The Poetics of the Sentence: Examining Gordon Lish’s Literary Legacy
Trinity College Dublin
In September 2008, Gary Lutz, author of several collections of short fiction, delivered a lecture entitled “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” to the students of Columbia University’s writing program in which he outlined many of his ideas on composition. Describing his own formative literary experiences, Lutz pointed to his crucial encounters with a number of books (“mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish”) of which the distinguishing feature was the fact that “virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax . . . almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude” (Lutz n.p.). He went on to outline a number of practical techniques for producing “richly elliptical prose” at the level of the sentence: examples include “end your sentence with the wham and bang of a stressed syllable”, and “avail yourself of alliteration”. The debt to Gordon Lish was proclaimed at the outset, and the talk – later published as an essay in The Believer in 2009 – can be read in part as an attempt to recuperate Lish as the godfather of what Lutz closes by calling “some of today’s most artistically provocative fiction”. Almost all of the writers whose sentences Lutz isolates and analyses as exemplary – Don DeLillo, Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams – are to some degree either associates or protégés of Lish. Lutz presents Lish’s “poetics of the sentence” as a crucial element of innovative fiction and places the editor in an eminent position within a lineage of writing that pays rigorous attention to the sonic and typographical possibilities of language. “Gordon Lish’s poetics”, he proclaims, “forever changed the way I look at sentences”.
“The Sentence is a Lonely Place” argues for the importance of Lish’s involvement in a substantial body of successful literary production, and serves as a useful starting point from which to consider his influence. I will begin here by briefly outlining Lish’s career path in order to emphasise the sheer extent of his literary connections, particularly towards the close of the previous century. During the course of his career, most notably during the years of his employment as fiction editor at Esquire (1969-1976), Knopf (1977-1995) and The Quarterly (1987-1995), Lish edited and corresponded with many of America’s foremost literary figures. Lish’s archives at the University of Indiana show correspondence with (and often, edited manuscripts of work by) the likes of Saul Bellow, Denis Johnson, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, Denis Donoghue, Philip Roth and John Updike, among many others.1 His correspondence with Don DeLillo, for example, fills 11 folders and dates from 1972 to 2012, tracing four decades of literary conversation that began with the publication of one of DeLillo’s stories in Esquire in 1971. DeLillo declined to be edited further by Lish, but he struck up a lasting friendship with the editor: he later dedicated The Names to Lish’s son Atticus, whose childhood writings inspired parts of the novel (and who has recently published an acclaimed debut novel, 2014’s Preparation for the Next Life), and he subsequently dedicated Mao II to Lish. Lish’s tenure at Esquire was marked by the steady publication of unusual and experimental fiction, and when he became an editor at Knopf his influence grew wider. As the editor who had been responsible for bringing writers such as Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah and Mary Robison to national attention, he was able to wield considerable influence, such that in 1986 Sven Birkerts could describe him as being “at the epicenter of literary publishing” (252). In 1987 Esquire magazine presented a “Guide to the Literary Universe” which placed Lish (alongside Raymond Carver, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and others) in the “Red Hot Center” of that universe (Hills).
At Knopf, Lish was responsible for publishing much of the fiction that emerged from the continually-growing number of graduate writing workshop classrooms in the U.S.; some of these, indeed (as I will discuss later in this essay), were the classrooms in which he himself was teaching. The editor, during these years, could be said to have successfully straddled the two worlds of “MFA” and “NYC” that have recently been proposed as the primary power centres and material support networks of U.S. fiction by Chad Harbach (9–28). During the latter part of his tenure at Knopf Lish also edited The Quarterly, a journal which served, as Carla Blumenkrantz notes, as “the publishing arm of [his] fiction program” (219-220) and the freedom he was given in assembling this allowed him to publish a large number of new writers over the course of its 31 issues including Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel and Ben Marcus. During these years Lish was not only editing and teaching, but also writing his own fiction. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction in 1984, and in the same year one of his own stories (a Salinger parody entitled “For Jeromé – with Love and Kisses”) was included in the O. Henry Prize collection. He has continued to write and publish, and much of his short work is assembled in the 2010 Collected Fictions.
The blurb used for that collection (written by DeLillo) claimed that Lish was “famous for all the wrong reasons”. For the publication of Lish’s latest collection Goings (2014), moreover, his publisher OR Books created a Lish “twitterbot”, a Twitter account that plays upon Lish’s reputation for ruthless editing by dispensing merciless 140-character-sized snippets of editorial advice.2 The marketing strategy here reflects the fact that Lish is now generally known for just one of his literary activities, with one particular author: he is known to most readers as the editor who took a severe editorial pen to Raymond Carver’s first two collections, particularly What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). Lish cut that collection by over fifty percent, wrote in his own endings to some of the stories, and in some cases deleted almost four-fifths of the author’s words in order to achieve the minimalist effects with which Carver’s name subsequently became synonymous (Carver, Beginners vii–viii; Collected Stories 990–1004). The origins of the Carver controversy, as it has come to be known, are meticulously documented in William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll’s scholarly apparatus in Carver’s Beginners and Collected Stories and in Carol Sklenicka’s biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, all published in 2009 (a more recent summary can be found in Stull and Carroll’s essay in the 2013 Critical Insights introduction to Carver’s work).
In “The Sentence is a Lonely Place”, Lutz ignores the Carver controversy in favour of a more expansive appraisal of Lish’s influence. Indeed, when read alongside the limited amount of scholarly discussion surrounding Lish’s career (comprising a number of short studies to which I will refer in the course of this essay, and which are cited below), it can be taken as part of a wider attempt to re-evaluate Lish’s legacy by focusing on his own methods and aesthetic aims rather than the notoriety resulting from his more infamous editing interventions and occasional media presence. This essay continues that discussion and attempts, with reference to published work and archival evidence, to widen understanding of Lish’s own work by focusing on the three primary strands of his literary activities – his editing work, his own fiction output and his teaching – in order to trace the continuities between them, identify some central features of his literary aesthetic, and suggest the wide-ranging nature of his influence over several decades of American fiction.
“This is Your Good Stuff”: A Closer Look at Lish’s Editing
“Who is this fellow Gordon Lish and what is he doing?” Vladimir Nabokov reportedly asked at his home in Switzerland in 1974. Nabokov’s novel Look at the Harlequins! was about to be serialised in Esquire magazine and the author had just received the page proofs of the proposed excerpt in the mail. Lish had cut the novel to make it look, in the words of Fred Hills, Editor-in–Chief of McGraw-Hill at the time, “like a straight autobiographical memoir of Véra [Nabokov’s wife] by VN” and changed its title (the excerpt was named “Myself Incomplete: A True Autobiography”) to reflect this (Sklenicka 283–284; Nabokov)).
Fig.1: Lish’s edits to an excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!, 1974
Fig.2: Lish’s edits to an excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins! , 1974
The extent of Lish’s editing is immediately apparent from the images presented here: in the first, entire sentences and paragraphs have been excised, while the second shows sections of text that have been literally cut and pasted into new arrangements. Unsurprisingly, Nabokov – never an author likely to cede authorial control without a struggle – declined to proceed with the serialisation. However, the anecdote is presented here as a partial answer to Nabokov’s question, as it serves to indicate some of what Lish was doing during these years. We see, for example, the audacity of the editor’s approach towards the work of an established author and we can, I argue, take the specific changes to Nabokov’s manuscript as representative of some of Lish’s editorial methods. The primary one of these is, of course, compression at both the macro and micro level as larger, paragraph-length sections of text are deleted and individual sentences are shortened. This compression takes place alongside – and also, perhaps, works in the service of – a degree of reconstruction and fragmentation as sections of text are rearranged and reduced in length, line breaks change location and become more frequent, and narrative information is excised.
To date, the scholarly work relating to Lish’s archives has focused almost exclusively on the way in which this compression and reconstruction was applied to Carver’s stories. These studies make it clear that Lish was, in certain ways, “the minimalist in the machine” in Carver’s work (Churchwell n.p.) and it is clear that he applied similar techniques to the work of other young writers of the period: Lish was instrumental in the early careers of Barry Hannah and Mary Robison, for example, making him an essential figure in the development of what was variously known as “minimalism”, “Dirty Realism”, and “the new realism” (or, to use Mark McGurl’s recent formulation, “lower-middle-class modernism”) in the early 1980s (32). Michael Hemmingson has shown that Lish edited Barry Hannah’s fiction extensively throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s: he reports, for example, that the manuscript drafts for Hannah’s novel Ray (1980) are “a confusing, sloppy mess” and that Lish’s editing work here involved carefully rearranging sections into narrative coherence, much as Max Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe’s major novels (Hemmingson 490–491; Berg 119–130, 223–228). Lish performed line editing on photocopies of Hannah’s stories taken from the journals in which they had been printed, just as he did with Carver’s work: in several cases, the journal in question was Esquire, meaning that the editor often saw Hannah’s work through several iterations and could refine his vision of the stories in different stages. Hannah’s attitude to these changes was markedly different from Carver’s, and in a 2004 interview with the Paris Review he was unambiguous in his praise:
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 . . . This is your good stuff. This is the right rhythm. So I learned to write better short stories under him. (Hannah, “Art of Fiction 184”)
Lish espoused the need for what he called an “attack sentence” which, as the name suggests, needed to be unexpected as well as linguistically dramatic: Tetman Callis, a former student, quotes him as calling for “an exorbitant opening sentence, a hook that hooks your reader to a line that could lead anywhere and everywhere” (Callis 09 Oct 1990, paraphrase).3 When editing, one of Lish’s techniques was to cut introductory material in order to begin a story with such a “hook”. According to Amy Hempel, this was a recurring technique in the editor’s seminars: “Lish looks over our work word for word . . . ‘Here’s your attack,’ he will say, skipping past a page and a half of throat clearing to the real beginning of the story” (Hempel, “Captain Fiction” 93, emphasis in original).4 We see a successful example of this in Lish’s changes to the opening of Harold Brodkey’s “His Son, In His Arms, In Light, Aloft”.
Fig.3: Lish’s edits to the opening of Harold Brodkey’s “His Son, In His Arms, In Light, Aloft” (published in Esquire, August 1975)
The opening here demonstrates Lish’s desire for a story to commence with linguistic and thematic urgency. Brodkey’s original draft introduces the image of “a child running in the damp mouth of early darkness” and is followed by lines that introduce context, detail and motive for the narrator’s actions: his father calls, saying “’Wiley, it’s time to stop’”, and a few lines later the narrator states that “it occurs to me not to hear my name”. Lish cut all of this, deleting Brodkey’s introductory paragraphs in order to begin the story with the startling and menacing line “My father is chasing me”. The blunt five-word phrase, with its urgency and suggestion of imminent threat, represents an assault in both formal and thematic terms, and the context – a child choosing to ignore his father’s calls as he runs in his home street – is discarded in favour of an arresting opening image. Elsewhere, it can be observed that Lish compressed the prose further by deleting whole sentences and sometimes rewriting phrases. He also made alterations at a rhythmic and syntactic level by, for example, introducing anadiplosis (the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of the next sentence), which Jason Lucarelli identifies as a characteristic method of Lish’s “structural consecution”: “The man I hugged or ran toward or ran away from is not in in my memory, at times but a any photograph: a photograph shows someone of whom I think: oh, was he like that?” (“Consecution”).
Brodkey was content to retain the changes and the story won first prize in the 1976 O. Henry Short Story awards. The relationship between him and Lish would later break down, but at the time the writer expressed his thanks unreservedly:
I hope soon this will become public knowledge. How can people not see your touch? Or if not your touch, your influence? . . . It is a Lish-Brodkey story and one of the very few of mine that has been meddled with . . . I intend to reprint [it] in the same form in which it appeared – and with thanks and acknowledgement. (Brodkey, “17 Jan 1976”)
Indeed, when Brodkey included the story in his 1988 collection Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, he used the version that had run in Esquire and retained Lish’s edits, including the title (which appears to be the editor’s) (Brodkey, Stories 267–285). The example not only highlights a recurring feature of Lish’s editing – the removal of contextual information in favour of a focus on the drama of the startling, powerful sentence – but also hints at the inadequacy of the word “minimalism” to encompass Lish’s work, since Brodkey, as Gerry Howard later observed, was Lish’s “maximalist odd man out” in the 1970s and his dense high-modernist style is in sharp contrast to that of, for example, Carver’s (Howard n.p.).
Choosing material to cut from manuscripts is one of the primary tasks facing any editor, but Lish’s use of excision as a powerful tool of compression is consistent and distinctive enough for its effects to constitute something like a recognisable literary style. Indeed, future scholarship based on Lish’s archival materials may provide further examples of his work on other stories published in Esquire as well as on later, Knopf-published books by writers like Lutz (who has described Lish as “my editorial savior” (“Interview” n.p.)). It could also be seen, perhaps, to link his work with the pervasive behind-the-scenes influence of a figure such as Ezra Pound, a link hinted at in Hannah Sullivan’s discussion of excision in her recent genetic study of the development of key modernist texts, The Work of Revision (2013). Here, Sullivan suggests a lineage of literary minimalism traceable through distinctive compositional protocols, arguing that the “intrinsic brevity” of writing such as that found in Dickinson’s poems or Joyce’s Dubliners is “fundamentally different from the aesthetic effects produced by removing material”. She explores, with particular reference to Pound’s influence on Imagist poetics as well as to Hemingway’s “iceberg principle”, the idea that textual deletion leads inevitably to certain literary effects, creating “a particular kind of excised compression” that manifests itself in ambiguity and ellipsis. The use of deletion as a consistent revisionary strategy has both “diegetic and formal consequences”, as Sullivan notes in reference to Beckett’s persistent removal of referential material from successive translations of his plays (102–146). This is certainly applicable to the editing work performed by Lish, who introduced a memorable Beckettian bleakness to some of Carver’s most celebrated stories and has spoken of Beckett’s “colossal” formative influence (Lish, “Bookworm Pt 1”). The comparison might, too, be useful in more general terms as a way of considering the under-theorized and frequently invisible role of the editor in literary production.
“Where Is The Paint?”: Lish’s Fiction
Lish’s own fiction, which he has been publishing since the 1970s and includes several novels as well as collections of short work, is instructive in the attempt to parse his own aesthetic aims: Sven Birkerts notes that this can be read alongside his editing and teaching work, since Lish “preaches what he practices” and is himself “the paradigmatic Lish author” (256–257). Indeed, interviews suggest that Lish revised and excised his own work to a high degree, as he has spoken of his penchant for “cutting extravagantly” and working on texts through copious drafts (“Causing Damage” n.p., Trucks 100-102). While explicit written articulations by Lish of his ideas are scarce, notes and reports from his former students suggest a consistency with his own fictional practice. Lish’s instructions to his class, for example, emphasised the way that the strategies involved in writing an “attack sentence” could be made to work at the level of narrative. Callis quotes him as saying:
When you fashion each sentence to consume the previous sentence, each sentence, in a way, becomes the first, the attack sentence. ‘The sentence I’m putting down must contend with the prior sentence’. (23 Oct 1990 – single quotation marks indicate direct quote from Lish)
The “attack sentence” thus becomes a theoretical principle upon which the rest of the story can be erected and each sentence can be seen as an attack sentence relative to its position in the story, thus rendering the sentence, in Winters’ words, “the ultimate unit of composition” (“Difficult Intimacies”). The first sentence can then be used as an acoustical and thematic base from which to work and, rather than functioning as an introduction to a story, can be thought of as containing the seeds of the entire narrative: “You take your initial sentence, your object, and you extrude and extrude, unpack and unpack, reflect and reflect, all in ways thematically and formally akin to the ways in the attack, the opening, the initial sentence” (Callis 29 Nov 1990 – paraphrase).5
In the 1998 New York Times essay that prompted the Carver controversy, D.T. Max memorably claimed that reading Lish’s own stories was “like looking at the gears of a clock that’s missing a face”, an analogy suggesting a radical limitation of artistic means along a particular axis (Max n.p.). Max’s description, in fact, is not dissimilar to comments that DeLillo made when responding to two stories Lish sent him in 1978:
I think your stories are very good. They are like flat painting. There is no sense of paint. Just the flat page . . . I think both are mysterious in a singular way: the canvas is there, the picture is clearly depicted, but where is the paint?” (DeLillo, “02 Jan 1979”)
David Seabrook notes the “forfeiture of recognizable literary aims – character, momentum, resolution” – in Lish’s fiction, while Birkerts notes the lack of “any kind of stable fictional order” (Birkerts 256; Seabrook 124). Hempel quotes Lish himself in her observation that he is “less interested in story than in ‘sheer blasts of language’”, and it is clear that any sense of drama or progression in his work comes through linguistic means rather than diegetic ones (“Captain Fiction” 92). Lish’s most enduring work is perhaps Peru, first published in 1986 and reissued by Dalkey Archive Press in 2013. The novel takes the form of a lengthy, obsessive monologue from a narrator who unravels, in oblique and nervous accumulations of prose, childhood memories of his brutal murder of a neighbouring boy. Birkerts observed that many of Lish’s stories “progress by way of an anxious staccato, building their episodic structures along the fault lines of discontinuous speech patterns” (Birkerts 256): this sense of “anxious staccato” could be said to derive from the focus on discrete sentences and from the continued need for each of these to “contend with the prior sentence”. Peru illustrates the way in which Lish’s idea of consecution tends towards a recursive, introverted narrative style that often uses the same word or phrase as a turning point or a spoke in a wheel:
I do not remember my mother. I do not remember my father. I do not remember anyone from back before when I killed Steven Adinoff in Andy Lieblich’s sandbox. What I remember is the sandbox, and anybody who had anything to do with the sandbox, or who I, in my way, as a child, thought did. Which is why I remember the nanny, and why I remember the colored man, and why I remember Miss Donnelly, who was my teacher when it was then. (Peru 21)
Repetition is a constant feature of Lish’s prose, both at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, as sentences frequently take a prior word or phrase (“sandbox”, “I remember”) and reuse it to create a sense of narrative progression that is coiling and oblique rather than linear. The passage quoted above illustrates the highly deliberate repetition and recursion described in Lish’s instructions to his classes:
Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically; be aware of the power of assonance; be aware that every morpheme, every phoneme counts. Do not write in a linear fashion — such writing is weak. (Callis 09 Oct 1990 – paraphrase, italics in original)
Another former student recalls Lish clearly defining this as a foundational principle of composition: “The second sentence must negate what is prior. . . The second sentence recurs to the previous sentence, but revises. It moves to collect what is behind it . . . The form of the story will develop as a result of this procedure” (G. Carver n.p.). In Peru, this method matches form to content as the narrator’s internal anxieties and psychoses seem to corkscrew around one other in a looping, relentless pattern (in another letter, DeLillo refers to the “inward spiralling” that marks Lish’s writing (DeLillo, “18 Aug 1996”)). Birkerts noted the concordance and suggested that Lish had, with this novel, “finally matched his talky, nipped-off style to its ideal subject – the gradual recovery of a repressed childhood memory” (Birkerts 256–257).
The analysis of Lish’s fiction here is, for reasons of space, necessarily brief, and is intended to illustrate only one of its aspects — namely, the intense focus on the sentence as the unit of creation. Readers are directed to some of the works cited below – particularly Winters’ review of Peru, which explores the theoretical implications of Lish’s notion of “creation as recursion”– for further considerations of his fictional techniques. The remainder of this paper will consider Lish’s pedagogical legacy and the way in which this overlaps with what we have seen so far.
#attacksentence: Lish in the Classroom
Lish’s years of teaching allowed him to convey his ideas to a large number of students in intimate settings, and Winters recently suggested in The Guardian that “Lish deserves a place in literary history for his teaching of creative writing” alone (“Gordon Lish” n.p.). Certainly, for many writers, perhaps their most sustained and direct encounters with Lish came during his infamous teaching sessions. Lish conducted a fiction workshop at Yale from 1972 to 1978, taught later at Columbia and at New York University, and continued, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, to teach private seminars at various locations in the U.S. He ceased teaching in the late 1990s, but returned in 2009 and 2010 to teach at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan.
Lish’s classes gained public notoriety during the 1980s due to his charisma and idiosyncratic approach. Amy Hempel’s Vanity Fair piece on Lish in 1984 described a typical workshop, noting Lish’s high standards for entry, the “entertainment value” provided by “the spirited performance of his teaching”, and the obsession and animosity provoked by his confrontational methods (“men weep, women walk out, and thumbtacks are found lodged, points out, in the teacher’s chair”) (“Captain Fiction” 91–92). On occasion, journalists wrote about their experiences in the classes. In 1988, Sharon Solwitz wrote in the Chicago Reader about a day-long 12-hour workshop: she discussed its “EST-like format” and the high emotions involved, criticising Lish’s guru-like status and his presentation of himself as “a kind of high priest to literature” even as she admitted the value of much of his specific advice (Solwitz n.p.). Certainly, Lish’s charisma seems to have been a driving force of the workshop and the classes would, by several accounts, often resemble lectures rather than workshops as he would deliver monologues for hours on end (students would, according to Callis, sometimes bring their knitting to class (11 Dec 1990)). However, the most controversial aspect of the workshops was undoubtedly the method used to deliver individual critiques of students’ work. Lish urged students to “reduce your strategy to the most urgent sentence you can possibly find” (Callis Oct 1991, direct quote) and the structure of the class was based to a large degree on a brutal illustration of this dictum. A student would read aloud from their work only until Lish found fault with it; by many accounts, this negative verdict came very early on in the reading. A student’s story would therefore be judged on its ability to hold the sustained attention and approval of the workshop leader on a sentence-by-sentence basis.
This technique was predictably divisive and many students, as Hempel’s article illustrates, were antagonised by it. One of those who found little inspiration was future celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who enrolled in one of Lish’s writing workshops in Columbia in the years before he wrote the bestselling Kitchen Confidential (2000):
It was very cultlike. You didn’t even go for a piss. You sat there and listened to the great man . . . You had to read aloud and only as far as he could bear it, which was usually a sentence and a half before he’d go, ‘Oh, it’s horrible, I can’t stand it, stop, stop,’ at which point everyone in the class would tell you what sucked about it. (Bourdain n.p.)
The challenge was clearly one to which many writers rose, though, and Tom Piazza’s description of the same process shows a student reacting very differently:
He examined the first sentence of a student’s story — it was a bad, bad first sentence, pretentious and incoherent — and with utter clarity, generosity, humor, and supreme intelligence, dismantled it, talking about exactly why it was fraudulent, and at the end of this the student author thanked Lish, saying, essentially, that she had been waiting years for a teacher to tell her that she was a fraud. (Piazza n.p.)
The contrast between these anecdotes demonstrates the degree to which this pedagogical process demanded a receptive collaborator; the latter example also suggests how the approach to sentence-building could be understood by both teacher and student not just as a metonym for artistic method, but as the basis for a particular ethical stance towards writing.
The overlap between Lish’s teaching techniques and his editorial and fictional work should be clear here, as each demonstrates an intense concentration on the possibilities to be found within the individual sentence. This sentence-based focus is not, of course, entirely without precedent in literature – Hemingway’s injunction to himself to write “one true sentence . . . the truest sentence that you know” is one of the more famous statements we could look to for comparison (12) – but Lish’s classes also gave detailed instructions on the specific methods this entailed. Lish used the words “swerve” and “torque”, for example, to describe the kind of provocative effects created by opposing elements in a sentence (both words appear multiple times throughout Callis’ notes). Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars” (the first piece in his 1978 collection Airships) was one of the stories that represented “not just an example but a benchmark” in Lish’s classes during the 1980s (Hempel, “Captain Fiction” 93), and its opening demonstrates the way an attack sentence might use unusual word choices, internal assonance and sudden swerves in tone to grab the reader’s attention:
When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another”. (Airships 1)
An attack sentence could also, like the opening of Brodkey’s story, imply actual physical violence, and the opening of one of Hannah’s stories (“Coming Close to Donna”) provides another example: “Fistfight on the old cemetery” (Airships 41). One of the most celebrated examples is the beginning of Amy Hempel’s “Harvest”, the opening story in the first issue of The Quarterly: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me” (3). “Harvest” represents an example of literary transmission in which Lish’s aesthetic is an unmistakable influence: writing about Hempel’s work in 2002, Chuck Palahniuk described how novelist Tom Spanbauer used photocopies of the story (taken from the Quarterly) to instruct students in his own writing workshop, and he noted that all three writers – Hempel, Palahniuk and Spanbauer – had themselves been taught by Lish (Palahniuk n.p.).
These methods have, of course, had their detractors. Minimalism, as it was understood to be practised by Carver, Hempel and others, was subjected to assaults from all corners during the 1980s (see Aldridge; Biguenet; Bell; and Wilde for examples) and some critics took specific issue with the sentence-based approach advocated by Lish. One former student described his classes as pursuing “the cult of the sentence”, and some critics have noted that the work of writers under Lish’s influence can be marked, in Kasia Boddy’s words, by “what sometimes becomes a sort of sentence-fetish”; it has also been observed that the approach lends itself more readily to short fiction than the novel (Birkerts 260–263; Blumenkranz 218–221; Boddy 88–89; Winters, “Work the Hurt”). In 1986, Birkerts criticised “the growing cult of small-stage pyrotechnics”, arguing that writers such as Hannah and Leon Rooke were “sentence acrobats” incapable of more extended literary achievement and suggesting that in the work of Robison and Hempel, “everything genuine has been transposed into the key of the one-liner” (259–263). It is not difficult to imagine that this approach might undercut the larger formal possibilities of a piece of fiction, especially one requiring, in Birkerts’ words, “comprehensiveness and scope” (263): we might envision a film composed entirely of ostentatious dolly shots, or a soccer team in which every player is a star striker. Lish has sometimes implied an acceptance of the inevitability of these criticisms: speaking to Michael Silverblatt in 1993, he said that “it seems to me quite satisfactory, when on the page, to give away all of myself in the composition of a sentence” (Lish, “Bookworm Pt 1”). Lutz also acknowledges as a necessary risk the possibility that a “piece of writing consisting ultimately of an aggregation of loner sentences” might “threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside” (Lutz n.p.). However, these limitations also open up the possibility of the creation of prose of a linguistic scope and poetic density quite different from that written with pre-existing structural notions — such as plot triangles and character arcs — in mind. Indeed, the range of writers, both temporal and stylistic, influenced by Lish suggests that to dismiss an approach based on the worst excesses (or, indeed, the sheer number) of its practitioners is inadequate: many successful writers have turned Lish’s techniques to their own ends, and his ideas have manifestly endured beyond the mid-80s minimalist moment.
Indeed, Lish’s influence could also be said to extend in a more diffuse web by way of the many writers who, after attending his classes, have themselves gone on to teach, and in this manner Lish’s influence can be said to remain an active element in contemporary American literature. Many of these former students are now employed in prominent positions in U.S. universities: Amy Hempel is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard; Sam Lipsyte and Ben Marcus both teach at Columbia; Barry Hannah was, until his death in 2010, director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where he had taught creative writing for 28 years. It is possible to trace clear stylistic and aesthetic affinities between Lish’s teachings and those now being passed on by his former students; I will take Marcus and Lipsyte as examples here in order to suggest that any study of Lish’s influence should not confine itself to the previous century.
Both writers have achieved a high degree of recognition both within the U.S. and overseas: both, for example, are Guggenheim recipients, and Marcus’ latest collection Leaving the Sea (2014) was recently nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Lish named Marcus as one of his top students in a 1995 interview (Bookworm) and contributed editing to several pieces that appeared in The Quarterly and were later included in The Age of Wire and String (1995). An admiring letter from Marcus (held in the Lish archive) shows the esteem in which he held the editor – “I see the opportunity to do a book with you as an amazing one that might never come again” – and drafts of the work suggest that he took some of Lish’s suggestions on word choice and sentence structure (“28 Mar 1993”). Lish offered the writer a contract with Knopf but left the publishing house before the book was finished (“Days” n.p.). Much of Marcus’ writing shows clear affinities with Lish’s in both its content and form, and his fiction achieves the sense of hermetic estrangement that Lish valued highly in students’ work. The following sentence, for example, shows the vowel-heavy cadences, swerves in diction and unusual word usage we also find in Lish’s work:
As the song escalates, skinning down around the forest like a horizon squeezing up the land from all sides, the only roundness is the mutilated Stephen’s eyes circling freely inside his boneless head like a voice behind a wall. (Age 167)
Marcus’ comments in a recent interview also closely echo some of Lish’s pronouncements on the danger of “information” in fiction. Callis’ notes from Lish’s lectures show the teacher frequently railing against “information” and its power to dampen mystery in a story. Examples include: “The more information given, the less meaningful it is”, “You have to begin to view information with suspicion” and “as the information piles up, the entropy piles up” (Callis 04, 11 Dec 1990 – all direct quotes from Lish). In a recent interview, Marcus stated that “when I give information, I feel like I’m killing a story. I worry about the inertia you can feel if you explain” (Marcus, “Ben Marcus” n.p.); elsewhere, he writes that “you can flood the text with information, but that doesn’t enhance the literary experience of it, the drama” (Marcus, “Kakfaesque” n.p.).
Lipsyte thanked Lish in the afterword to his first collection, 2000’s Venus Drive (the latter blurbed the book as being “one-of-a-kind” (“Open City”)), and the writing shows clear affinities with Lish’s. The narrative voices in “The Morgue Rollers” and “The Wrong Arm”, for example, are reminiscent of those in Lish’s fiction: in the former story, sections often end with the dark, nihilistic punchlines common to Lish’s work, while the latter is narrated by a malevolent child whose dense and elliptical speech patterns recall those of Peru (see Lucarelli’s essay “Using Everything” for a close analysis of the use of verbal repetition and “pattern making” in “The Wrong Arm”). Lipsyte’s work constantly subverts expectation to comic effect at the level of the sentence and often plays deliberately in the “key of the one-liner” for satirical purposes, and his novel The Ask (2010) is full of sentences that use torque as a tool of epigrammatic wit (“I bought an energy bar, and as I ate it a great weariness fell over me” (134)). Lipsyte’s story “The Dungeon Master”, for example, (included in the Best American Stories 2011) shows the way in which the notion of “torque” can lead to a swerve in linguistic register within even a short opening sentence: “The Dungeon Master had detention” (The Fun Parts 29). Two examples from Callis’ notes will serve to illustrate the power of the concept of “torque” in Lish’s instructions: “You must write with consecution, so that each sentence follows naturally from each preceding sentence . . . you want to swerve and torque, going forwards by looking backwards”, and:
You create such a dynamic form when you interact with your story as you compose it, as you swerve, as you torque, as you consecute, unpacking and turning back to look and look again, to see and see anew — you make a motor that starts every time somebody reads it. (Callis 23, 25 October 1990 – both paraphrases by Callis)
In a recent interview, Lipsyte advised that “torque, motion, and conflict – with regard to characters and language – are essential things” (Gleeson 13); in another, he draws a clear link between Lish’s pedagogical practice and his own as he complains that many of the undergraduates he teaches “are really wedded to the information of their story”:
Sometimes it’s a good idea to break from that. . . . The main thing, and this is something that Lish talked about, is that you have this very brief window to get somebody into your book. It’s those first sentences that matter in terms of getting them to keep going. Those first sentences need to be undeniable. (“Jewcy” n.p.)
Influence, of course, is notoriously difficult to separate from affinity, and I do not wish either to invoke a simplistic model of literary transmission or to flatten the differences between varied and accomplished writers by reducing their work to a single point of origin. Clearly Lipsyte, Lutz, Marcus and the other writers mentioned here do not hew closely to Lish’s teachings in a uniform way, either within their own work (Marcus’ recent fiction, for example, displays a notably clearer interest in “realistic” plot structures than does The Age of Wire and String) or by comparison with each other. However, it is noteworthy that we have here successful former students of Lish, all of whom have publicly acknowledged his influence, closely echoing his teachings in the way they describe their craft. It seems fair to suggest, as Lutz does, that a tradition is being continued here. The nature of this tradition is beginning to be examined by critics such as Winters, who, in his recently-published essay collection Infinite Fictions (2015), traces aspects of the “diffusion” of Lish’s ideas through the work of several of the writers mentioned here as well as others such as Dawn Raffel, Sam Michel and Jason Schwartz.
If we accept Mark McGurl’s argument that the spread of the writing workshop is the defining factor in the recent history of American fiction, then Lish’s teaching work should be considered an important element in shaping the techniques and aesthetic values disseminated within that sphere (McGurl ix). Winters suggests the importance of considering the institutional contexts here, arguing that “the ‘school of Lish’ has been central to the symbiosis of writing and teaching in postwar America” (“Gordon Lish” n.p.). It may be necessary to acknowledge once again here that the techniques described above are not entirely unique to Lish and that close attention has also been paid to sentences by other authors and editors; a survey of Lish’s career, though, suggests a remarkably consistent approach over a period of many years and in a variety of literary activities. This consistency is often manifested in an intense focus on the individual sentence not just as the discrete and indivisible building block of fiction, but the primary theatre of literary achievement.
Winters and Douglas Glover both invoke the figure of Gertrude Stein and her centrality to the development of American modernism in their arguments for Lish’s influence, with Winters stating that “Lish is to the second half of the 20th century what . . . Stein was to the first” (Winters, “Gordon Lish” n.p.; Lucarelli, Glover n.p.). These are grand claims, but the evidence goes a long way towards substantiating them and demonstrates that Lish represents, at the least, a link between a significant number of important – and very different – contemporary writers. Lish’s “poetics of the sentence” not only represent an important touchstone in several of today’s more prestigious writing workshops, but are also visible across many pages of the most influential fiction of the past half-century.
1 I wish to express my thanks to Gordon Lish for granting permission to use the materials quoted and reproduced here. Thanks are also due to the staff of the Lilly Library for all of their assistance, and to the Irish Research Council and the Graduate Studies Office of Trinity College for their support for the research on which this essay is based.
2 The twitter account, which appears only to have been active during January and February of 2014, goes by the name “gordonlishbot”. Writers were invited to tweet at the account with their own sentences, using the hashtag #attacksentence; these would invariably meet with a withering assessment.
3 Callis reproduces notes he took while attending a number of classes with Lish in New York in 1990 and 1991. In his introduction, he states that “quotes enclosed in double quotation marks are verbatim quotes of Lish”, while other notes are “expanded upon with memory and interpretation in the months that followed”. In my own use of this material, I will clarify in each instance whether the quote is Lish’s own or is paraphrased by Callis.
4 This is, of course, an editing technique that is not unique to Lish: perhaps the most famous instance is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to Ernest Hemingway to cut the opening fifteen pages of The Sun Also Rises (Berg 91).
5 Lucarelli’s essay “The Consecution of Gordon Lish” provides a detailed discussion of the mechanics of this formal repetition and analyses one of Lish’s stories alongside pieces by Hannah, Lutz, and Christine Schutt.
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