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Days – Mary Robison

We just happened to have in our possession the uncorrected bound galleys of Mary Robison’s (pronounced Robe-eh-son)  first collection with Knopf and Lish, Days.  She was 30.

And lo, what is inside, but a letter typed by Lish his own self, dated February 26, 1979, addressed to someone named Bill, whoever this Bill is, seeking a blurb for the cover of the actual future book.

In the letter, written in Lishism, Lish talks about (when he talks about) the hard work he put into promoting –raising a “rumpus” — Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? and Hannah’s Airships.…and here, he feels Robison’s Days is equally as good and important for American letters at the edge of the 1980s, which was the salad days for the minimalist school.

In Cynthia Whitney Hallet’s published dissertation, Minimalism and the Short Story — Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison (Edwin Mellon Press, 2000), it is suggested that Lish did not press on Mary Robison his brand of minimalism, but that Robison influenced her style of minimalism onto Lish.

This could be — in Lish’s archives at the Lily, there are a number of memos from Esquire, Lish to Howard Hays, with Lish stating how much he admires Robison, worships her prose, and how he wishes he could publish her in Esquire…but: she has a first-look deal with The New Yorker and they have yet to reject the stories she send in; she can only offer Esquire a story if turned down by the editors at The New Yorker (a similar deal Carver would have there toward his end days).

Robison’s minimalism was intact, sans Lish, in The New Yorker pages, and those stories are presented in original form in Days…that is not to say Lish did not later start using the ink pen with her other collections for Knopf and her novel, Oh!

Who is Mary Robison? Robison was born to an attorney and a child psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. She has seven brothers and sisters as well as a half brother. From an early age she was interested in writing and as a child kept journals and wrote poetry as a teenager. She once ran away from home and journeyed to Florida in search of Jack Kerouac.  Funny, because Lish also moved from NY to San Francisco in search of Dean Moriarty from On the Road, thinking he was real — and then of course later befriending Neal Cassady and a lot of the beats.

While Days is not as canonical as Carver or Hannah’s Airships and Ray, and Robison has not attained their status (even Hempel seems to be above her)  it is a fine collection worth any bookshelf. As is her work as a whole.

Her latest books, however, seem to lack something that Days and Oh! do…wonder, youth…

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? — R. Carver

Carver’s first collection had no easy road to publication.  It had been rejected by many publishers, reasons that  short story collections do not sell to the book being far too bleak for the commercial market.  He had submitted it to several contests, including the Iowa  Univ Press one, and judge Joyce Carol Oates did not choose him, much to the chagrin of several Iowa faculty members, who then offered Carver a teaching job based on the strength of his work.

Lish’s hand and influence can be detected and felt all over the book, from title changes to style edits. The first, “Fat,” was a story Lish could not get his higher ups to okay at Esquire, so Lish submitted it himself to Harper’s Bazaar–in his Lily archives are galleys for “Fat” with Lish’s continued edits, cutting to the bone of the prose.  The second, “Neighbors,” was Carver’s first appearance in Esquire — its stark minimalism and “kinky” implications rumbled the quiet community of American letters.  The title story was first seen in December Magazine, a respected small press journal–in fact, it was Lish who introduced Carver to Curt Johnson, December editor. That story was also included in The Year’s Best Short Stories.

In between Esquire and Knopf, Lish had his own imprint at McGraw-Hill.  One condition of his joining the firm was that his first buy would be this Carver collection. The higher ups were not keen on the book but said okay. They became keen on its when it was nominated for the National Book Award and sold many copies and made some money and gave McGraw-Hill some prestige, enough so that they offered Carver a contract for a novel, a novel Carver never wrote, if he even began it. He needed the money.

It is not known what other books Lish acquired at McGraw-Hill beyond Carver’s first.

We would  like you to gander at the cover–see how simple it is: The Stories of Raymond Carver. No flashy sexy cover art, no images, just a cover, which seems to be the same case with other Lish edited books–Hannah’s Airships and Ray, Mary Robison’s Days, Carver’s second collection, Janet Kaufmann’s first, etc.  These books were about what was inside, not outside, in the way European publishers presented books.

Chuck Kinder’s Honeymooners is about Carver in his early years, sort of, and has a chapter about the arrival of copies of this “white duct jacket book” and how at a party people stole some and the rest were eaten up by his daughter’s dog, so that he no longer had a copy of his own to hold and behold.

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.

The Minimalist Sentences of Amy Hempel: A Flash Essay

[originally published in the 02/2009 issue of elimae]

There are two aspects of Hempel’s fiction that stand out: their brevity and their unique and powerful sentences. Hempel is not only the mistress of under-2000-word story, but her sentences glorify the teachings of Gordon Lish, for whom she was a star student — they are near-perfect and build upon one another like pieces of a Lego set, until the final product is a nifty toy to play with.
Hempel’s fiction is indeed playful — with words, with scenes, with intent and style: “the playfulness of your heart” (Reasons to Live 4). “The Harvest,” from her second book, is an example of her textual mischievousness. “The year I began to say vhaz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me” (9) the story begins, and then lists a series of unfortunate events that happen to the narrator, as if the decision to alter the pronunciation of a word in an uppity manner is the result of bad luck. Half-way through the story, we are told: “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth” (13) and informed that artistic license was taken in the previous telling of events. The story becomes metatextual: “I’m going to start now to tell you what I left out in “The Harvest,” and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out” (13). Hempel lists the “truths” she left out or altered because “the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle” (13) and “it is something you might not have accepted in ‘The Harvest'” (13). In an interview with Dave Welch at, Hempel admits that she wrote “The Harvest”

with a real accident in mind, one that changed my life. And when I finished it, I thought, Isn’t it curious? Look at everything I changed or embellished or left out to make it a story that works. I hadn’t planned to, but I wrote the kind of addendum or deconstruction, after a space break, playing with the whole idea of personal mythmaking, which we all do — we’re mythologizing our lives every day when we talk about ourselves.

The story stands out from the rest of Hempel’s work; postmodern turns of narrative are not her typical style. Her stories are mainly told in the first person and are plotless — from one or two page prose poems to longer works that are a series of scenes and vignettes that build on each other; while they do not tell a traditional beginning-mid-end story, they create an atmosphere of emotions and thoughts as if one were gazing at a photo essay of a person’s life. “In a Tub” and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” from Reasons to Live are examples of both.
“In a Tub” is two pages long. The narrator — who has no name or defined gender (typical of not only Hempel’s work, but many minimalist writers, as if it does not matter, only the words and sentences matter) — is lost in the world, looking for meaning:

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had (3).

The narrator is a loner, does not want to commune with the deity with other people, alone. In fact, loneliness permeates the atmosphere of the text — “I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat” (3). The narrator returns home to a cat and an empty house, thinks about the past, and reveals a gender: “When I was a girl I sneaked out at night” (3). Seeing that “the birdbath is shaped like a tub” (4) she decides to take a bath and seems to find the peace of mind that the church did not afford: “You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down [É] Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under” (4). The water is a good place for her to hide and feel safe. And that is it, that is the story — no plot, no dialogue, poem more than narrative. Yet it acts as curtain opener for the rest of the collection, layering the book’s overall feeling of people who are lost and dealing with loss, grief, loneliness; Hempel’s narrators are uncertain of their place in the world.
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is Hempel’s best-known story, widely anthologized and used in college courses as an example of, along with Raymond Carver and Mary Robison, 1980s minimalist fiction. This was also Hempel’s first effort at writing, composed in Lish’s class at Columbia, as she tells “We were told to write up our worst secret: the thing that would dismantle my sense of myself, as he [Lish] put it.” The story was published in TriQuarterly and began her new career (she was previously a journalist at the Los Angeles branch of CBS) as a storywriter. Again, essentially plotless and a series of moments and conversations, opening with:

Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or forget it.”
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of a room is like a banana — you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on (39).

Hempel’s first sentences are forcibly striking and hard to forget, despite the request of forgetfulness above. “Tonight is a Favor to Holly” opens with: “A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o’clock, I am not going to answer the door” (Reasons 7). Others: “There is a typo on the hospital menu this morning” (Reasons, “Going” 71). “Things turned around after I saw the Breathing Jesus” (Reasons, “Breathing Jesus” 125). From these first sentences, Hempel creates a second, a third, a fourth sentence just as remarkable with the use of language and rhetoric, building, eschewing plot and symbol and foreshadow and any other conventions of fiction, painting on the canvas page. This sort of writing style is not for everyone, just as Carver’s style was not appreciated by all. Critical reception for Hempel’s work was, and still is, mixed and varied. She has created a niche for herself in contemporary American fiction, however, and like her sentences, her place in minimalist canon cannot be denied.


Hempel, Amy. Reasons to Live. NY: Knopf, 1985.
—–. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. NY: Knopf, 1990.
Welch, Dave. “Forty-Eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel.” Retrieved June 17, 2008 at html

[This essay is excerpted from Gordon Lish and His Influence on Twentieth Century American Literature: Life and Times of Captain Fiction, forthcoming from Routledge]

About This Lish Dish

While some books acquired and edited by Gordon Lish during his time at Alfred A. Knopf (1978-1994) are canononical (and cannons of) American literature (Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel), there are hundreds that were equally great but were, for various reasons, forgotten and/or ignored by the general literati, known only to a small cult group of writers and readers — say, books by Michael Hickins, Ben Marcus, Raymond Kennedy, Leon Rook, Thomas Glynn, Anderson Ferrell, Michael Martone, Mary Robison, Christine Schutt  come to mind, and many many others. (Will you please suggest any we might not know, please…)

This blog fills the whole hole of that deficit. Yes, yes it does, and it does it well, we say.

This blog is also an extension of the book, Gordon Lish and His Influence on Contemporary American Literature by Michael Hemmingson (forthcoming, Routledge).

This blog will also take a look at recent titles from former Lish students and writers, like Dawn Raffel, Terese Svaboda, Peter Markus, Norman Lock, Daryl Scroggins, Cooper Renner, Gary Lutz, Yannick Murphy, etc.

This blog will also look at young writers and new journals that are influenced by Lish’s theory of fiction and the style of his writers, like New York Tyrant, Caketrain, Unsaid, Sleeping Fish, etc; and new voices with a Lish-bent Blake Butler, Tao Lin, Justin Taylor, Eugene Marten, Kevin Sampsell, etc.

This blog will also examine Lish’s novels, stories, and texts as well as what is said (or unsaid) about him in the press, past or present.

This blog will eventually discuss every issue of The Quarterly.

This blog will write you a postcard (see Derrida’s The Postcard on fragmented texts).

This blog will read your mind about your secret of secret thoughts on Lish.

This blog will touch your heart of hearts.

This blog is your friend.

This blog will save your life.

This blog wants your hawt first sentences.

This blog loves you.

This blog fondles you.

This blog will stab your brain via the eye.

This blog will murder you in the sandbox.

This blog will show you how (not) to write a novel.

This blog will edit 45% of your words.

This blog talks about talking about love.

This blog asks, “Since you are drinking from the bottle, are you a slut?”

This blog believes equally in monogamy and infidelity.

This blog is ambiguous.

This blog is good to fall asleep with, the page clear on your tablet.

This blog needs your support: talk about it, link it, blog about it.

Is this blog right, or is this blog right?