Gordon Lish Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.