Gordon Lish Interview 1998

Gordon Lish Interviewed (1998) about the world of Fiction 
and the burden of The Reader looking over his shoulder

by Alexander Laurence

Gordon Lish has taught fiction classes for 38 years, but now he has retired. He has hung out with writers like Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, and has inspired many writers by his fiction workshops. Many writers have even claimed to have taken his classes who may have not been there. Whether yes or no, Lish is known as an editor, at Esquire Magazine and at Knopf, and now as a writer of some compelling works of fiction, starting with Dear Mr. Capote, up to recent works such as Epigraph and Self-Imitation of Myself. How I became interested in Lish recently was that I had heard he and DeLillo meet once a week, watch movies, drink and talk about women. I wanted to join them on one of these nights but DeLillo refused to join us. As I entered the Upper East Side abode of Mr Lish, with the photographer, he told us to remove our shoes, which we did, and ended up having a conversation for over two hours. Here is some of our talk.


AL: As far as the field of creative writing goes, you are a person who is known to a lot of younger writers, whether they have taken classes by you or not. Can you talk about your influence on these writers?

GL: I have taught at Yale, NYU, and Columbia. I used to teach week-long seminars and three-day seminars in various cities. I have taught privately. I used to teach two days a week at NYU. I would have about thirty students. At some point I wanted to teach longer hours. I ended up teaching as long as ten hours.

AL:  What do you think of academic writing? Were you teaching a certain esthetic or focusing on a certain type of writing?

GL: Absolutely. You have to pay a lot of money to find that out. (laughter). I have been linked to Minimalism, but I have also sponsored Harold Brodkey and Cynthia Ozick. This is a convenience for people who don't want to comprehend these matters. Minimalism has nothing to do with it. Amy Hempel once wrote an article for Vanity Fair where she was arguing for this esthetic, which she understood to be the one that I was promoting. She said "Well, it's just leaving out the uninteresting parts." My take on these matters hardly could be reduced to writing or information. I teach people how to manage to make a totality, a totalizing effect out of singularity. This term is also used in Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. It's the means by which one dilates the origin into destination. I'm very specific about that. These poetics do not confine the result, but they tend to potentiate any result. There has, on the other hand, emerged an industry of writing. The Quarterly still receives mail after being defunct for three years. Before I throw stuff away I look at things sent in and there are still people who are delighted to give you their pedigree. They offer a recitation of where they published, where they studied, and often these people are teachers of writing. More often than not, they are teachers of writing, and you can't believe that they are writing.....

AL: As an editor and publisher, has a writer's resume or history ever mattered to you?

GL: Oh no. I throw it out. I don't look at it. If I do look at it now, it's just to share the ironies of it with my students. It's comical.

AL: Do you read a page?

GL: I don't even read a page. Less than a sentence. I fancy myself being able to read a page without reading a page. There's a look that good writing has, and I have a talent for seeing it. At Esquire Magazine, I used to look at a thousand pieces of unsolicited mail a week. I do think that there is a painterly aspect to the page, in the hands of a literary artist, or it's not there. I think it's either the typewriter producing these utterances, or it's a peculiar psychological or emotional presence. It's either coming out a sense of the error that art is, or persons who think they can get it right. Those people think writing is sounding like everybody else. They don't understand that real writing is sounding like only you can sound. I don't do a lot of reading, but I do a lot of looking.

AL: What do you think of the role of the writer presently? I know that Don DeLillo has written a piece about history and fiction. Does the writer have a social responsibility?

GL: DeLillo can look at things and get them right. That is to say, get them wrong, and by getting them wrong, making them stronger. I am not competent of looking at things. All I am able to look at is language, and behavioral features in myself, as occasions to fit the language to. If I tried to do what DeLillo does, or even render that bench stoop, I wouldn't have the ability and I wouldn't have the enthusiasm for the task. I wish that I had the strength of what DeLillo's texts exhibit to the world, and convey to others a sense of what ones looking at. I follow Walter Pater's view of the object only exists as a means for the subject to enact himself. In fact, I go further, and say that you, the subject, are only present to the object because of the nature of the subject. I only see anything because of the man I am. Everybody is looking at something else. I tend to be autistic and do things an autistic person does and which is failing to see what is central to the event, and instead sees something peripheral to it. If we went to see a stage play, you might find me distracted and looking at someone in another row or looking at the curtain, and not looking at the drama on-stage. I tend to be very solipsistic and very shut off from other people. The only objectivity, authenticity, stability there is to the extent that any of these words would apply to what I'm about to say, is in language itself, but of course the language is not stable.

AL: It's really strange that in the new book you deal with so few elements, there's a solipsistic monologue aspect, but at the same time you are referring back to the text as text, whatever it's called, "self-reflective," and I'm often reminded of Italo Calvino's work. An episode may be set off by a mundane occurrence in life, which eventually disappears into the writer's voice.

GL: The two new books which will be coming out in the near future, Arcade, and certainly the one that I am working on now, all represent a more considerable descent into the very terms you just described. These books become more and more self-reflexive. And how should I say, capricious, and caught up in the paradox of the reader becoming a burden. Yet what are you doing it for unless you are positing a reader? At least one person has to read. I imagine one among the mighty dead, like Beckett or Joyce. I might be happy if Kafka is the reader. I might not be too happy if someone in my immediate family is the reader. Besides my students, I think that Cormac McCarthy, Cynthia Ozick, and Don DeLillo are the only writers who I care about, and I would like them to be my readers.