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Lish Gals Won’t You Come Out and Write: Janet Kauffman, Bette Pesetsky, Bette Howland, Jane Smiley, and Diane Williams: A Flash Essay

Janet Kauffman, Bette Pesetsky, and Bette Howland are “similar” in scope and voice the way Mary Robison and Amy Hempel are: Lish writers in faith and style.  Both Kaufmann’s Places in the World a Woman Could Walk (1983), with twelve stories, and Pestesky’s Stories Up to a Point (1981) with fifteen stories, are barely over 100 pages long, the text so stripped to the bone that they belong in the same class as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) and we can say Kauffman is Carver’s female counterpart.  Kauffman writes about rural women, especially the non-urban outskirts of Michigan, while Petesky writes about women in the city; both deal with family issues of older parents, memories, and children.  Kaufmann has two interrogatory stories that call forth Carveresque comparison: “Isn’t It Something?” and “How Many Boys?”  In fact, a number of her stories have Carveresque (or Lishesque, as the case now is) titles: “The Mechanics of Good Times” and “At First it Looks Like Nothing.”

Consider the opening sentences of “Isn’t It Something?”:

This is how Ceila told it.

Her ex-husband loved her maiden name, Dollop—so much that he said keep it, when they married. He said, you are Ceila Dollop that is who.  She told him it was a stupid, lopsided name, but he said no, it was rich, a home-baked name, full of goodies and promise. Yum, he said, and he did his nibbling.  For a while.  But sooner than she’d dreamed, Ceila Dollop was walking herself to Mercy Hospital with a broken collar bone and an index finger pointing backwards, and that night she swore on the Bible in the gray metal drawer that she’d vacate the state. (27)

Or the opening of “The Mechanics of Good Times”:

“Nice car.” I start with that, through our open windows.

“It ain’t mine,” she says, mad.

But her lip swings up past a lost-now-forever front tooth and, for me, it’s half of a lucky smile. (105)

Or the first sentence of “At First It Looks Like Nothing”: “It’s dark here now, and how long it will be before anybody Jesus sweet Jesus to me I don’t know” (115).

Now scrutinize these opening sentences in Carver’s  What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house. Except for the chrome hooks, he was an ordinary man of fifty or so.

“How did you lose your hands?” I asked after he said what he wanted.

“That’s another story,” he said. “You want this picture or not?” (“Viewfinder” p. 11)

My husband eats with a good appetite. But I don’t think he’s really hungry. He chews, arms on the table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away. He wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs, and goes on eating. (“So Much Water So Close to Home” p. 79)

The deadpan first person voices of both Kauffman and Carver are strikingly interchangeable, and as discussed in the previous chapter, are Lish’s fingerprints on the text. ( To discuss later: the flirtatious and suggestive letters Kayffman and Lish wrote to each other found in Lish’s archives.)

Now consider these passages from Pesetsky’s Stories Up to a Point:

I work in the suburbs. Why? He asked me.  He was not a lover of nature. It takes me twenty minutes, I tell him, from kitchen to office. An industrial park in an army of maples. A factory in an ocean of grass.  How could I leave?  Fall was beautiful. Winter banked the driveways with snow. Forget it, he said.  Take the job in the city. (“The Passing Parade” 27)

My husband and I were in a restaurant in the Village. Our table was near the door.  A heavy blonde woman with a small boy came from somewhere in the back.  I nudged my husband. “Look,” I whispered. “It’s Francesca.”  We stared at our plates and began to eat with earnest devotion  so that glances would not meet and acknowledgements this be necessary. (“Stories Up to a Point” (57).

All three writers use, or are edited to use, simple, short, declarative sentences that describe the small actions of every day life: eating food, describing body parts. At the time, no critic caught the connection; even in McCaffery’s “m-word” review of Mary Robison’s Believe Them (we will discuss later) was the idea that minimalism was more than just a stylization of certan writers at the time, but that there was a puppet master behind the curtains at Alfred K. Knopf.

Lish has stated in interviews that his interests in his own writing, and of those he edits, concerns family.  In the chapters on Lish’s books, family is the evident main theme. This is also apparent in the writers so far examined, and those considered in the next pages of this chapter.

While Bette Howland does not share the minimalist sensibilities as much as Kauffman or Petesky, we do recognize the “voice” of literature at the time, and that Lish penchant for familial tales of the father in the collection of three novellas,  Things Come and Go:

My father’s family look alike; they all take after my mother’s side. Abarbanel was her maiden name, and that’s what my mother calls them to this day – “the big brassy yak-yakking Abarbanels.” They have a creaturely resemblance. (“Bird of a Feather” 5)

So my father is going to be all right.

That’s what my mother said as soon as we met at the airport. That’s what the doctor said when he came out of surgery. That’s what my father said himself, just before he went in, making it snappy over long-distance: “This is costing you money.”

That’s what I thought all along.

He’s always been all right before. (“The Life You Gave Me” 111)

Howland is closer in style to Jane Smiley, whose novellas made their first appearance in The Quarterly, and A Thousand Acres (1991), published by Knopf, is the ultimate in family secrets and the father, loosely based on King Lear, an intense drama of incest and mixed loyalties.  Consider this passage from A Thousand Acres:

I lay there as boneless as they did now, tangled in my nightgown, my hair striped across my face. And the fact was, that though, I could not imagine my father doing what Rose said he did, I also could not imagine him doing what I was doing then, looking down on his daughters with appreciation and affection, feeling for us the tenderness I felt for Pammy and Linda. (194)

And this passage from “Birds of a Father” in Things Come and Go:

Sometimes, when I had been put to bed on a heap of rough coats, listening to those voices at the table—still going at it (only I couldn’t make out what the shouting was all about, or if the loudness was anger or yelling)—I would wake up in Honey’s room.  What wonderful things could happen! So I had been carried off in my sleep, and didn’t even know it. (7)

In both, childhood, memories, and the safety of sleep contrast with the harsh realities of death, money problems, and incest.

Possibly the most elliptical Lish writer is Diane Williams.  Her first two collections were not published by Knopf but Grove Widenfeld, although the bulk of the stories first appeared in The Quarterly. They both have long titles: This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (1990) and Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear (1993).  Lish offers a colorful blurb on the back cover of the first book:

It is the genius of this artist to make her bondage a fabulous abode where all the rooms she cannot escape from are made lavish with the spectacle of the family romance.  Be brave—enter where the amazing Williams lives, and come away from your daring unable not to enter in again.

Her fictions seldom exceed 1,00 word, often ranging 200-500, or one-two pages long. The opening sentences in stories within This About the Body are trademark School of Lish:

She said please. Her face looked something more than  bitter, with hair which it turned out was a hat, which came down over her ears, which was made of fake fur, which she never removed from her head. (“Lady” 3)

This time my story has a foregone conclusion.

It is true also.

After I tell the story, I say, “You could start a religion based on a story like that—couldn’t you?” (“Here’s Another Ending” 43)

Williams’ fictions are often frank and embarrassing in their crass sexual honesty:

I had just met them—the brother and the sister who had fucked each other to see what it would be like.  And then they said—either he said or she said—that it was like fucking a brother or a sister, so they never did it again. (“The Kind You Know Forever” 19)

I undressed myself. I wanted sex—I wanted sex—I wanted sex—I wanted sex.

I climbed into bed with my wife.

She wanted sex with me. She always wants sex with me.

When I discharged myself this time into her, I was feeling myself banging into her as high up into her as I ever gotten myself up into her. (“To Die” 79)

Williams’ stories, like Lish’s, are plotless and sometimes narrated by “Diane Williams.” They vary from monologues to pictures of a scene or a portrait of a feeling. The Stupefaction, her third book, with Knopf but published two years after Lish left his post, includes a novella with more short-short stories or flash fictions as they are now called.  The novella has a semblance of a plot, about a man and a woman running off to be alone, away from the world, together. It is 75 pages and contains 44 very short chapters, much like a Richard Brautigan short novel.  Each chapter could stand alone as a regular Williams flash fiction.


16 responses »

  1. A lot to respond to here, much error, but I’ll begin at the end. You seem surprised that Diane Williams’s THE STUPEFACTION was published two years after Gordon’s departure. Also, did Gordon *leave* his post? Did he then disappear? Did Diane Williams disappear? Did she stop writing? Listen, go ask Rudy Wilson if ceasing to publish is equivalent to ceasing to write. The answer, as you might well anticipate, will break your heart.

    There is certainly enough here for an interesting book of criticism, or literary journalism, or whatever the hell they call this sort of document these days, but it won’t get off the ground without a good deal more careful questioning. To date, DT Max is the only journalist who has bothered to do the footwork and do it, ahem, sincerely. (We can agree, can’t we, that sincerity is at some point necessary to matters of fact even though it undermines matters of fiction?)

  2. By the way, what’s your name?

  3. Diane Williams most certainly did not stop writing. She has published several (fantastic!) books since The Stupification came out on Dalkey Archive and FC2. She has another one coming out soon I believe. She also edits NOON magazine.

  4. Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES was hardly forgotten or ignored. Nor was Lish the editor of record.

    What was your name again?

  5. See the sub sub title of blog…we reserve the right to yak about any book. What’s in a name? It is right here in the blog info.

    • Sure. For it is indeed yakking. Or, in the case of this entry, trolling.

      What’s in a name? Accountability. Perhaps exposure. And because it would only better whatever it is you’re endeavoring to do. There’s been more than enough yakking by anonymous people who don’t really know anything, or take the time to talk to anyone, or go to the archive, or carefully comment on this somewhat interesting story. Even David Bowman had the stones to publish his opinions under a byline, so why not you?

      • It does not take too much grey matter to determine, from the about page, that states “this blog is an extension of Michael Hemmingson’s” monograph forthcoming from Routledge, being a blog of opinion, not the critical work of the book that looks at Lish’s fiction along with Carver and Hannah.

        To note: the monograph is a critical work in the Studies in Major Literary Masters series, delayed a bit from its original intended publication date; it contained, in the footnotes and an appedix, anecdotes and opinion on the works of writers Lish edited…however, the publisher reminded me that the series was intended for literary criticism, not gossip and stories…some have suggested a second book for that material but instead this blog fills in that void.

        But I am not the only one blogging here. I have invited others, but no names on posts, to avoid — as it has happened now or will — personal attacks from those who have a beef with the opinions herein, and wish to jibbyy’jabby their jawlines.

        Thus, we. Not royal. Just we.

        Mike Heemingson

    • Oh, is it where you wrote this: “This blog fills the whole hole of that deficit. Yes, yes it does, and it does it well, we say.”

      From where I sit, you’re actually increasing this deficit. Put that in your royal we and suck it in.

  6. We seem to have ruffled your feathers and we are left to wonder why, and what meaning you assign to it.

    • It doesn’t take much gray matter either to simply answer the question when I put it the first time.

      As for not putting two and two together about who you are, well, you may be overestimating how much attention your endeavors merit.

  7. His anger appears personal.

    • Error being casually written into the record for yuks is annoying. Also, dismissing friends with whom I’ve worked as “having fallen off the literary map” is, I admit, irritating. Back in the day, I would have kept quiet when this kind of discourse arose. I don’t work for Gordon anymore.

      I don’t know Mr. Heemingson, so it couldn’t be personal. That said, being coy about identity is tiresome and unhelpful. Anonymity makes critical response more difficult. I hope the Routledge book isn’t as slapdash as some of this yakking. If it is, I’m certain it will be dismantled in short order.

      As I’ve said before, there is a story to be told here, but it is owed a more considered touch and minus the flourishiness of Gordonic stancinessosity. So far what I’ve read is reductive and off-putting all the while breathing all over itself to seem celebratory. Not good. A fair amount of what I’ve read is simply flat out wrong. Guess the critics will deal with it once the book gets put into print.

  8. And the book is literary criticism only,an examination without book reviewesque opinions, unlike this blog…this blog, as stated, is an EXTENSION of that book. Call it, perhaps, a digital appendix.

    If you do not care for opinions and freedom of thought, you know where you can move to.

    However, we welcome corrections of fact, whether they are fact or opinion from elsewhere.

    We never assume, and guess why?


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