Outside the Esquire offices, in New York, ca. 1970. Photo by Bud Lee.

Gordon Lish, The Art of Editing No. 2
Interviewed by Christian Lorentzen
It’s the custom for editors to keep a low profile and to underplay any changes they may make to an author’s manuscript. Gordon Lish is a different animal. Not since Maxwell Perkins has an editor been so famous—or notorious—as a sculptor of other people’s prose. As fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1977, then as an editor at Knopf and of The Quarterly until 1995, Lish worked closely with many of the most daring writers of the past fifty years, including Harold Brodkey, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, and Joy Williams. In an interview with this magazine in 2004, Hannah said, “Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.”

His collaborations have not always ended ami­cably. His editorial relationship with Carver ceased ­after three books. When Lish donated his papers to the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, they indeed showed that he had drastically cut, and often rewritten, some of Carver’s best loved stories. For the Collected Stories, published in 2009, Carver’s widow printed some of them in both edited and unedited versions. The critical reaction was divided. In the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King described the ­effect on one ­story as “a total ­rewrite . . . a cheat”; in The New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey wrote that the publication of Carver’s ­unedited stories “has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.”

More than a dozen books have appeared under Lish’s own name—­including the novels Dear Mr. Capote (1983), Peru (1986), and Zimzum (1993). These have won Lish a small but passionate cult following as a writer of recursive and often very funny prose. For decades he taught legendary classes in fiction, both at institutions such as Yale and Columbia and in private sessions in New York and across America. Though he titled one of his books Arcade, or, How to Write a Novel (1999), he, like Socrates, never put his teachings on paper. They ­survive in his students, many of whom are now prominent writers and ­teachers of fiction, among them Christine Schutt, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, and Ben Marcus.

Lish was born in 1934 in Hewlett, New York, the son of a hat manu­facturer and a housewife. In early childhood he was afflicted with acute ­psoriasis, a condition that has persisted all his life. After being kicked out of Andover, he spent the rest of his teens and twenties working in radio and at odd jobs in New York; Pampa, Texas; and Tucson, where he eventually ­received a B.A. from the University of Arizona. Even now he has retained the smooth baritone and cultured vowels of a 1950s disc jockey. After his first marriage, to Frances Fokes, ended in divorce, he married Barbara Works; he lives in the Upper East Side apartment that he shared with his second wife until her death from ALS in 1994. The interview was conducted in his living room, over several long sessions that began in the spring of 2010 and ended last September. Often we would be interrupted by phone calls from Lish’s friends and former students, some of them seeking advice on the finishing stages of their books. He was a convivial host, offering his interviewer bottles of beer and a large brass pot for use as an ashtray.

—Christian Lorentzen


How did you first start editing Raymond Carver?


I was under contract to revise The Perrin-Smith Handbook of Current English for Scott, Foresman. My editor, Curt Johnson, came out to Palo Alto to see his people on Scott, Foresman contracts, and also his contributors to his lit mag, December. I was both. Carver had been a contributor and, I guess, a good buddy of his. I was at Educational Development Corporation at the time, working on A Man’s Work. So we were supposed to meet, and Johnson phoned to say, I can’t keep my appointment with you, I’m stuck here on California Street with a guy who’s too drunk to get home and his car won’t start. I rode my bicycle over there. That was how I met Carver. Then it was revealed that Carver worked across the street from my office. He was a textbook editor at Science Research Associates. When I got the idea to start up a new lit mag, I thought, Well, here’s somebody who will give himself to the endeavor. On one or two occasions, he came to my apartment and I fed him lunch and we talked about starting something called The American Journal of Fiction. There’s a photograph of Carver sitting at Barbara’s and my dining table, sky-high candle-sticks on it, with Ray wearing a shirt of mine. Took the picture for some book he was bringing out. By that time, Frances and I had divorced, and I was readying myself to leave town because Frances had threatened Barbara, and Barbara felt that she had nearly been run down in the street by Frances. Barbara was scared. So was I. We arrive in New York, I get the Esquire job, and had asked Carver if he would collect my mail for me and keep an eye on Frances and the kids—which he never, he in time confessed, did. In exchange for this, I was happy to look at his stuff. I was eager to read anybody’s work who wasn’t an Esquire regular. I read all the slush, for instance—and was less given to reacting to agented material. I wanted newcomers and was faced with the problem of satisfying Hayes and Gingrich’s notion that I was going to turn up something hitherto unseen—the New Fiction. I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could fuck around with. There was a prospect there, certainly. The germ of the thing, in Ray’s stuff, was revealed in the catalogue of his experience. It had that promise in it, something I could fool with and make something new seeming. “Fat” was the first one I revised, but Gingrich nixed it. I got it into Harper’s Bazaar.

Carver wasn’t the only one, you understand. I probably expended rather more assiduity in his case, yes. The degree of my industry was to revise a piece three, four, five times in a day. I did that on weekends, too. Not just with Ray’s work. I was keeping myself alive by doctoring books as well, because the Esquire salary was woefully inadequate. I would get work from McGraw-Hill or Harcourt Brace—one of those outfits that was inclined to arrange for a largish advance for a book they could not then publish without its enjoying a good deal of fixing. It never worked out well, however. There was always bad feeling in the end, always lunacy, particularly with ghost jobs. I can’t think of very many times I did such work and it didn’t end badly.

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