalist and author, and the cofounder of the Village Trip, a celebration of Greenwich Village history and culture.