Gordon Lish Essay - Critical Essays

Lish, Gordon


Lish, Gordon 1934-

(Full name Gordon Jay Lish) American short story writer, novelist, and editor.

Lish is considered one of the most influential editors in publishing, and critics credit him with promoting new aesthetic movements in contemporary fiction. In his own short stories, he employs a variety of innovative narrative styles, often abandoning traditional narrative forms in favor of a variety of metafictional techniques. Lish's work is not commercially popular, and commentators have a mixed assessment of his fiction; according to Brian Evenson, Lish's impact lies in that he "is not afraid to violate taboo, to render discourse extravagant, to speak of that which others dare not, in his relentless exploration of the abscession of the human heart."

Biographical Information

Lish was born in Hewlett, New York. In his adolescence, he was treated in a mental health facility for hypermania. During his rehabilitation, Lish met the poet Hayden Carruth, who was to be a major influence on his writing. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English with honors from the University of Arizona in 1959 and attended a year of graduate study at San Francisco State College in 1960. Lish worked as an English instructor at a California high school from 1961 until 1963, while also working as a radio broadcaster. In 1963, he became director of linguistic studies at Behavioral Research Laboratories in Menlo Park, California, where, in 1964, he wrote the textbook English Grammar. Lish garnered popular and critical attention in 1969 when he accepted the position of fiction editor at Esquire magazine. Using the influential publication as a vehicle to introduce new fiction by emerging authors, he promoted the work of such writers as Cynthia Ozick, Reynolds Price, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and Barry Hannah. Lish left Esquire in 1977 to become a senior editor with the publishing firm of Alfred A. Knopf, where he continued to champion new fiction, introducing such writers as Raymond Carver, David Leavitt, Amy Hempel, and William Ferguson. In 1987 Lish founded the literary journal, The Quarterly, which also showcases the works of contemporary authors. In addition to his career in literary publishing, Lish has conducted writing seminars in New York City and served as a lecturer at Yale and Columbia University.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Most of the stories in Lish's first collection, What I Know So Far, are narrative monologues delivered in repetitive and often disjointed language. The narrators in these stories frequently reminisce about their childhood experiences, and critics have noted Lish's obsessive first-person narration and lack of plot, characterization, and linear progression. The most widely discussed piece in the volume, "For Jeromé—with Love and Kisses," is a parody of J. D. Salinger's story, "For Esmé—with Love and Squalor." The story centers on a father's efforts to resuscitate his relationship with his estranged son, who has become a famous author. The reclusive son is a fictional parody of J. D. Salinger himself. Some critics have called the piece exploitative, but others have praised it as an innovative satire. The stories in Lish's second short story collection, Mourner at the Door, are brief pieces in which he uses repetitive language to convey the excited psychological states of his characters. In "The Death of Me," for example, the narrator begins a meditation on his childhood: "I wanted to be amazing. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point." Classified as a comic novella, Lish's next work of short fiction, Zimzum, consists of six sections that are thematically linked. As was the case with his earlier short fiction, critics have extended a mixed assessment of Lish's fusion of fiction, biography, and autobiographical elements.

Critical Reception

Lish's works have elicited a wide range of critical responses. Some critics have concluded that his first-person narrations are engaging and compelling and effectively convey intimate psychological portraits of his characters. Other commentators have suggested, however, that Lish's repetitive language often operates as a self-conscious gimmick that alienates readers from his characters. Although some critics fault Lish for the lack of plot and the absence of linear progression in his short fiction, he is widely commended for his ability to use innovative narrative techniques to create a broad range of voices and characterizations.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

What I Know So Far 1984

Mourner at the Door 1988

Zimzum 1993

Other Major Works

English Grammar (textbook) 1964

Dear Mr. Capote (novel) 1983

Peru (novel) 1986

Extravaganza: A Joke Book (novel) 1989

My Romance (novel) 1991


Alan Friedman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Writers as Tricksters," in The New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, p. 13.

[In the following positive review of What I Know So Far, Friedman focuses on the plot and style of "For Jeromé—with Love and Kisses. "]

When you read a writer as terribly clever as Gordon Lish, an inescapable question comes up—is he only clever? I doubt it. I think he's earnest and reckless besides. Mr. Lish, who made his mark first as the fiction editor of Esquire and then as a publisher's editor, has lately chosen to join the madding crowd of authors he has edited. I say this because, to judge from the two books he has written recently, he seems obsessed with writers—with their magical power as tricksters and big shots, with their vanities and inanities, with their techniques of deception, including self-deception.

Dear Mr. Capote was an eccentric first novel that earned justified high marks when it appeared last year. Sensational, it is difficult to read because it is written in the form of a long disjointed letter from a homicidal maniac to the famous author. . . . Among Mr. Lish's terrifying per ceptions was one that particularly appealed to me—the discovery by the letter writer, your ordinary subliterate madman, that fancy words can serve as agents of death. Fancy words, uncomprehended, could confuse unwary victims (readers too? one wonders), conveniently turning them toward the killer's knife. The killer's line of attack, begun with a word, was through the eye and into the brain.

Now we have What I Know So Far, a collection of Mr. Lish's short stories. Short they certainly are—two to four pages long, for the most part—and edgy and subtle. To call them stories, however, is mere force of habit. Some of them do tell a tale of sorts, but even these read like riddles and satires or like sketches and blackouts. Some of them resemble narrative essays, bearing titles like "Fear: Four Examples" and "How to Write a Novel" (which is really about several kinds of suffering other than writing a novel). But virtually every story, whatever else it may be, is a monologue delivered by a first-person narrator who characterizes himself as he speaks his piece....

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Dennis Drabelle (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Playing the Game of 'What If . . .'," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 20, 1984, pp. 3, 13.

[Below, Drabelle provides a mixed assessment of the short stories in What I Know So Far.]

In his introduction to a recent anthology, Great Esquire Fiction, L. Rust Hills, the magazine's fiction editor, credits his predecessor Gordon Lish with founding the New Fiction. Since Hills doesn't define this category beyond singling out two exemplars reprinted in the anthology—William Kotzwinkle's hilarious "Horse Badorties Goes Out" and T. Coraghessan Boyle's wicked "Heart of a Champion"—let me try my hand. In a time of egregious turmoil (1969-77), these and dozens more stories published under Lish's imprimatur offered rude, gabdrunk, disorienting, fearful alternatives to mainstream magazine fiction.

Many of the New fictions rely heavily on outlandish suppositions, some of these not far removed from the "What If" segments of the original Saturday Night Live. In "Heart of a Champion," for instance, the premise is that Lassie has a sex life. The trick (by which I mean art) is to extend such potent données full length without sacrificing spontaneity to design.

"For Jeromé—with Love and Kisses," the longest story in Lish's collection [What I Know So Far], belongs to the "What If" school, and it's a lulu. As the title indicates—by...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Anne Tyler (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Uncommon Characters," in The New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 21, May 28, 1984, pp. 33-4.

[Tyler is an American novelist and short story writer who is known for her fictional portraits of family life in works such as Searching for Caleb (1976) and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982). Often considered a Southern regionalist, Tyler has been most influenced by Eudora Welty, an author to whom she is frequently compared. In the following review, she provides a negative assessment of the short fiction in What I Know So Far.]

Mention Gordon Lish and most readers will think of short stories, logically enough. Gordon Lish was fiction editor at...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Robert Jones (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Writing the Troubling Truth," in Commonweal, Vol. CXIV, No. 15, September 11, 1987, pp. 501-04.

[In the essay below, Jones discusses the defining characteristics of Lish's fiction.]

The public fascination with the mess F. Scott Fitzgerald made of his life encouraged the confusion in popular culture that sees serious writers as something like movie stars who can type. What is significant about Fitzgerald's peculiar fame is that even when he was alive, he was more famous than his novels. His and Zelda's escapades were known to people who did not ordinarily read, and his years in Hollywood and the excesses that felled him made him seem no different from any other...

(The entire section is 2988 words.)

Sven Birkerts (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The School of Gordon Lish," in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-century Literature, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, pp. 251-63.

[Birkerts is an American critic. In the following excerpt, he traces Lish's influence as an editor and fiction writer.]

When I had my interview with Arnold Gingrich at Esquire and he asked me what kind of fiction I was going to be publishing, I said, "The new fiction." He said, "What's that?" I said, "I'll get out there and find it, Mr. Gingrich."


Longtime readers of American fiction will probably have noticed certain changes...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)

Greg Johnson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Isn't It Gothic?" in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLII, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 840-49.

[Johnson is an American novelist, short story writer, poet and critic. Below, he provides a stylistic analysis of Mourner at the Door.]

The attempt to define and evaluate literary Gothicism has created an ongoing controversy among critics and scholars, primarily because the term "Gothic" has achieved the kind of connotative vagueness—rather like that other freefloating term, "Romantic"—that inspires its use in a startling variety of contexts. In his recent study of Gothic fiction, In the Circles of Fear and Desire (University of Chicago Press, 1985), William Patrick...

(The entire section is 1398 words.)

Gordon Lish with Amy Penn (interview date 1988)

SOURCE: Interview by Amy Penn, originally published in INTERVIEW Magazine, Brant Publications, January, 1988, pp. 94-5, 101.

[In the following interview, Lish discusses aspects of his career as an editor, teacher, and writer.]

[Penn]: Where have you taught writing?

[Lish]: I' ve taught at Yale, Columbia and NYU. Now I only teach privately. I run workshops in the spring and fall, two at a time—one meets on Tuesday nights, the other on Thursday nights—from six to twelve o'clock.

Who are some of the writers who have studied with you?

Amy Hempel and Anderson Ferrei are two who are well known. I can...

(The entire section is 2794 words.)

MacDonald Harris (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Going Crazy with Pencil and Paper," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, pp. 3, 7.

[Harris, pseudonym of Donald Heiney, is an American novelist and critic. In the following essay, he offers a favorable review of the stories in Mourner at the Door.]

By all evidence, Gordon Lish is a remarkable person. He is better known as an editor than as a fiction writer. For a number of years, he was the fiction editor of Esquire; more recently he has been an editor at Alfred A. Knopf and the founder and editor of The Quarterly, a magazine which has sought to bring the work of younger, often experimental American writers to the attention of a...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Josh Rubins (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Bygone Haircuts and Other Stories," in The New York Times Book Review, April 3, 1988, p. 11.

[In the following negative review of Mourner at the Door, Rubins maintains that Lish's short fiction is "so mannered, so derivatively styled, as to cancel out all intimacy and empathy. "]

From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, "Call me Ishmael" to "So it goes," the calling up of home-grown voices, narrators who address us in the unbuttoned vernacular with conversational immediacy, has been one of the impudent glories of American fiction. Backwoodsy or ethnic, laconic or rambling, the most commanding of these straight talkers take a shortcut into the reader's...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)

Erin McGraw (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Universes," in The North American Review, Vol. 273, No. 3, September, 1988, pp. 64-8.

[Below, McGraw provides an unfavorable review of the stories in Mourner at the Door.]

It is not immobility that afflicts Gordon Lish's characters in the stories that make up Mourner at the Door. These are characters capable of taking some kind of action in the world, who attempt, sometimes, to reach out to one another. There is, however, an enormous amount of talking that has to be got through before any action can be essayed, talk that backtracks, second-guesses, and assures the reader several times that this action, once arrived at, will be worth the wait. One...

(The entire section is 1138 words.)

Irving Malin (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: A review of Mourner at the Door, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Fall, 1988, pp. 157-58.

[Malin is an American critic. In the following laudatory review, he praises Lish 's use of language in his short fiction.]

I must quote the following long epigraph because it is the key to Lish's amazing collection:

It is reported that Wittgenstein's last words were these: "Tell them that I had a wonderful life." Perhaps he did and perhaps he did not—have a wonderful life. But how could Wittgenstein have known one way or the other? As to a further matter, suppose that these were not the words—suppose...

(The entire section is 661 words.)

David Seabrook (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "'What We Write About When We Write About Gordon Lish'," in The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature Since 1970, edited by Graham Clarke, Vision Press, 1990, pp. 123-38.

[In the following excerpt, Seabrook examines Lish's work in the context of minimalist fiction and discusses the unconventional narrative techniques utilized in What I Know So Far.]

In its Fall and Winter issues of 1988 the Michigan Quarterly Review published 'A Symposium on Contemporary American Fiction': solicited contributions from more than seventy authors on their preferences in current American writing. Many opted for brief, breathy endorsements, sometimes of each...

(The entire section is 1427 words.)

Michael Harris (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Lish's Narrator is a Many-Layered Thing," in Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1993, p. E3.

[In the following mixed review of Zimzum, Harris describes Lish's writing as solipsistic and lacking substance.]

By now, we know we have to take Gordon Lish as he is. We know he isn't going to wriggle out of the pupa of his established personality and suddenly flap his wings as a writer of taste, moderation, balance and moral acuity—an E. M. Forster, say.

No, the Lish we've encountered before, as a bad-boy editor at Esquire and Knopf, as a controversial teacher of writing and as the author of provocative fictions (Dear Mr. Capote,...

(The entire section is 840 words.)

Brian Evenson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Zimzum, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 214-15.

[Below, Evenson offers a stylistic analysis of Zimzum.]

Lish is not afraid to violate taboo, to render discourse extravagant, to speak of that which others dare not, in his relentless exploration of the abscession of the human heart. A consummate stylist, Lish offers up sentences near perfect in their rhythmical and tonal qualities. Zimzum advances through sentential variation and permutation, employing the formal repetition common to musical arrangement, to liberate the powers of the utterance. The result is a brilliant, dark, comic novella, a...

(The entire section is 650 words.)