The following are notes taken in the Lilly Library while researching Lish’s archives, April, 2009, Indiana Univ
Carver was not the only writer Lish heavily edited and—depending on one’s perspective of the author-editor relationship—”collaborated” with. Barry Hannah was another; this fact seems to have eluded the recent researchers and critics of Lish’s editorial authority; it is a shame that the focus has only been on Carver because a study of Barry Hannah’s contribution to American fiction is as significant and weighty as Carver’s. The impressions of Lish’s hand can be seen all over Hannah’s mid-career work. Just as readers notice a change in style and method in Carver’s last collection, in comparison to his first and second collection, the work Hannah did after Airships was remarkably “minimalist” considering the “maximalist” sensibilities of his first two novels, Geromino Rex (1972) and Nightwatchmen (1974).
Hannah began working with Lish during Lish’s tenure as Esquire‘s fiction editor, where he published an independent segment of The Tennis Handsome, issued years later from Alfred A. Knopf, when Lish became a senior editor there.
While Tennis is shorter than his first two novels, Hannah’s other two books with Knopf, with Lish as editor, are barely over 100 pages, published in small trim-sized volumes with large type and spacious margins. Ray is a novella, barely 25,000 words, and Captain Maximus is an uneven volume that feels like it was thrown together from random uncollected works—in fact, based on the two boxes of Barry Hannah files in Lish’s archived papers at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, it appears to be just that.
Like Carver, Hannah was embattled with alcohol issues that had a negative impact on his life, teaching career, family, and writing, creating a rift in the life cycle called “The Good Barry” and “The Bad Barry” years just as Carver had “The Bad Ray” (prior to 1977) and “The Bad Ray” (after 1978) years. What was it about Lish that boozed-up writers sought him for editorial guidance, friendship, and collaboration? While Carver questioned and resisted some of Lish’s editing, Hannah embraced it, and was well aware that Ray was in such bad shape that Lish had to do what Maxwell Perkins did with Thomas Wolfe: actually taking pieces and pages and mixing them around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to assemble a structure that can be labeled a “novel.”
The first title with Lish, the book that put Hannah in the “literary limelight” as they say, was Airships, winner of the Arnold Gingrich Short Fiction Award, sponsored by Esquire, and that went to Knopf with Lish. In a letter dated 15 August 1977, Lish writes to Hannah regarding the presentation of the then-untitled collection, “I want to see a clean book, very stately. Laid back. Nothing flash,” adding:
“Barry, last time I’m going to say this: you are fucking great, man […] have it in your head that you are speaking to the gods. And to God.”
Ray was another story. In a 19 September 1979 letter, Hannah tells Lish:
“Here’s the last and you are now Eisenhower about how to put this together and I’m just one of your hard-shooting captains on the left bottom.” From a 1 July 1980 handwritten letter: “Ray profits marvelously by your brilliant editing.”
Hannah’s attitude about Lish’s editorial authority seems far more accepting than Carver’s concerns over the editing of What We Talk About. A 29 July 1979 letter about Ray has one handwritten word: “Stet,” which is a typesetter’s code for “keep as is.” In a letter dated 29 March 1982, Hannah writes to Lish regarding The Tennis Handsome:
“By now I know you have it edited into a masterpiece, something that will shone high and bring even more nookery to me” and in a letter dated 19 July 1982: “I approve the (your) revised version […] You have done a splendid job.”
Note that Hannah does not state “your edits” but “revised version.” A “version” indicated more than a mere edit job, but an adaptation, if you will, or alternate rendering of the typescript Hannah sent. A letter dated 19 July 1992 is much more telling:
You are a master, right on the button. I like the book, and I know it was a hell of a rough ruffled pasture to deal with. You have done the stroke—I laughed and cried a little and you have kept it in the aim of Ray, which is what indeed I want to push for. You also write well at the end, you bastard, and from now on I might sit here collecting the checks after just raving incoherently into a recorder cassette with enough lust and chemical in me to make the little slobs at the grad schools piss on “The Wasteland,” your having done the main work.
Keep it up. But if you take credit and I hear about it, I will be mortified and not pimp for you at Montana.
Another curiosity in the history of 20th Century American fiction is Captain Maximus, which started off as a novel entitled Maximum Ned. A two-page outline titled Where the Bikers Are (dated 10 January 1982) has some of Ned in it, but was written because he was having trouble with Ned. Hannah worked on the book throughout 1982 while living in Missoula, Montana. On 13 December 1982, Hannah sent Lish 300 typed pages of an unfinished Maximum Ned, stating he needed money (asking for $30,000) because the IRS was attaching $800 a month for back payments.
Hannah writes on 7 February 1983:
“I want to be a giant literary man, al’s I want . I have taken it to Max Ned to get there.”
Letter dated 23 May 1983:
“Booze vacation finally got me three tickets, and I got trials for two tomorrow, plus a tax audit […] so I can’t start my Playboy trip on the Harley yet even if they let me keep my driver’s license. Had to get a lawyer. Was arrested for drunken riding, son driving, from airport when I got back from a San Diego reading. This sounding like a Carver letter?”
The comparisons between Carver and Hannah are too significant to ignore.
“Christ the old thing about hard hard hard to write sober,” Hannah confesses in a 5 February 1984 letter.
Ned was not a novel, though, as the editing process started to whittle it down (one manuscript version is 89 pages). Lish asked for three more stories to flesh it out. “Power and Light” was written while Hannah was working with Robert Altman on a script. The book was four years in the making, “and even in my drinking and tranquiller stage I did not freak” (letter 29 August 1984).
“Sam Lawrence at Dutton/Lawrence wants me very badly,” Hannah writes on 20 September 1984. Lawrence offered Hannah a better deal than Knopf could for Never Die, which in a 28 Speetmber 1984 letter Hannah states is a collection of 20 stiories, 250 pages, but, under that title, was published as s stand-alone short novel.
The horrible genius jew Gordon Lish does not even have a cat. He owes me thousands but he will always be the smart boy arranging for my lit prizes.
In many of Hannah’s letters, Hannah affectionately refers to Lish as a Jew and the New York publishing industry run by “Jew Money.” Most likely Houghton Miflin wanted “jew” deleted, just as they asked Lish to sign a release permitting Hannah to write about him. Hannah’s apparent racism—often using “nigger” and “Jew” and other name sin his work—has always been seen as a southern personality trait, something Hannah himself tried to make ironic, but that some readers and critics viewed as southern arrogance and bigotry.
He was just joking.