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Tag Archives: minimalist fiction

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.

Stories Up to a Point — Bette Pesetsky

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.

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.

Out of Work – Greg Mulcahy

We first heard of/read Greg Mulcahy in a late 1980s issue of The Quarterly that contained his novella “Glass.”  Now, only Gordon Lish would devote 100 pages, about half the issue, to an unknown writer. That was the sort of thing ol’ Gordo did (as he did with Raymond Carver and others).

Out of Work was published with little hoopla in August, 1993 (when a big publisher issues a title in the summer, they are pretty much burying it and relegating it to catalog filler).  It contains “Glass” and 16 short short stories that appeared in The Quarterly, Caliban, and Mississippi Mud — all with the telltale Lish-edit hand: stories are 2-3 pages, minimal, full of short sentences and the language of the 1980s glammer lit.

The Los Angeles Times said of the book:

[Greg Mulcahy] is portraying more than an economic pinch. He is writing of a deeper disintegrating panic. His protagonist is not just hard up. He is an exile. He is excluded from the bright world of brands and choices, from America as it advertises itself to itself. He will finally nerve himself to join the club. It is a grim warehouse in the factory district, surrounded by rubble and protected by razor wire. To join he must work there 10 hours a week. He is no longer a shopper; he is a serf.

He is also, as the grizzling about vermicelli suggests, infantilized. And that and the serfdom are the point, time and again, in Mulcahy’s brief vignettes, some only two or three pages long. The author is writing about a society whose masters have curtailed their people’s vitality, decency and sense by stuffing them with goods and promises. When these are withdrawn after the boom times run out, only the curtailment remains, and a mortgaged future.

This intensifies the bleakness of the new times that Mulcahy is parableizing, but it is also a limitation. With a surface realism that is skewed in ways that suggest Kafka sometimes, and sometimes Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover, Mulcahy gives us the latest news. Like news, many of the pieces have a cramped sameness.

Let’s look at some of these bleak opening sentences. From the first story, “$$$$,” we get:

A message on the door. He knew about those. Throughout history, famous messages recorded for all to see. This, what was this? A bit of green paper rolled scroll-like and jammed beneath the crooked handle of the storm door. Message — more flier really. Not targeted to anyone really. Targeted to a class –say, people who ordered pizza, or home psychotherapy, or needed their gutters cleaned.




Save 80% Off Retail (p. 3)

From “The History of Amnesia”:

At work, I work with chemicals are dangerous. Known carcinogens.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I asked the shop steward about it. But he was non-committal. Hemmed and hawed, as someone said. (151)

Mulchay did, or does, have a good way with his words and sentences. Out of Work never went paperback, nor did it sell all that well.  So what happened to the writer?  According to his wikipedia page, he published a 1996 Ya novel, Constellation, with Avission Press.

No books after that, and stories here and there, recently in NY Tyrant and Word Riot.  He is on the faculty of Minnesota State College, and we’re not sure but we think he attended Lish’s big groups seminars at Indiana University.

A story, “Account,” is online at Alice Blue Review. The style and length are similar to those in Out of Work. See:


Greg Mulcahy

—Hey, you’re that guy, a guy said.

In the lobby.  Some kind of hanger-out and where was security or was there no security?  Besides, Bill did not know what the guy was talking about.  He stepped back.  Sometimes he felt like he was going up in an elevator.

The guy moved away from him.

All Bill wanted was to take care of his errand.  Minimal human contact would suffice.  Though that maybe was new; now that everything could be done without human contact, was the hunger for isolation greater than ever before?

The Japanese were rumored to have functioning sexbots.  Why would it not cross Bill’s mind?

The world being, what it was.

Pathogens being, what they were.

Not that Bill in any way shrunk from life.  He was in the lobby while others—among them his acquaintances—performed their transactions via machine.  So who was the live one now?

Who would be the live one later?

The sky, for example, in China.  Bring that up in a minute on the screen and there you were looking at that—Chinese?—sky.  Bill was not interested in denying the facts; why would he be?

The nonsense of the moment.  The idiocy of the past.  Well, time would lay it all to waste, would it not?  And Bill.  The end.  The visceral fear, the cold paralysis in his bowel.  The end.  Bill could look forward to that.  But he had to.  Everyone did.

Or California.  The sky there.

Sometimes he felt like he was floating on a raft.  Or that he should get a picture for his wall.  In the office.  Get a picture and hang it up there.  Others did.  No policy disallowed it.

Was it pisce pisce pisce?  That bird call like a foreign language.  And pisce. Fish?  Always some fish, Bill supposed.

He had noticed he was more sympathetic to men who shared his grandfather’s surname than to people he met generally.  This seemed as though it might be common to any number of people.  Why should his experience be different than anyone else’s?

When he was going up in the elevator, it felt like he was going up in an elevator.

Maybe the guy was trying to sell him something, the false recognition the basis of his pitch.  Establish a relationship.  Maybe the guy was trying to beg and Bill had scared him off.  Transaction not completed.  Where had the guy gone?

Man got all swallowed up.

Man got all disappeared.

More likely went around the corner.  Find an easier mark.  Maybe a victim of the cyclical debacle of the society’s willing ignorance.  Which one?  Or both?

Bill had his paperwork in a manila folder.  No one could fault him for that.  Paperwork always made him uncomfortable though really he worked with paper.  Always the fear some critical piece might be lost.  Less an issue now with digital storage.  But a pattern established strongly enough—

Too tired to contemplate the tiresome thought.

This was no California.  For better or worse.  Two sides to things.  Half a life in these uncomfortable, necessary errands.  Better than breaking sod with a spade in his Lordship’s field.

Grip the loose sheaves tightly.  Why?  No complaint here.  Nothing to wait in line to make his mandated election in a temperature-controlled environment.

Of course, a butcher’s shop was temperature-controlled.  He had the chance to get meat at close to wholesale.  The problem was he could only get it in half-animal increments.  Half a cow too much to store.  Half a pig no small matter.  Bill knew a guy.  All quality.  Straight from the specialty butcher.  But it was too much.  Buying half a pig, while not a solution, was strangely compelling to him.  The put up and store mentality of the Midwest, he assumed.  Funny how deeply those notions ran in the culture and how they outlived necessity.

He’d filled out the forms to move some money immediately and all for the movement of future monies into accounts that would, if everything went right, guarantee his future.

It was simple.

He had to make a mandatory election.

It was the right thing to do.

He was fortunate, though it would be a sacrifice, to have some money and the option to put it aside.

No China this.  But sometimes he thought he was nowhere.  He was not from nowhere.  He was from somewhere, but it seemed like now he was nowhere.  He came from somewhere to be here.  To be here.

Though that was not his motive.

Half a pig—sometimes he felt he was nothing but appetite.  Which had its purposes.

One had to admit.

He could make his mistake.  Who better than he?  Better he than someone else.  He would have no one to blame but himself.  He had no one to blame at all.

The magic of compound interest; that was what was supposed to work for him.  He would sit in meetings, and while he did, his money was to work for him and guarantee his future.

His portfolio might become the notebook of his failure.  He would lose it all.  They would take it all.  Might as well gamble it away.  Might as well burn it.

This was what he was supposed to do, he reminded himself.

Other people did it.

Why did Bill feel the others could do it—were doing it—better than him?

Why did he feel as though he was compelled to await the workings of an un-understood formula which was not a formula at all, but, rather, a projection or speculation?

Out the window the sun in the sky, the cars on the street.

Those new cars all silver and angle.  Wished he had a house like that.

A house like that would enable Bill to live in the future.

Those silvery cars objects, like spoons in a drawer.  Bill had seen them pictured in magazines.

Yes no one needed him and yes he served no function or maybe no identifiable function or no essential function but why was all that on his evaluation?

Bill would not believe he was the only one.

Operating within his tiny realm of choices.  The bigger outcomes predetermined.  A transaction was a transaction.  That was all.  By submitting the forms, Bill was buying something.  Why this buyer’s anxiety?  Why did Bill want to impress on the salesman that he was doing the right thing and have the salesman impress on him that he was doing the right thing?

The Chinese were about their transactions beneath their Chinese sky.

Outside the window like a movie.

The movies where the worries about the crises of the human spirit were still sometimes—albeit fitfully—expressed.  The artificial future.  The manufactured past.  Football and cruise ships and the well-intentioned medium of the sometimes spirit.

You too can be a success.  Seemed as though somebody was telling him that.

On television some kids in Africa or someplace wearing American cast-offs.  One in a donated fan jersey.  That kid a world away in the jersey of a cause unknown.

What Bill had said was important, he was told, was now irrelevant.

What did Bill care; why this appetite for approval?  Appetite.  Yes.  Appetite and its payment.  Always the price.  Penance the price of appetite.  Why did that seem so emotionally true when it was empirically so patently false?  Maybe it was, probably, it was, just him.  There was a time when the past held Bill prisoner—he was obsessed with his failures in the past—all that held him for years.  One day as he sat eating his combo meal in a fast food place with the other losers, some songs from his youth came over the sound system and refreshed him with the utter banality of the period.  He reentered his youth, sojourned in the world of his youth, and recognized how bitterly he had hated it.

Today, however, this—all this—was about the future.  Bill’s desire for a happy future.  A future he imagined somehow as outside the chain of love and habit.  He knew better.  Bill had been thoroughly indoctrinated in what to feel.  He knew that and that there was no escape.  If there were, he’d have taken it.

And he would have a different life, a life which would not have led to this or similar elections.  The dream of another life the dream of another world really.

And there was no world but this.

One day he’d go see those masks at the museum.

He’d seen the ad on the bus.  He’d taken the bus so he would not have to park.

A day in public.

—You could have mailed this in, the woman at the counter said.  Or filed it electronically.

Bill said he knew.  Pleasantly.

He knew.

Bill knew he would sit in meetings for twenty years more and end, like the dunce in a fairy tale, with nothing—with not even half a pig.

Another is “Easter” on Spork.

Out of Work is another possible contender for reprinting in paperback by a bold indie press but remains, for now, a cherished forgotten book from the editorial hands of Gordon Lish and the commercial money of Random House/Knopf.

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]