Note the sad young literary men in suits in the background…hey, am I seeing Bill Clegg around there smoking crack?
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.
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…
Airships was one of the first, if not the first, books Lish edited for Knopf, a logical transitional choice. When Mary Hemingway picked it as winner of the Arnold Gringich Memorial Award (for former Esquire founder/editor), it was determined, by her suggestion, that Knopf be the publishing partner and that Lish handle the book — after all, half th stories in Airships Lish already worked on for Esquire.
There is a telling note on the copyright page: “Text and title have in certain cases have been altered since the original publication.”
Yes, such as the story “Knowing He was Not My Kind Yet I Followed” which first appeared in Black Warrior Review, appeared under a different title.
And here is something real curious:
In What We Talk About, the Raymond Carver story “Mr. Coffe and Mr. Fixit” starts: “I have seen some things.” In the original version from Beginners, called “Where is Everyone?”, that first sentence is there so would seem to be Carver’s words.
There is no argument about the canonical status of Airships, and that it resurrected Hannah’s faltering career — his second novel did not sell well, despite his first, Geronimo Rex, winning the Faulkner Award and grabbing a National Book Award nomination. The year after Airships was published, Hannah received the prestigious Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, then he won a Guggenheim, the Robert Penn Warren Lifetime Achievement Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of the short story.
And, as noted before, his drinking and drug use affected his ability to complete The Tennis Handsome, Ray, and Captain Maximus; and Lish had come in to pull a Maxwell Perkins to Hannah’s Thomas Wolfe.
Would Hannah have obtained his fame without the Lish Hand?
Also, look at the Knopf cover — again, just a simple title was all that was needed.
Again, a simple cover. Which is nice. The Vintage paperback, however, is akin to the Vintage edition of WWTAWWTAL:
Now that Carver have some power over the editorial hand, and felt less dependent on Lish, he asked–if not demanded–that Lish did not do a slice up job on the manuscript, which, as seen in Lish’s archives, was originally submitted by agent Amanda Urban with the title So Much Water So Close to Home (which could have been better, long like his other books)…in a letter, Lish thinks Carver is making a wrong move but he concedes and does a “light” edit on the book.
It was the last book Lish would do an edit…Where I’m Calling From and the poetry volumes were edited by Lish crony Gary Fisketjon.
In the Paris Review interview, pages of “The Bridle” are shown with Carver’s own edits:
What would these pages look like had Lish put his black ink pen to them?
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.
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.
Not much has been said, as far as we can determine, about Lish’s editing of Bette Pesetsky. Nothing was found about her work in Lish’s archives. Stories Up to a Point was published by Knopf in January 1982 — 15 stories in 114 pages.
Justin Taylor wrote a review in the January 2011 issue The Believer. Pesetsky’s stories are terse and similar, just a bit, to Janet Kauffman’s work. Like both (and Carver and Hannah, etc), Lish’s editorial hand is evident in every sentence and even the titles.
Look at some opening setences:
I was a student of people who call on the telephone to voices who talk on the radio.(“Moe, Nat, and Yrd”)
These old clippings say that my mother was an anarchist. (“The Theory of Sets”)
Mrs. B killed her spastic child. (“The Hobbyist”)
I have a garden of memories I visit as needed. (“Scratch”)
Lish published two other books by Pesetsky, both novels: Author from a Savage People and Digs, both which we will talk about at a later date. After that, she moved away from Knopf, for unknown reasons, to various publishers like Harcourt and Harper & Row.
One of Michael Hickins’ stories from The 1/4ly issue 13, “Summer Romance,” has stuck in our mind like old bubbergum on a used Reboks, a story we have re-read many times over the years, have read out out loud to family and lovers and enemies alike…and why? It’s a fine story, but is it great? Perhaps, when we first read it in 1989, we were in a place of life that resembled the events in Hickins’ story.
Every 1/4ly Hickins story was a treat from then.
We must have missed the 1991 publication date of The Actual Adventures of Michael Missing, because we did not find a copy, or bought one, until a decade later, in a remainder bin…a fine specimen of cover art by the unsinkable Chip Kidd, who did many wonderful covers for half of Lish’s Knopf books, plus 1/4ly covers.
Most of the nine stories in this slim volume (127 pages) were first seen in The 1/4ly; Lish had the manuscript since 1987 and its trip to a 1991 publication was no easy task, for writer and editor. The stories may seem “different” from what Lish usually acquired, their atmosphere and sensibility grounded in the hardboiled crime genre, but with a slipstream feel, transcending the genre cubbyhole.
One might categorize this volume as a novel told in stories, akin to Sam Michel’s Under the Light that Lish published in 1991. The nine tales are all told by “Michael,” a young man whose adventures include playing baseball, wielding a gun, having incestuous moments with aunts and cousins, and other kinky sexual encounters. To say “coming of age” would not be untrue. Look at this from “The Last Donna” and how young Michael narrates the beginnings of his fetish for a woman’s feet:
The next time, Mrs. Klein seemed to know what I wanted.
“Take your pants off,” she ordered.
She lifted her dress over her head and kept hr bra, red panties, and pumps on.
“Is this what you want?”
“Yeah,” I croaked.
She pointed her foot at me and said, “Lick it with the shoe on.”
I licked th smooth red varnish on the big toe, and then the instep laced with thin blue veins. Then I took off her shoe.
“I know just what you want,” she said, wiggling her toes just out of reach of my lips. (p. 67)
In “Summer Romance,” MM pontificates about a group in a community house in San Francisco:
They talked as if the 60s were still going on.
They talked as if everything had just ended. As if there were fresh scores to be settled. As if it still mattered who was right. As if apathy was still the major obstacle we were all talking about.
Nostalgia for when they were just starting to be nostalgic.
Rubbing the sands of time in old wounds.
Hey, you people had your chance. You blew it. Fuck you. Move over. You had the right idea. Now let me at it. (p. 84)
The book ends with a longish story, “The Profound Convictions of Michael Famous,” where a ten-year-old Michael seems to work as a hitman — who would ever suspect a kid? Or is he a kid? Maybe he just looks young, and he ages a year every week.
Later that day, an old cart lady told me the end of the world was coming. I was pretty excited. It was something I didn’t want to miss […] I went to bed and tried to keep my eyes open. I didn’t even know what the end of the world was supposed to look like. (p. 111)
We had the chance to correspond with the actual Michael Missing (and Michael Famous) a few years ago. He told us the curious adventures the manuscript of this book took, and how through Gordon Lish, he became a husband and a father…with his kind permission, we reprint the email Mr. Hickins sent, one that we are sure you will find informative and entertaining:
Gordon Lish used to teach at Columbia when I went there, both in college and grad school (79-83; then 84-86), and he had a rep for being a real asshole and not helpful to writers who didn’t suit his idiosyncratic style, so I avoided him studiously. I lived in France from 85/86 through 1997. I wrote the Michael Missing stories there and started trying to sell the collection. I would get rejected and write back to the editor saying, “well, thanks for reading; thanks for saying this is good but not for you; who do you think it might be good for if not you?” They would always reply with a name, and I would write to that person, saying so and so suggested I send this to you. Eventually I sent it to someone at Dell, a Jane something, and I said, I’ll be visiting NY in September, so I’ll drop by and see you. I guess people felt obligated to deal with me nicely because I was living in France. Anyway, she met me with the same story and suggested I send it to Gordon. “He likes young writers,” she said.
He later told me he called her to thank her for sending me along. “She said, ‘oh I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever read, but I didn’t know what to tell him, so I sent him over to you.'”
He often asked me to take his classes–he said he wouldn’t charge me–but I never took him up on the offer. I had a kid in France to support and, besides, I was still wary of him getting too far inside my head.
But we got along very well for a time, and he of course supported my writing. He told me that he paid me more for my stories than anyone else (it was $100 rather than $50), and he really went to the mat for me once Sonny Mehta took over at Knopf. They did not get along. After awaiting approval for my book, Gordon finally told me he wrote Sonny a memo saying that unless he heard otherwise, he was going to go ahead and publish the book. And that’s what happened.
Aside from Backswing of the Slugger, and the final Michael Famous story, both of which he edited and cut back a little, he left most of my stories completely untouched.
When MM came out in the spring of 91, I came to NY to do a reading he had arranged for me at the New York Public Library. There must have been two dozen people present, including folks who came to see the other person on the program read, and a few homeless people who were sleeping. My agent at the time was Kim Witherspoon (Gordon recommended me) and she brought a few of her clients–Bill Tester, Peter Christopher, Diane Desanders among others.
We all went out for drinks afterwards, and Diane, who had written a story called “The Fucking Fuck I used to Fuck,” approached me and said her “race car driving, French speaking daughter” and her wanted to open a restaurant in France, and could they come and buy me dinner and pick my brains about living in France and such.
I said sure, and that fall they came and I met Molly. Now, at the time, I was in the middle of breaking up with my son’s mother, so nothing came of that except for dinner. But a year later, I went back to NYC for vacation and called Diane to reciprocate and ask her out to lunch. She offered to make me lunch at her place instead, and said that Molly was around and invited her too. During lunch, we talked a little about Gordon because Diane was taking his class, and he was acting strangely, and wouldn’t pull the trigger on her book. He kept asking her for the key to her apartment. She’d say, ‘what do you want it for Gordon?’ and he’d say, ‘you know what I want it for Desanders.’ No I don’t, tell me, and so forth.
Well, I walked Molly home after lunch and that was the last anyone saw of me that week. We decided to get married and do the restaurant thing together. I had an appointment with Gordon and went to see him, of course, flying high on sex fumes and other delirium. I sauntered into his office and plopped myself on a chair. “Hey Gordon! You’ll never guess whom I’m going to marry and open a restaurant with! Molly Elliott, Diane Desanders’ daughter!”
At which point Gordon half-rose from his chair behind the desk, pounded his fist on the table and said, “How come you get to have the daughter and I can’t get the mother?”
I kind of laughed and maybe we changed the subject. He hustled me out of his office pretty quickly. Next manuscript I sent him (he asked me to write a novel instead of stories because “that’s where the big dogs piss”), he returned with just a scribbled ‘Good luck in the restaurant business. –G’ on a Knopf-headed note.
Back in the US in 97, Diane invited me to a party at 4 Walls 8 Windows to celebrate the fact that they had signed Gordon to a book deal for X number of books. I went up to him and said hello, and he said, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
That was the last time I saw him, and it really hurt my feelings, because he really acted like he’d never seen me before in his life, and to me, well, he was the only person who ever validated that I was a good writer. It’s been very hard since then, because I’ve probably written 4 or 5 novels that could have been but haven’t been published. I finally published one of them myself. Sometimes I think Gordon published me because he was crazy, or because he was trying to prove a point, either to Sonny, or with the Q experiment, to the publishing industry as a whole, that literature is this giant fabric and that it can be more than the handful of people that they deign to accredit.
We have heard similar accounts, of Lish not publicly remembering writers he knew in the past, helped, published, defiled…is it faulty memory or part of Lish’s iconosclasticism?
Dawn Raffel – In the Year of Long Division, Carrying the Body, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe
Dawn Raffel is not a prolific writer. She has published three books, about ten years between each, and the total words for all thre, being a little over 100 pages each with a lot of dialogue and short paragraphs, is maybe 60,000 words.
She a prose poem mistress, a precise and exact creator of perfect sentences. Like Ben Marcus, we imagine her laboring over commas and periods all night long, taking a week on a single paragraph to get things just right (write?), then sending the prose off to Lish for a fine-tuning perspective.
Can we call her work “fiction” or better, memoir? Again, like many Lish writers, her pros focuses on family, either hers or the memory of her father an dmother — Carrying the Body, a novella, is about a young girl and her father, almost with overtones of the Elekkra complex, delving into the complex relationship between parent and sibling,
From Redbook’s fiction editor, 16 short stories (some of which have appeared in various literary magazines) that coolly explore the human heart in pared-down prose. Most of the tales are set in the Midwest, where the land and the lakes seem as menacing as the relationships within families, marriages, and friendships. Many, including the title story, are about childhood; reflecting today’s conventional wisdom, Raffel’s children are surrounded by disaster, dysfunction, and despair. In “We Were Our Age,” a young girl’s friendship with a boy is shadowed by the drowning death of the boy’s brother. The narrator of “The Other R’s” recalls how she, her sister, and their mother became involved with a neighborhood tragedy when a family whose last name also began with R “had something the matter with their baby.” In “Something Is Missing of Yours,” a young girl caught in the middle of her parent’s unhappiness struggles to find a refuge of her own. The most accomplished work is the title story, in which Raffel lets a snowstorm that closes streets and schools become a metaphor for sexual difference as two sisters observe the activities of the boys across the street, who “were always breaking bones.” Other notable tales describe a troubled marriage in which a husband bets that his wife will be seduced by a friend (“The Trick”); a confused old woman who goes to visit a doctor at an address a beloved, long-dead friend had once given her (“The Seer”); and two alienated people who head north on a surreal search for a mythical house that offers peace and security (“Nightjars”). The weakest piece in the collection is “City of Portage,” a brief, self-consciously metaphorical history of Wisconsin’s founding seen through a widow’s eyes. Original, clever, and finely wrought, but too minimalist to live. Low-fat lit in need of some nourishment.
A recent critical essay was posted online at Transatlantica and, albeit a bit stuffy with jargon, examines Raffel’s first two books and the family theme in depth.
Last year, Dzanc Books published her third silm volume, Further Adventures in a Restless Universe, and shows Raffel’s brevity is as strong, if not stronger, in the first two.