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Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling – Rick Whitaker

Rick Whitaker worked as Lish’s editorial assistant at Knopf in the early 1990s until the end of Lish’s run there.  He dealt with almost all the writers who had books or were in The Quarterly. There are most likely some writers out there reading this blog who knew him well.

But what of Assuming the Position (1999)?  Lish did not edit that (or did he?) with Knopf…however, Whitaker’s memoir  is connected to Lish (and published by John Oakes’ defunct 4 Walls Eight Windows, Lish’s main publisher), as described by Publisher’s Weekly in a review:

After moving to New York in the late 1980s with a boyfriend, little cash and no contacts, Whitaker earned a degree in philosophy, wrote a novel and went to work in publishing as an editorial assistant to Gordon Lish. By 1997, he had acquired a serious dependency on cocaine and was having “a great deal of sex with strangers, some of it unsafe.” In order to support his drug habit, he began working for two escort agencies and, in the next 20 months, conducted business with more than 100 men before giving up his sex work and going into recovery. Relying on a mix of erudition and titillation, Whitaker quotes Leonard Woolf, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Andrew Marvell and Pascal as he relates the explicit sexual details of his work life. He’s at his most astute when analyzing how his parents’ highly unstable, overtly sexual relationship and his own complicated love/hate bond with his father set the stage for his hustling.

No one at Knopf, especially Lishy Lish, knew of his secret night life as a crack-smoking whore.  Tell-all ugly memoirs of the golden literati gone bad seem to be the craze, evident with the recent confessional from literary agent wubnderkind Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man.

Assuming the Position is a dark, insightful read.

Whitaker’s second book, The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2003),  a critical study, reveals more details as Lish’s assistant and being a gay man in the publishing industry.

Whitaker seems to have fallen off the publishing map since then.

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3 responses »

  1. Rick wasn’t Gordon’s last assistant. Colin Dickerman filled in for the time it took to get me hired at Knopf, about six months. Then I had the job for about two years. After me, ah me, I don’t remember the name. Nice, genuine young lady who ran herself into the ground working for Gordon and a few other editors.

    I’m not certain that Rick’s memoir dealt with the time he was at Knopf. Perhaps he will come back from “off the map” if he feels it is worthwhile to confirm this.

    There is an interesting story to be told here, but I fear heretofore you’re being a little too injudicious in your treatment. Gordon did not generally publish writers who cranked out one book after the other. It is interesting to ask why, but the simplest answer is that such books suck up a lot of time and blood. True, we all live in the moment, but it would be a mistake to write off “Lish writers” (a formulation which makes my gorge rise) as having “dropped off the map” or “were never heard from again.” First books are usually the product of at least a decade of failure. Someone once said there was a great deal of good to be had in silence, exile, and cunning.

    Why don’t you simply state what you are getting at?

    Reply
  2. Yes, but even if Mr. Lish or Knopf did not publish more books by a variety of certain writers, they could have published with other companies…the point being, there are an awful lot of one-time books, with little to no follow-up, publication in journals and so on. Of course, this is not the case with all of them, some who have gone on to significant careers (Ben Marcus, Michael Martone) or careers in other fields (Jennifer Allen).

    We have heard from a few “Lish writers” that being labeled a “Lish writer” has negatively impacted their ability to publish elsewhere. Is this true or just bitter blame? You know more than others the process these days for someone who is not a ranking bestseller to get a book approved for publication, from the mechanics of upper management to the life or death opinion of sales and marketing, to whether regional buyers at chains will even order x number of copies based on the writer’s previous product and sales numbers.

    And certainly you know that many of these books, albeit their mastery of craft, had small press runs and didn’t sell well enough to get the sellers and buyers excited.

    But does that matter? Some. Has it effected some of these writers’ chances for future publications? Did they resort to pen names? Was their experience with commercial publishing so horrendous that they never wanted to repeat it again? Or are they like Harper Lee, with simply one book in them? (Yes, yes, indeed, we know all about the rumors that Truman Capote wrote, or fixed, her manuscript as a favor for all the years she worked hard as his assistant, but that is for some other place and time and blog and energy, although quite the interesting story in itself — some ask: “Did GL really write RC’s early stories?” as some ask: “Is To Kill a Mockingbird really Capote’s work, since the voice in the narrative is awfully similar to Captoe’s first novel, or was Lee just influenced by her friend and boss?”)

    So, yes, we would like to know very much (and from the writers themselves) what happened post-Lish book, what they are doing today, was their experience bad or good (with either Lish or Knopf’s interest of lack thereof for promoting the book(s)). And so on. And so forth. Certainly your insider’s knowledge greatly helps to clarify or add to things, whether based on fact or opinion, we welcome it wholeheartedly.

    Reply
  3. It would be a mistake to conflate the writing of a book with furthering a career, a point with which I am certain Gordon would agree.

    Reply

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