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Category Archives: Captain Fiction

Story Quarterly 21 – the Gordon Lish Workshops

We have been reading the 1986 Story Quarterly issue 21, dubbed “Stories from the Gordon Lish Workshops.” It reads like a proto-type for The 1/4ly, with work by familiar Lish names and unknwon names alike (often first time publictions), such as Victori Redel, Christopher Coe, Peter Christopher, Yannick Murphy, etc.

We will comment in more detail in the next post (we are also reading Mark Rochard’s Ice at the Bottom of the World and will discuss as well)

I Look Divine – Christopher Coe

Christopher Coe was a Columbia student of Lish’s and in the same class was Amy Hempel, David Leavitt, and Anderson Ferrell, who happen o blurb ths book. While Lish was able to publish books by Hempel, Leavitt and Ferrell, he could not get approval from Gottlieb to acquire I Look Divine.

Ever resourceful, Lish was instrument in getting Widenfield and Nicholson, an imprint of Houghton Miflin at the time (and a British publisher that opened a New York office in the 1980s).

I Look Divine is a 109 page novella, maybe 20,000 words with the big type and wide margins and slender trim cut. Chances are without Lish it would have never found its way to print, at least not by itself and not in a journal or as part of a longer collection. That is not saying this novella is bad…no, in fact, it is beautfully brilliant, a prose poem really, and maybe one of the most unfortuanately ignored works of prose, and a writer, from the 1980s, even with a paperback reprint from Vintage’s prized trade paperback imprint of hip young lit.

It is a fne portrait of two brothers, with one writing about another: Nicholas is rich and uncommonly handsome and very egotistical, obsessed with his own beauty that leads to his self-destruction. The narrator, the older brother, tries to understand his brother and wonders how much of the delusion of the priviledged divine is also in him…and what, of their upbringing, has made them both so disfunctional?

Nicholas had brown eyes which, in many lights, looked black, He had extravagant black eyelashes that looked false, and dar hair that even in those years he was allowed to grow so long that he could drag his fingers through it and take almost forever to come out at the end.


I told him brains develop in the womb, that by being born too soon he had probaby lost points […] he looked up at me and said what he always did when he had more of me than he could take.

He sighed, “Oh, go to your womb.”

Much later that night, I heard my brother through the door, whispering to himself.  He must have been studying is face in the mirror when I heard him whisper, “You are the smartest little boy in the world, and you also look like this.” (pp. 23-24)

In a way, this could be qute the annoying read of rich kid’s narcissim and the reader could feel, as we do, nothing about his eventual death. The  perfected sentences are to be admired, and in many ways Coe reminds us of a young Truman Capote.

In Lish’s Lilly archives, there are letters and manuscripts from Coe, all nearlt typed on strangely thick, textured brown paper, unusual for a manuscript.

What happened to Coe? He died from AIDS complications in 1994. He was 41. He published one other novel in 1993, Such Times, from Harcourt Brace in the US and Hamish Hamilton in the UK.

While I Look Divine is an example of tight minimalism, Such Times is a work of maxilamislm, a 100,000 word tme that could have used Lish’s pen, yet is also a fine piece of writing and an intimate view of gay male relationships.

What the hell? you say.

What the hey, they say.

Why haven’t you been keeping up this fucking awesome blog?! you say.

We will, we say.

We are getting back to it, says we.

We go, Soon soon soon.


A Lish Quote for Winter Pondering

I have come to be convinced that it is only the unbending observance of custom that sustains life in an urban circumstance. — from What I Know So Far

Star Dust, 7-11, Route 57, A&W, and So Forth by Patricia Lear

This is probably one of the few Lish-connected first collections (outside Carver, Hannha, Hempel, Williams and Robison) that quicly went through three printings not long after the first edition first run.

And it’s no wonder, the eight stories in Lear’s book are elegant, eloquent, and wonderful.  Six appeared in The 1/4ly, one in The Antioch Review (where Lish is an adviser and ed-at-large), one original, and one, “Pow-wow,” made the O. Henrys.

But this was 1993, and there has not been another Lear or from what we can tell, a near Lear. She is on Facebook, teaches at the Uni. of Nebraska, stories pop up now and then…but we want more books! Publishers need to reprint this one and get another one out, do you hear us or are we whistlin’ dixie?

Lish @ a Stuffy Literary Par-tah

Note the sad young literary men in suits in the background…hey, am I seeing Bill Clegg around there smoking crack?

A Lish Quote for June 7!

Can anything on this paper be any other than your non-fucking-fiction on a stick? … Here, all you terrible people, eat fluent Lish’s speech — true, exact, not infrequently contractionless, forever figmented, but never once — not once! — free.  –from “Canto” South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2004): 57-60.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Love — Ray Carver

What can we talk about that has not already been talked about this most famous book in both the careers of Carver and Lish?  So much has been said and written, from gossip to rumor to truth to literary criticism both afoul and concise. (We recommend looking for Michael Hemmingson’s 13,000 word critical essay on Lish’s editing Carver and Barry Hannah, forthcoming later this year in the learned journal Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, and the expanded 18,000-word chapter in his Routledge critical meditation, Gordon Lish and His Influence on 20th Century American Fiction.)

Needless to say, as was the case at McGraw-Hill, at Knopf, publisher Robert Gotlieb was not all that keen on publishing Raymond Carver — despite his canonical and institutional status as an American short story writer, not everyone (yesteryear and still today) feels comfortable reading Carver’s stories, with all the despair, alcoholism, poverty, bad marriages, domestic violence, lack of domestic tranquility, not to mention the minimalist style that we now know was more Lish (as co-author) than Carver as composer. (An editor at a certain university press in the Midwest once told us, while in bed after the throes of a passionate one-nights stand, that she could not read this book because it made her feel depressed and suicidal, reminding her too much of her failed marriage and sad childhood.) (Was it really necessary to make such a detailed aside? Why not? says we.)   But Carver’s first book did well, and Lish was his rah-rah boy at Random House, and despite the fact that Carver wanted to pull the book’s publication, and all his fears, the book was hailed as a masterpiece work of literary integrity and has been Lish’s (along with Airships) monumental contribution to the history of American letters.

And yet so much has been written about this matter as well, from D.T. Max’s literary world shattering essay to revelations in The New Yorker to the publication of Beginners, the non-Lish-edit version of What W Talk About.

First, let us consider the Lish archives at the Lily — in the Carver boxes one can find the edited manuscripts and see just how much Lish snipped out, although one can now compare the two published versions of the book.  In our view, some of the edits made the stories stronger, less sappy (James crying and praying at the end of “After the Denim,” wisely cut); in other cases, the original versions lend more depth of character and motivation of action  (“The Bath” and “Tell the Women We’re Going”).  Seeing and handling copies of these Carver manuscripts, written on various typewriters throughout his career and with various listed addresses, from Arizona to Iowa to California, is a treat for any fan, scholar and student.

And yet it is also disturbing to behold the many x’ed out paragraphs and series of pages, and the controversial added-in sentences by the Lish Hand, sentences that were previously labeled “Carver-esque” yet are in fact “Lish-esque.”

We contend this: Carver would not have had the career, and not have the famed status today, without Lish. After all, Lish did a lot of cheerleading to get Carver into the slick pages of Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, to secure book contracts with major publishing houses, which lead to good teaching jobs, fellowships and grants, and eventually a home at The New Yorker.

Carver was publishing books and chapbooks with small presses like Capra, with 1-2,000 print runs…the question is: without Lish, would Carver have been able to break into commercial publishing, or would he have remained a minor voice in the small presses, later simply a footnote in 20th Century literary criticism?  Without the first two books, would there have been Cathedral?

Next, let us talk about the original 1981 Knopf hardback edition, something that fetches a high price on the market (for a 1st printing)…

Again, note the simplicity of the cover, only the title is presented, no flashy art design of motel room beds and women in slips and spread legs to catch the consumer eye in a bookstore…

No matter what images are on these and future editions, people will always talk more about the text inside, whether Lished-out or unLished.

This is Not the Way We Came In – Daryl Scroggins

The first mention of Daryl Scroggins — at least for the literary Lish world — was in a profile of Lish in GQ, 1988 or 89, we believe, having seen it, a small profile, with a photo of Lish at a desk, a dozen copies of Leon Rooke’s Shakespeare’s Dog on a shelf…when asked who was the hot writer on Lish’s mind, Lish said (and we paraphrase from memory): “Daryl Scroggins…he sent me a story, a woinderful story, and I’ve asked him to send everything he has.” (The exact quote and issue of GQ would be appreciated, please leave in comment box.)

His first contribution to The 1/4ly was “The Hounding” in #12, “Oracle” in #14, and “A Few Small Adjustments” in #20.

Scroggins did not have a Knopf book like we had hoped.  he published a few short books of prose, Oracle and Winter Investments, now hard to find; poetry collections The Entropy of Hunters and The Game of Kings; the latest being this This is Not the Way We Came In, from Ravenna Press (2008), edited by Cooper Renner, containing 29 “flash” fictions and one “flash novel” in the form of 20 small sections — a format similar to Diane Williams’ The Stupefication.

Only one, “Oracle,” is from The 1/4ly, others originally appeared is a variety of journals, from Carolina Quarterly to Pearl and Salt Hill.

See a poem here. Did we say “see”? Yes, you gaze, but with the gaze you also read.

Of particular interest is the flash novel, “Prairie Shapes.”  Unknown characters, a boy, woman, a man, live small time life, on a farm, and dream of mythology and journeys beyond their simple lives. Indeed, the piece reads like an allegory. It won an award and was published originally in Quarter After Eight.

We present “Oracle” from The 1/4erly #14 so you can see what a fine author Scroggins is:


“You don’t have to sing to know what birds are for.” That’s what Mama said, but she’s dead now.
I’ve got others:

“Dark thoughts live in the fire.”

“All that’s comely might have wently.”

That last one was from when she had already gone to live in the home.

She told me once, “Doug, you need to tie a string to what you’re about to forget and reel it back in.” I wish it was that easy–especially since I’m not young anymore myself. I remember our old address, and it’s been torn down. There’s no reeling that one back in. It had wood floors and high ceilings. I was about three once and sick in bed. I looked up at a window–a square of blue sky–and when I went to sleep, I dreamed only about that blue square. Some things stay with you.

My wife, Joyce, says that a woman at her work’s husband drove home from work and kept driving until he ran out of gas and had to call somebody to come get him. He didn’t even know where he was. They tried to say it was some kind of brain problem, but we all knew it was nerves–I mean, my God, the man teaches at a public school.

Now Joyce has started looking at me funny, just because I’ve taken to writing a diary. She said she never heard of anybody starting a diary by going back fifty years and trying to catch up. But I just think things ought to be complete, and I have a system. I have a notebook for each year, and when I remember something, I simply find the right notebook and write it down. Now, what’s strange about that?

I do have two problems, though. I realized the other day that, long before I get all these other notebooks filled, I will have started recording good finds from the past in this year’s diary. And since I’ll have to say something now about what I remember from then, I’ll start to have two entries for everything. This is just asking for confusion.

My other problem has to do with something almost philosophical. I was flipping through one of the notebooks I’d just made an entry in the other day–just fanning the pages real fast without reading anything–and I noticed that a bunch of white pages would flip by, and then a short group of darker pages with writing, then more white, and long or short dark, and more white, and so on and so forth. Now, I wonder: Could this be some kind of bar code? A bar code of life? I scanned through all the notebooks, and it sure looks like one. But I’m still waiting for what it all means to rise up in my mind.

I really don’t have anybody to talk to about this. Every time I present an idea of this magnitude to Joyce, she starts to giggle. Now, Mama would have had something insightful to add.

I just know I’m on to something big.

Editing with a Butcher Knife

Young Bethany Taylor at Towson University recently put her documentary project, “Gordon Lish: Editing with a Butcher Knife,”  up on YouTube.  None of the information is new, it’s all on-line, images and info, but it is still a peachy-keen nifty little doo-daad…