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.