you're reading...
Craft of Writing, Fiction

Gordon Lish: Editor, Writer, but Best of All, Teacher

The literary world seems fascinated with Gordon Lish. I can’t blame them—I am too.

Gordon Lish (Courtesy OR Books)

Gordon Lish (Courtesy OR Books)

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.



About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


12 thoughts on “Gordon Lish: Editor, Writer, but Best of All, Teacher

  1. Hi, Joe. While I have often wanted a good writing teacher who could speak to a majority of writers, somehow I instinctively disapprove of Lish’s heavy-handedness with the editing of Carver and others. I believe in the edict about teaching by example, and I feel that LIsh could’ve done much more in the way of producing his own works which met with his agenda, and not so much controlling others. A good teacher doesn’t impose standards, but suggests them; then, when the student puts together his or her interpretation of what he or she understood from the teacher’s remarks, often something totally wonderful happens that is neither the teacher nor the student’s former writing, but a new and blessed thing entirely. Editing is about sharing a gift, not dictating procedures. So really, I feel that Raymond Carver’s works, in order to be honest, should have on the author line “Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish” as authors. Otherwise, Lish is just a puppet-master, and Carver just a puppet; and I don’t like to see writers in that position. But that’s just my position. Writers who’ve worked more closely with editors than I have might feel differently.

    Posted by shadowoperator | October 19, 2013, 2:05 PM
    • I had an interesting experience with the editor who handled a story I had published recently in Bull–Men’s Fiction. The fiction editor loved it and passed to the editor in chief. He liked it, but was not as enamored of it, and suggested a large number of changes–more than any editor I’d ever worked with. Although he said none of the changes were absolute, I worried about jeopardizing my opportunity to be published and so agreed to about half of them, and thoroughly explained my position on the ones I didn’t make. We went back and forth for several rounds and I don’t think either one of us was completely satisfied in the end, but the story ran. I can assume Carver went through an even more stressful process with Lish, since publication in Esquire was a career builder. Letters he wrote when Lish published a collection of the work–again with many changes–show that Carver at one point begged Lish not to publish the stories in the changed form. My understanding is that Lish, who is still alive and living in NYC, never discusses his relationship with Carver. My feelings about them are mixed, but one thing for sure, Lish’s are the best writer’s notes I’ve ever seen.

      Posted by jpon | October 19, 2013, 9:35 PM
  2. “You don’t need much. All you need are stamina, will, desire, confidence, and courage.” Those notes are like food to a writer lost in the swirl of current sentimental bullshit. Thank you Tetman for posting them and thank you J for directing us to them.

    Posted by joplingirl | October 19, 2013, 2:24 PM
    • I’ve noticed a lot of what Lish said is not what’s popular with many writers today. And a lot of it is things I’m trying to do in my writing. Maybe there’s hope after all.

      Posted by jpon | October 19, 2013, 9:16 PM
  3. I’ve read Tetman’s notes many times and always find something new and germane to whatever issue I’m grappling with at the moment. They are a treasure.

    Posted by Averil Dean | October 19, 2013, 4:01 PM
  4. Hi Joe,

    There’s a roundtable discussion of Lish’s influence, focusing on the stylistic and compositional side of things, at The Literarian: http://centerforfiction.org/magazine/issue-14/learning-from-lish/ We wrote it with reference to Tetman’s class notes, as well as various published interviews with Lish and his students. Hope you find it interesting.


    Posted by David Winters | October 20, 2013, 1:14 PM
    • Thanks, David. That’s really interesting. I’m glad to see the interest in Lish and his influence on fiction is still strong.

      Posted by jpon | October 21, 2013, 1:16 AM
  5. Thank you, Joe.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | October 20, 2013, 2:42 PM
  6. “I’m not here to piss with the big dogs, I’m here to piss on the big dogs.” [chuckle]

    Posted by arichaley | October 20, 2013, 11:08 PM
    • Hey, if you’re a writer trying to make it in fiction today, you’d better have this attitude. (I sure do.)

      Posted by jpon | October 21, 2013, 1:17 AM
  7. the story with Lish and Carver is so strange. don’t know what to make of it.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | October 21, 2013, 5:48 AM

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

Enter your email address to subscribe to Joe's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 7,385 other followers

%d bloggers like this: