Learning from Lish: A Roundtable on Style in Fiction

David Winters, Greg Gerke, Jason Lucarelli 


 

The writer, teacher, and editor Gordon Lish (1934–) is, as his friend Don DeLillo once put it, “famous for all the wrong reasons.” Read D.T. Max’s exposé of Lish’s editorial influence on the early stories of Raymond Carver, or listen to the rumors surrounding his “cult-like” private writing workshops, and it’s easy to reach a caricatured understanding of Lish: eccentric editor; tyrannical teacher; notorious provocateur. But now there are signs that this simplistic picture is beginning to change. In 2010, the landmark publication of Lish’s Collected Fictions brought new attention to a lifetime’s worth of avant-garde writing, mapping a unique mode of American modernism. At the same time, Lish’s former students and protégés have diffused his aesthetic principles throughout the field of American letters, reshaping—and also subverting—them to dazzling effect. Consider the combined literary talent and accomplishment of Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Christine Schutt, Diane Williams, Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, and Will Eno, to name only a few, and the extraordinary extent of Lish’s impact becomes clear. One could even claim, as Douglas Glover has, that Lish’s significance for post-war American literature is “something like that of Gertrude Stein in the 1920s.”

 

Over the past few years, the three of us have spent much of our time reading, writing, and thinking about Lish and other figures associated with him. David has reviewed numerous books by Lish and his students, with a focus on teasing out their theoretical dimensions—as he has argued, it is a crucial but oft-overlooked fact that, like many of the great modernist writers, Lish has been deeply shaped by European philosophy. Greg has also studied and reviewed books by Lish and his students, interviewing two of them: Gary Lutz and Ken Sparling. Greg’s main interest is the lineage of sound in the English language, from Chaucer to Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, and on to William H. Gass and Lish. Jason’s foray into the world of all things Lish began during his studies with Glover, whose novel The Life and Times of Captain N was edited and published by Lish for Alfred A. Knopf in 1993. The result of those studies, “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence,” attempted to analyze Lish’s compositional mode of consecution—a process of “going forward by looking backwards”—against the stories of some of his students.

 

Collectively, the conclusion we’ve reached is that Lish is long overdue for a major revaluation; it is time his achievements were brought into far sharper focus. What we need is a clear account of Lish’s stylistic and philosophical interests, as well as a picture of how these played out in the work of his students. Not only this, but we also need a sense of where Lish fits into literary history—perhaps even an effort to position him in the canon. What follows is an initial survey of the territory, and an attempt to assess the issues involved. This is the first discussion of its kind. As such, we wouldn’t wish it to settle the question of Lish’s importance once and for all. Instead, we hope it will sow the seeds for further discussion: Think of it as the opening sentence of a story whose time to be told has come.

 

***

 

WINTERS 

 

Okay, let's take Jason's recent essay as our point of departure. It's an important piece, and it ought to play a prominent role in future discussions of this sort. Jason systematically reconstructs what he calls Lish's compositional toolbox: a set of techniques including "consecution," as well as the concept of “torque” or “swerve”—which Lish defines in an interview with Alex Neubauer as “find[ing] the origins for one’s current utterance in what is prior,” while at the same time overcoming what is prior, as if in “a combative relation” with it. We’ve each encountered these stylistic traits in writers we admire—the likes of Gary Lutz, Christine Schutt, and Sam Lipsyte, all of whom Lish directly influenced.

 

Of course, as Justin Taylor points out in his piece about Bette Pesetsky, “similarity is not uniformity,” and an overly generalized picture of the “Lish style” would be “neither precise nor fair.” Nonetheless, Jason illuminates some significant family resemblances between the styles of Lish’s students, as well as those writers he edited.

 

But if we can define a style, can we also explore the ends of that style? Lish’s classes clearly addressed far more than mere craft. When Christine Schutt recalls being taught to “start with the last thing you would ever want anyone to know,” or when Tetman Callis recounts the credo, “the thing taken from you is your gift,” what’s at stake is not just a style but an ethos; an ethics; a means of redeeming one’s experience. This striking intersection between “style” and “life” is of great interest to me. Do either of you have any thoughts on it?

 

LUCARELLI 


When I think of the intersection of style and life, I think mostly of the typical Lish mode, the monologue form. In an interview between Rob Trucks and Gordon Lish, Lish defends his preference for the first-person point of view, saying: “Just to be able to point to a book that was rendered by reason of another kind of device wouldn’t be worth the price in not getting far enough in.” Lish often lectures about “going deep,” about how a writer can never go deep enough. In Tetman Callis’s “The Gordon Lish Notes,” Lish says, “If your work is to work, it must work the way your mind works—the way your mind really works, deep down inside your secret loathsome self.” These ideas, I think, at once dictate the content and the style of the writing produced by Lish and by others who learned from Lish. This daringness, this boldness is reflected in the way these writers often write and in what they are willing to offer up of themselves as they write. There’s often a balancing act—performed through the compositional act of consecution—concerning a secret that, as the poet Mary Ruefle says, “neither hides itself nor reveals itself.” This, I think, is the ethos you’re speaking of, David—the risk of redeeming one’s experience.

 

GERKE 


I think you’re right-on in emphasizing that word “ethos” as our true brand-name: what the ego would really want to be if the ego could unbias itself. And if we go back to the word’s original Greek meaning, “accustomed place,” it seems we hone in more closely on the spirit of the writing endeavor, the writing problem, at least in Lish’s terms as I’ve come to understand them. This is a spirit that removes the bile and backwash surrounding our souls, including the cheap lies of a certain type of storytelling unversed in codes and more interested in mirroring our surface selves.

 

Isn’t the way of literature to tap into the source self, since writing bores into the pit of the brain better than any other process? Maybe that “last thing you would ever want anyone to know” is exactly the first thing any reader wants to know—otherwise, what is the point? The world is so full of deception that not to spread oneself out naked on the page or the screen or the canvas is senseless. This is the issue Lish took to heart in his teaching.

 

Maybe this accounts for the (in)famous way he would have each student start reading a story and then cut him off, as soon as a sentence made a psychological thud instead of a sonorous pinprick. Truth has to be followed by more truth, without detour—as soon as one leaves oneself, one leaves the story and the reader. And so this revealing maybe mirrors the process of “extruding,” “unpacking,” and “reflecting” at work in the story’s language. The “attack sentence”—the first sentence in a story—seems to be the assault of the writer’s spirit onto the reader’s. It is like we are answering the question “What are you hiding?” with that first sentence.

 

WINTERS 


I agree with much of this. Although, at the same time, I would want to distinguish it from a cruder kind of confessionalism—which I think is almost as misguided a label as minimalism, when it comes to these writers.

 

True, a typical Lish-influenced fiction is one which dramatizes a “point of view,” as Jason puts it. It’s almost as if the text were a form of address; a speech act. As you rightly say, Greg, reading aloud was reportedly crucial to Lish’s classes. It’s also a technique some of his students still use—I’m sure Hempel and Schutt have spoken of it as part of their compositional process.

 

And this kind of writing, especially when read aloud, has to be audacious enough to fix our attention, our “gaze,” as Lish calls it. This accounts for the “attack,” as well as the ensuing process of escalating exorbitance, or “torsion.” What this process asserts on the page, all the while, is a “stance,” an identity. Nonetheless, I think the identity displayed by the writing is distinct from that of the writer. A text may possess, like Lish’s Peru, a sort of absolute subjectivity. But, crucially, this kind of subjectivity is not coterminous with autobiography. Lipsyte is quite enlightening on this: "Lish… was talking about putting yourself in jeopardy. That always confused me for a long time. I think when I was younger I equated it more with…the content of writing—'Oh, they will know you were doing a lot of drugs or, oh, they will hear about how you are a transvestite or whatever it is.' But I don't think that is ultimately what this jeopardy is about. It is about a certain vulnerability that comes from the sense that people are going to see what your gaze is fixed upon."

 

So if writing involves risk, or the revelation of secrets, I don’t think it springs from the specificity of such secrets—the myth that we all have our own “unique” story to tell, or sell. For Lish at least, there’s a sense in which (to borrow the title of an anthology he edited) “all our secrets are the same.” Consequently, what matters in writing is not so much the content of the secret, but the form of its revelation.

 

GERKE


David, this distinction is similar to that between the “poet” and the “speaker of the poem.” The good illusionist, shaman, or “witch doctor” as Lish himself often says, will take the essentials of life: parents, body, love, and whatever else, and scramble them into a directness that gives the reader the sense there is someone in the room with him, someone who is talking to him. Some of the most moving literature is on the surface confessional, because it is so intimate. I think Beckett’s fictions and some of his plays are like this. They’re very frank; there is little concealment—as in the first two lines of Molloy: “I am in my mother’s room. It is I who live there now.” In the long run it will matter little whether the reader has a judgment against the content because, provided he reads on, he will have been so regaled by the approach— simply having to know more about the object of the gaze—that he is under the spell, immersed in the dream, the show.

 

LUCARELLI


I agree that the content of the secret is not really what matters. Lish would argue that the story itself does not matter, but the way the story is told. What seems most important to him and his students is the literary event of the language itself. The “speech act” that transpires comes forth from a writer with, as Roland Barthes says in Writing Degree Zero, a passion for language: "Writing...is always rooted in something beyond language, it develops like a seed, not a line, it manifests on essence and holds the threat of a secret...there is, as it were, the weight of a gaze conveying an intention which is no longer linguistic. This gaze may well express a passion of language..."

 

There are a wealth of Lishian resonances in this quotation: the “secret,” the “gaze,” and of course, the “passion for language.” If writing is “rooted in something beyond language,” then this must be sound, the “seed” of the sentence. This is the basis for Lish’s instruction, and he talks about this “seed” in the interview with Alexander Neubauer: "At one point there was nothing there, and the singularity which set everything in motion from the seed, like the original singularity of the cosmos, contains within it the potentiality for everything that might issue forth: sentences, paragraphs, chapters, pages. Everything is dependent or contingent on what is prior. This arrangement of contingencies is in fact the narrative act."

 

Now we are talking about form. The “arrangement of contingencies” mentioned here relates to “causality” in narrative—another word for the same thing, I think, much like the way Lish’s compositional process is an age-old process repackaged with a new name. Yet what has been so fascinating in my journey to/through Lish is the way he packages his compositional process, and the way former students refer to it as something of a prescriptive procedure. For kicks, here’s Christine Schutt in a recent interview: "I didn’t have to know where I was going; I didn’t need a plan. Gordon pointed out that if you had one good sentence, and you looked at it long and hard and took from it what term was most charged for the next sentence, this was a legitimate way to proceed."

 

WINTERS


Again, that phrase from Schutt might apply as much to life as it does to language. I can picture a sort of psychological paraphrase; something like: if I arrive at an impasse, I return to my past, and in facing it I am forced forward. You’ll both be familiar with the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s image of the “angel of history”—a figure whose “face is turned toward the past,” experienced as a “storm” which “propels him into the future, to which his back is turned.” Is this not also a case of what we are calling “consecution?”

 

Which is to say: While at one level we’re tracking a local, specific procedure—proper to a particular group of writers—in so doing we’re also apprehending something “age-old,” as Jason argues. Interviewed by Alexander Neubauer in 1994, Lish distills his approach into a single statement: “Traditional storytelling is rather more recursive than discursive.” I see this almost as an anthropological observation. Somewhat like the structural anthropologist Vladimir Propp—who famously wrote a book entitled Morphology of the Folk Tale—Lish is searching for cultural universals.

 

If this is so, might it be rewarding to read other authors through Lish’s lens? From my own research, I’ve come to feel that the traces of Lish’s teaching—these fragmented notes and anecdotes—could suggest a new kind of critical language, one that surpasses the limits of the Lish “school,” the Lish class, or the list of authors Lish published at Knopf. Lipsyte, for instance, asked to define “swerve,” quotes Camus. Lutz, quizzed about “consecution,” cites Woolf’s The Waves. So my question is this: How might Lish’s conceptual vocabulary itself be “extruded” and “unpacked”—as it were, consecutionally—so as to shed a wider light on literary style?

 

GERKE 


This is a towering question, David. It seems so far we’ve come away with the realization that many of Lish’s teachings are about a philosophy of life, just as much and maybe more than a philosophy of writing. Jason’s reference to Schutt’s interview about the “one good sentence” makes us see how inclusive this philosophy is. It’s essential to develop a relationship with our language—maybe even to relearn it. Lish taught how to get people to listen to one’s story. It’s not about secrets really, as we’ve agreed—it’s more like the mind’s locution transmitted to the page; it’s about the sound of words, and how this relates, above all, to ontology. To write well is to live well? It’s a very romantic, sensual, and intimate business. Why are we interesting? Well, I’ll tell you why we’re interesting, is what Lish inherited and forwarded, and what unites his students, like Gary Lutz, with earlier writers: 

 

"I used to visit a younger man in the big, voluminal city, the one that maddened itself between twin rivers." (Lutz, first line of “Femme”)

 

"She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him." (Henry James, first line of The Wings of the Dove)

 

"Nay, but this dotage of our general’s / O’erflows the measure." (Shakespeare, first line of Antony and Cleopatra)

 

All these processes we’ve been talking about inevitably lead to the question of falling in love with the language—something Ezra Pound impressed on W.S. Merwin when they met: “Learn a language and translate...that way you can find out what you can do with your language.” And it seems if we love the English language, we love Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf and all the other exemplars; and so there is a lineage created—we come into that club and though only a few enter the canon, we feel the history of the language and the “swerve” of sound by which language bewitches us, seduces us.

 

So there is a lineage from Shakespeare to Gary Lutz—a line that does not include Jonathan Franzen. Look at the first line of Freedom. That same heightened attention to language as the purveyor of sensation (rather than plot) is missing:

 

"The news about Walter Berglund wasn’t picked up locally—he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now—but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times."

 

One could say there are no new stories, only new groupings of language as dictated by a consciousness living in a different time.

 

A few months ago, I read The Golden Bowl, Henry James’s last completed novel. Just as Lutz has spoken of some readers being “page-huggers” and some “page-turners,” I constantly came upon sentences of such exalted breath they had to have been composed by an alien presence. The questions for me became, how did James think about what he was doing, and did he give his sentence-shaping a name? When one goes through his prefaces to the NY Edition—compiled as The Art of the Novel—one finds, for the most part, more attention to themes than to issues surrounding language and sound.

 

All of this leads me to believe that there’s a great deal of learning by exposure and osmosis going on. Something closer to instruction about actual words can be found in Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America—where she talks about repetition in her sentences, among other things— and in her essay “Composition as Explanation.” But Stein still falls back on thematics and on her own meta-philosophies to make her points: “Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are,” as she says in “Poetry and Grammar.” So are philosophies of writing more rooted in themes than in the actual science of words and their placement, and better off for it? Any advice having hard rules, like Elmore Leonard’s “Never open a book with weather,” is not only laughable, it’s destructive and the very reverse of what James says in The Art of Fiction: “...the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is...that it be sincere.”

 

LUCARELLI


Greg, I politely take issue with what you’ve said about “hard rules” being “destructive,” and I’d like to invite you to explain a little bit more. So much of what I’ve learned from Lish, and from other writing teachers, can be distilled into hard writing advice. I look to rules for finding my way through my own stories. These from Lish:

 

1. If you come to your initial conditions with a small enough measure, you can unpack an infinity of richness.

 

2. The title can come first, if it is standing squarely at the point of being your right object.

 

3. Don’t go back in time. The past comes out best in the pressure of moving forward.

 

I found humor in reading Elmore Leonard’s rule to “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,” because it seems so close to something that Lish might say. I’m in support of hard rules simply because, well, what’s a “sincere” novel, anyway? How does one construct a sincere sentence? What does one look like?

In his book Ferocious Alphabets, the critic Denis Donoghue says, “Choose your precursor; then fight him.” I’ve seen Lish paraphrase this somewhere before, and I think it’s something he’s applied to his larger concerns as a writer, and incorporated into his writing philosophy. In the same way, Harold Bloom’s concept of “revisionary ratios”—what he calls “a typology of evasions, a set of exercises by which the new poet may enter a tense relation with his precursor, his master”—clearly influenced Lish’s ideas about “swerve,” “torque,” or torsion, and the textual tension created by a battle between will and counter-will. In one sense, this concept can be applied to a writer’s battle against the existing store of literary forms. In another sense, as we’ve discussed, it can be applied to the very process by which writers might move from sentence to sentence. I’m sure Lish being a teacher had much to do with how he packaged and presented these rules to his students, but these were rules he took from history.

 

WINTERS 


First of all, I’ll leave you two to battle it out over the value of “hard rules” in writing. As regards rules, I’d likely side with the philosopher Francois Lyotard: "Don’t trouble yourself with the rule’s 'truth,' simply take it or leave it according to whether it works for you."

 

But I’ll butt in here to back up Jason’s insight about Bloom and Donoghue having influenced Lish. Alongside Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva, these are the influences he most frequently cites. Especially Bloom—anyone who has read The Anxiety of Influence will recognize the revisionary ratios, and much more besides, in Tetman Callis’s class notes. I’m reminded, too, of this passage from the Neubauer interview, where Lish’s voice comes so close to Bloom’s as to be indistinguishable: "One is always in pursuit of tropes—symbols seen as objects which stand for other objects—and hoping to annihilate them by the act of writing, finding in fact that they were an evasion of other tropes, and so on."

 

But I think Bloom’s influence is subsumed in Lish’s own subsequent swerve. Because the latter pushes the former’s “poetics of combat” far beyond their initial boundaries. If the revisionary ratios originated as devices of scholarly description, Lish jerry-rigs them into a set of techniques. And this passage from description to technique produces, in a feat of audacity, nothing less than a practical philosophy.

 

It seems that Lish’s teaching transmitted a wealth of philosophical wisdom. David McLendon recalls that the books Lish suggested he read “were not novels or story collections, but largely modern philosophical texts.” This in itself I find remarkable. Yet beneath any explicit references to philosophers and theorists, the class notes also convey a more tacit philosophy; one which goes to work “under the radar.” And, as if by “osmosis” (as Greg aptly puts it) Lish’s students appear to have disseminated this philosophy across American literary history.

 

For this reason, I think Greg is right to emphasise what he calls—quite beautifully—“lineage.” If learning from Lish can help us learn about literature, perhaps it will only be through a careful illumination of implicit affinities, of the kind Greg has outlined.

 

Since you mention Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, Jason, I’d like to use it to highlight one such affinity. Greg envisages a line extending from Shakespeare to Lutz. Well, let’s trace a section of that arc from Lutz, back through Lish, to Donoghue, to another great critic, R.P. Blackmur. Two quotes are below. The first is Donoghue in Ferocious Alphabets, analyzing a sentence from Blackmur’s essay on Madame Bovary:

 

'She is all haggard, all wild and waste, inside; if she lived, soon all hag.'" This passage [writes Donoghue] shows what I mean by a style not merely instrumental. “Haggard” has nothing to do with “hag,” except in sound. Blackmur is not dealing with ideas and trying to find words and sentences to deliver them; he stays alert to the possibilities disclosed in the stir of the words. The true decision arises between the words."

 

This second quote is from a more familiar source: Lutz’s celebrated lecture, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” Here he defines “consecution” using a sentence from Christine Schutt:

 

"Consecution: a recursive procedure by which one word pursues itself into its successor by discharging something from deep within itself into what follows... such as when Christine Schutt is seeking the inevitable adjective to insert into the final slot in the sentence “Here is the house at night, lit up tall and _______.”  What she winds up doing is literally dragging forward the previous adjective, tall, and using it as the base on which further letters can be erected. The result is the astounding, perfect tallowy—the sort of adjective she never could have arrived at if she had turned a synonymicon upside down in search of words that capture the quality of light."

 

Blackmur wrote his words in 1951; Donoghue his in 1981. Schutt wrote her sentence in the mid-nineties; Lutz illuminated it in 2009. To some extent, what we are talking about—and I want this word to evoke Eliot, however much of an enormity that might be—is a tradition.

 

GERKE 


Firstly, Jason, to come back to your question: I think I’m reacting more to the specificity of the rules. Maybe “tenet” is a better word, with more room for interpretation, because of its reliance on principle. Compared to Leonard’s rules, it seems to me that those three points or aphorisms of Lish’s are less rooted in didacticism, since they’re more aligned with the behavioral philosophy of the writer—not in putting forth an exacting measure or incontrovertible formula for literary greatness, but in letting themselves be used in different ways by different writers. It also seems there is much more space in Lish’s teaching—space for individual writers to create their own meaning, or almost where they are forced to create it before enacting the witch doctor’s prescription, as in #2’s “right object.” This object will be different for everyone, but it may take time to find that object, that mirror, that gaze.

 

I agree that the idea of a “sincere” novel is a murky construction, but I think James’s attention to philosophy in his Prefaces is comparable to Lish’s ennobling of truth:

 

"The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million...every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will." (Preface to The Portrait of a Lady)

 

It seems the personality of the writer needs to reach a certain equilibrium before the work can find the harmony and weightedness of blueness or chaos or whatever it reaches toward. So the seeking of truth is a very execution-like affair. In his teaching and editing, I imagine Lish sniffing out the untrue, because he could sense that the stranger reading the text would also stop when something went haywire in the fictional dream.

 

So much of Bloom/Lish/Blackmur/Donoghue is like playing the game “Operation” with writing, but playing with a real juicy cadaver—our mind. The two Lish quotes you’ve cited, and what David said about a “practical philosophy” really hone in on this quality. I wonder if the compulsion to read these voices of Lish’s students is due to the way fiction or parable makes feelings more palatable. It took a witch doctor to instruct the students, but these students found ways of making their writing less icy than some straight philosophical texts can be. Here’s William H. Gass: "So much of philosophy is fiction...Although fiction, in the manner of its making, is pure philosophy...Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds." (from “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” in Fiction and the Figures of Life)

 

Are such renowned stories as Lutz’s “People Shouldn’t Have to be the Ones to Tell You” and Schutt’s “Do You Think I Am Who I Will Be?” really more like philosophical inquiries, or discourses on the author’s method, given the titles they carry? Why else would Lish stamp the title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” over Carver’s benign “Beginners” if the endgame wasn’t the knowledge of how to live and love better? Aren’t these stories instructions for coping?

 

The coupling of Blackmur/Donoghue and Schutt/Lutz is the perfect illustration of a tradition which values a sort of philosophical/psychological exploration over history and customs. Again according to Donoghue’s Ferocious Alphabets, the literary theorist Georges Bataille once said: "Communication cannot take place from one full and intact being to another: it requires beings who have put being within themselves at stake, have placed it at the limit of death, of nothingness."

 

Here again is that risk Lish constantly alludes to. Do we need to feel constant tension and jeopardy in literary works, i.e. in what the language is doing, for them to fit into the tradition?

 

Since this tradition is a living one, I’ve often wondered about the role of books and language in contemporary society, and in our daily interactions—as Donoghue also does to some degree. Bloom says there is no memory without reading.

 

Shakespeare counsels that we should “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Looking back at the Elizabethan era from our changed promontory, where there’s no end to the “ought to say[’s]”—the breakdown of language in emails and tweets, and the vanishing of speech in favor of text messages—the value of language, both written and voiced, becomes problematic. I wouldn’t like to assume we, as a species, don’t value language as much as we did, but I don’t know if there is a choice.

 

LUCARELLI


Yes—speaking of tweets, I wish I could believe that we (writers/thinkers/time-wasters) were using the limiting 140-character platform to put more thought into the sentence.

 

During Alec Niedenthal’s interview of Diane Williams in 2010, there’s a nice exchange about “the sentence” that borders on Lish’s concern for “sound, voice, and rhythm.” Niedenthal refers to “the sentence as an infinite sculpture turning in on itself” and Williams replies: "The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effect or she does not. Missed opportunities are there regardless. The sentence may be a confrontation or a demand—you’re right—or a consolation, a revelation—or—it could offer a lot of fun."

 

I love the idea of the sentence as “an infinite sculpture turning in on itself,” especially in the way it relates to the writing process of Gary Lutz, who says, “…I try to look at the typographical physique of one word and see how it might interrelate to the word after it.” In essence, Lutz explores every letter of every word in order to inform the shape of the next word, the subsequent sentence. This is, after all, as Gass says, a “verbal world,” and not exploring and exploiting the linguistic components in every sentence excludes all possibility, and would leave behind a world not fully realized, not close to being unified.

 

What does this have to do with tweets and social media speech? Should we be worried about people who do most of their writing on social platforms? In this type of writing, communication is made through symbols, and by symbols I mean characters that stand for a word instead of spelling out the word itself. A cousin of this condensed form of communication is the use of words minus vowels. This compact communication designed for tight spaces is another language, a language that subtracts letters, substitutes numbers for words, and truncates a sentence that, instead of exposing the possibilities for rhythm and sound, accordions up, and, arguably, reduces the possibilities of language in favor of quick and effortless communication.

 

I think this might be the breakdown of language and communication without risk you referred to, Greg, and, I wonder, why should we as writers be the only ones to care so deeply about language, written or otherwise?

 

GERKE 


Well, it seems that as writers, it falls to us to be the ones who care. It seems many people are interested in language only so far as it will make them money and fetch them security. Fiction is an entertainment, a pastime. In a Bookworm interview, Michael Silverblatt spoke of how Gass has written about “how sometimes we can not only hear the word that’s been chosen, but the ghosts of words that haven’t been chosen.” Who else, right now, is looking at that with such attention? We are—as well as the various numbers who still live a life tied to book culture. This isn’t to bellyache. I realize that as M.H. Abrams, Gass, Donoghue, Bloom, Majorie Perloff, Helen Vendler, and Lish pass on (as Roland Barthes, Hugh Kenner, and Guy Davenport have), a new generation has to take up the mantel. Sam Lipsyte’s and Ben Marcus’s stories are now appearing in the New Yorker; Christine Schutt has been a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Obviously, the “sentence” still has value, but I think that still has to be impressed upon younger generations. Schutt, Lutz, and Lipsyte, etc. aren’t aberrations. They are taking their place in the tradition we’ve mentioned. Because the internet is here, it might be hard to convince people that they must read incessantly and know their history, but there is no doubt in my mind we are writing with Shakespeare as the beacon we aspire to, and if we want what we produce to live on after we die, we will take greater care with sentences and their sound.

 

WINTERS 


I couldn’t agree more, Greg. Well, I won’t talk too much about Twitter—my opinion on that is pretty simple: It’s an abomination, and it takes up too much of my time! But I think some of what you’ve both said links up quite well with Lish’s thinking on “noise,” and with his valuing of “mystery” over “information.” My understanding is that Lish advises writers to work against the cacophony of contemporary culture. As he says, “it is necessary to attempt some kind of severance between ourselves and the noise that is everywhere thus.” Now, this severance could take several forms—I see it, for instance, in Gary Lutz’s refusal to specify the locations of his stories; or in his regret at having used a brand name (Coca-Cola) in one of them.

 

At a more elemental level, maybe writing has to cast a silence around itself. Greg, you talk about “generations.” One difference between our generation and Lish’s is that we live in a so-called “information age.” But if we are to create art, the message that arises from much of this writing is that we must make information our enemy. Right now, for instance, Jason Schwartz is one of the few writers still working out ways to do this. Schwartz’s work speaks in a style that startles the surrounding world into silence. His stories are radically self-sufficient, and in this respect they work against our age’s entropic reduction of language to data. The philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote that “art is magic, delivered from the lie of being truth.” And since we’re speaking of “tradition,” perhaps this is precisely what artworks were in prehistory—mysteries; auratic artefacts whose very existence was an affront, a beautiful “fuck you” to reality.

 

If I’ve learned one thing from reading Lish, and from reading around him, it’s this. Writing ought to amount to an act, as we’ve said; a “risk.” And, following Alec Niedenthal’s apposite phrase, this risk should stake life itself on the creation of an infinite sculpture. The world, as Wittgenstein says, is everything that is the case. But writing is whatever is not. And in saying “no” to the world, so long as this “no” is said strongly enough, art perhaps promises us nothing less than the “yes” of salvation.

 

None of us studied with Lish, so we can’t ascertain the accuracy of some of our statements. Really, in this sense, Lish remains a mystery. But I think we can make whatever we want of that mystery, just as Lish urged writers to make their own mysteries on the page. What can we learn from Lish? Well, we can take away a set of techniques, to be sure; “rules,” if rules are useful to us. But we can also salvage something that looks almost lost in our time: a sense of the real, lived stakes of writing, its risks and its rewards. About this, maybe it’s best if the last words belong to Lish himself: "Listen to me—whatever your life is, there can be an excellence in it, a garden of achievement that no jealous god can drive you out of and whose walkways, however narrow, can keep you safe and steady on your course for all the rest of your given days."

 


 

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From 1986 to 1996, Gordon Lish was the editor of The Quarterly, which he founded. He was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf from 1977 to 1995 and fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1977. He is the author of the novels Dear Mr. Capote, Peru, Extravaganza, My Romance,  Arcade, Zimzum, and Epigraph; the short story collections Mourner at the Door, Selected Stories, Self-Imitation of Myself, Krupp’s Lulu, and What I Know So Far; and editor of the anthologies New Sounds in American Fiction, The Secret Life of Our Times, and All Our Secrets Are the Same. His latest book, Collected Fictions, was published by OR Books in 2010. Lish has taught imaginative writing at Yale, Columbia, New York University, and The Center for Fiction, and is known for his many years of presenting private classes, each session of which was six to ten-and-a-half hours in duration. No few of Lish’s students have gone on to notable careers in writing and teaching.

 

While at Esquire, Lish championed the work of Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Brodkey, Barry Hannah, Joy Williams, and Raymond Carver, and brought out, while at Knopf, books by Denis Donoghue, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Sheila Kohler, Lily Tuck, Dawn Raffel, Anne Carson, Rudy Wilson, Raymond Kennedy, Thomas Lynch, Ben Marcus, Walter Kirn, Christine Schutt, Victoria Redel, Roy Blount, and others. Lish is the source of the information that he was fired from every job he ever had.

 

This piece was originally published in Issue #14 of The Literarian

 

David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, UK. He writes regularly for theTimes Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Quarterly Conversation, and others. He is co-editor in chief at 3:AM Magazine, and is currently writing a sociological study of literary theory for Zero Books. 

 

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review OnlineDenver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, LIT, Film Comment, and others.  

 

Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, PA. He recently completed his MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Numéro Cinq.