Gordon Lish

Gordon Lish’s heavy editing of Raymond Carver’s stories has become a cause célèbre since I first described it in It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties (1995), where we see Lish trying to reinvent other writers in his drive to bring new fiction to the magazine:

They would be sitting around a table, about eight of them, and Harold Hayes would say, “You can’t believe what Gordo showed me today–,” and he would press Lish to explain why he liked the stories he liked. It seemed to Hayes and publisher Arnold Gingrich that Lish liked some very peculiar things. He would publish writers whose work he liked, whether anyone had heard about them or not: Donald Newlove, Robert Ullian, Hilma Wolitzer. Hayes was astonished, Lish said later – “stunned” – to see what Lish came up with.

There was, for instance, Alma Stone, “virtually unpublished, an utter original,” as Lish said in a little note dated March 13, 1970, attached to a manuscript passed up the line to Don Erickson, who passed it on to Hayes with a note: “I’ll swear I just cannot get on this woman’s wavelength. I’ve tried because of Gordon’s admiration for her, but her prose seems like a bouillon cube of writing to me, waiting to be dropped into water, there to expand into a Carson McCullers novella.”

Hayes turned the story down.

Lish tried a couple of stories by an old acquaintance from Palo Alto, Raymond Carver, and Hayes turned those down too. Lish passed them on to other magazines – one, “Fat,” appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. Carver expressed polite concern that Lish’s advocacy of his work might be hurting his standing at the office, but he kept trying, sending Lish a story called “Neighbors” in August.  Lish sent it on to Erickson with the comment, “just as effectively eerie as FAT, I think, but not as instantly forgettable, I hope.” Esquire took the story.

The “Neighbors” that ran in the magazine the next year was considerably different from the manuscript Lish had received. At Esquire editors did not usually line edit much, unless a story or article flirted with legal danger or violated Esquire‘s restrictions on four-letter words or ran too long for the space available. There was none of that heavy interlining of manuscripts common at some other magazines.

Lish was, in contrast, an aggressive editor; he went after manuscripts with firm confidence in his editorial hand. On several pages of the twelve-page manuscript, fewer than half of Carver’s words were left standing. Close to half were cut on several other pages.. … In some parts he threaded out phrases and sentences; in others he took out entire paragraphs. The cuts gave the story a dry, minimalist feel –a flat ironic style characteristic of a writer he particularly liked, James Purdy.

Carver accepted Lish’s changes – publication in Esquire was, after all, a big break for him – and Lish would always get credit for discovering his work.

Other writers were not so submissive. Doris Betts went through a lengthy analysis of his changes in one of her stories before she said she did not think they would do. For a story to be serious, she said, “the reverberations have to be there so that each note struck goes humming off along several other octaves. ” Rather than let Lish make the changes, she sold the story elsewhere for $25 instead of the $400 she might have reasonably expected from Esquire.

Paul Bowles was more blunt:

“I fail completely to understand the meaning of the suggestions, or of the story as it incorporates them. Instead of being about Hercules, it becomes a story about someone named Paul; instead of taking place twenty-five centuries or more ago, it apparently takes place in the present; instead of Tangier’s being the locale, the action passes in an unidentifiable no-man’s land; and Antaeus, instead of revealing himself as a typical Moroccan guide and thief, becomes a mysterious sort of guru. What does it mean? Why should Hercules be called Paul? (Because when someone whose name is actually Paul gives it to one of his characters there arises the question of his motivation, naturally. It’s not exactly as if he had chosen another name, –no?)”

Bowles had decided to publish the story elsewhere.

For an example of a Carver manuscript page edited by Lish, see p. 242 of It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun? Esquire in the Sixties (1995), which also contains endnotes for this passage.

Comment by Carol Sklenicka, author, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life:

A few other writers refused to accept Lish’s editing, including Vladimir Nabokov and Lish’s friend Don DeLillo, who declined to give Lish’s proposed excerpt from his novel ENDZONE to Esquire. Lish told me that DeLillo later published the same excerpt in The New Yorker.

And wouldn’t it be interesting to know the answer to the question you raise with your title “Raymond Carver was not alone” ? Are you suggesting Lish edited Alma Stone in the same manner he edited Carver? Alma Stone’s papers are at the Harry Ranson Center in Austin, TX, so someone needs to look. The Lilly Library in Indiana has Lish’s own archives including manuscripts by Mary Robison, Barry Hannah — and how many others? — whose prose he recast.

What scholar will undertake a thorough study of these manuscripts and a biography of Gordon Lish himself?–Carol Skenicka 

Write to Carol Polsgrove