The literary world seems fascinated with Gordon Lish. I can’t blame them—I am too.
Lish is the writer and editor who, while at Esquire and later at Alfred A. Knopf, brought Raymond Carver into prominence and changed the direction of literary fiction. He did this by editing Carver’s stories heavily—changing as much as 70 percent of the text. It would be fair to say he saw in Carver a major talent, and cultivated it, but also to say that he imposed his ideas about writing on Carver’s narratives, and Carver, being a nobody at the time (and an alcoholic for part of it), went along with the changes, although correspondence shows that he sometimes wished he hadn’t. Lish also helped Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and well known writers to improve their craft.
Depending on whom you believe, Lish is a genius or a monster. Carver’s second wife, Tess Gallagher, who I have met a couple of times, holds with the second opinion. But the authors above, and many others, say Lish was a profound and positive influence on their careers.
So to feed my fascination I purchased the OR Books collection of his short stories. I disliked just about every one. That’s not to say they’re bad. But they are sparse and modernist, and seemed to me exorbitantly self indulgent and repetitious. A sample from a story titled “Origins of Death”:
She calls me and says to me there’s three words I hate, so I says to her yeah sure there are three words you hate, and so she says to me you want to know what they are, and so I says to her yeah sure tell me what they are, I want to know me what they are, and so she says to me sty, one of them is sty, and so I says to her which sty, and so she says to me what do you mean which sty… (This sentence goes on for more than three pages.)
Far more educated and experienced minds than mine call Lish America’s answer to Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. And I do see within Lish’s writing an influence on modern fiction.
That would have been the end of it, except I happened to follow a thread across the web last week that led me to a writer named Tetman Callis’s site. I know him only through comments on other blogs, but knew that he’d been a student of Lish’s. And on his site, Callis has done writers an enormous favor—he’s posted the notes he took during his master’s class from 1990. They are the kind of advice that any good writer dreams of hearing, the kind that resonate and make clear what it is we are trying to do on the page. Here is Lish’s real influence on writing. Reading them I begin to understand how Lish’s ideas helped shaped the way serious writers look at their craft, even if his own writing remains largely inaccessible to me.
There are 18 sessions of notes. Many are so profound that I’ve set up a calendar popup to read a session’s worth each day. And when I’ve read them all I will start again, they are that good, and that important.