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Lish, Gordon 1934–

Lish, Gordon 1934–

(Gordon Jay Lish)

PERSONAL: Born February 11, 1934, in Hewlett, NY; son of Philip and Regina (Deutsch) Lish; married Loretta Frances Fokes, November 7, 1956 (divorced May, 1967); married Barbara Works, May 30, 1969; children: (first marriage) Jennifer, Rebecca, Ethan; (second marriage) Atticus. Education: University of Arizona, B.A. (cum laude), 1959; graduate study at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), 1960.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Four Walls Eight Windows, Thunder's Mouth Press, 245 W. 17th St., 11th Fl., New York, NY 10011-5300.

CAREER: Worked as broadcaster, 1953–63; Mills High School and College, San Mateo, CA, instructor in English, 1961–63; Behavioral Research Laboratories, Menlo Park, CA, editor in chief and director of linguistic studies, 1963–66; Educational Development Corp., Palo Alto, CA, editor of Genesis West, 1966–69; Esquire, New York, NY, fiction editor, 1969–77; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (publisher), New York, NY, editor, 1977–94. Yale University, lecturer, 1973–74, guest fellow, 1974–80; adjunct professor at Columbia University and New York University. Chrysalis West Foundation, president, 1962–; Gordon Lish/McGraw Hill Books, editor, beginning 1974.

AWARDS, HONORS: Award from American Society of Magazine Editors, 1971, for distinguished editing in fiction; awards from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1971, for distinguished editing in fiction, and 1975, for distinguished editing in nonfiction; Guggenheim fellowship, 1984; Litt.D., State University of New York, c. 1988.

WRITINGS:

English Grammar, two volumes, Behavioral Research Laboratories (Palo Alto, CA), 1964.

The Gabbernot, 1965.

Secrets High and Low, 1979.

Dear Mr. Capote (novel), Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY), 1983.

What I Know So Far (short stories), Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY), 1984.

Peru (novel), E.P. Dutton (New York, NY), 1985.

Mourner at the Door (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

Extravaganza: A Joke Book, Putnam (New York, NY), 1989, revised edition, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1997.

My Romance (novel), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1991.

Zimzum (novel), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.

Epigraph (novel) Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1996.

Self-Imitation of Myself (short stories), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1997.

Arcade, or How to Write a Novel (novel), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1998.

Krupp's Lulu (short stories), Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2000.

Mysterium (novel) Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including Esquire.

EDITOR

Why Work?, Behavioral Research Laboratories (Palo Alto, CA), 1966.

A Man's Work, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1967.

New Sounds in American Fiction, Cummings Publishing (Menlo Park, CA), 1969.

(And author of foreword) The Secret Life of Our Times: New Fiction from "Esquire," introduction by Tom Wolfe, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1973.

(And author of introduction) All Our Secrets Are the Same: New Fiction from "Esquire," W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1977.

Founder and editor, Quarterly, 1987–.

The Lilly Library at Indiana University holds a collection of Lish's manuscripts, letters, and memos.

SIDELIGHTS: Gordon Lish first distinguished himself in the literary world as an editor at Esquire. From 1969 to 1977 he published short stories by masters of the genre, including John Cheever and Grace Paley, and introduced younger writers such as Barry Hannah and T. Coraghessan Boyle to Esquire's readers. Works by these and other authors were eventually collected by Lish in the volumes The Secret Life of Our Times: New Fiction from "Esquire" and All Our Secrets Are the Same: New Fiction from "Esquire." After leaving Esquire for an editing post with book publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Lish continued to promote major talents, including Hannah, Raymond Carver, and Mary Robison.

While working as an editor, Lish also earned attention for his writings. In his novels and short stories, Lish turns his eye inward, often looking at himself, his life, his role as a writer, and his fiction. This self-referential quality usually leads Lish to use first-person narration. Joseph Ferrandino observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "The structure of his stories corresponds, in some ways, to the structure of the Freudian slip: 'errors' of expression reveal unconscious attitudes, desires, wishes, and impulses." In addition to probing the inner secrets of the self, Lish delves into the nature of his art. Continues Ferrandino: "The majority of Lish's writing is metafictional: he is constantly exploring the theory of fiction, the notion that every story is another experiment in the telling of a story."

These notions of exploring the self and the nature of storytelling are evident in Lish's first novel. Dear Mr. Capote is a confessional proposition to author Truman Capote from a murderer offering exclusive details on subsequent killings. The book was described by Carolyn See in the Los Angeles Times as "a daring leap … down into—or over into—the private life of a pathetic, hilarious, actually very smart, crazy person." George Stade, reviewing Dear Mr. Capote in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that it "may well turn out to be one of the best first novels of the year" and hailed the work as "original in style and detail." Stanley Ellin, writing in the Washington Post Book World, offered a similar evaluation, calling Lish's novel "a subtle and profound, dreadful and wonderful addition to the literature of mass murder."

Lish's subsequent novels, Peru, Zimzum, and Epigraph all contain characters who share the name and experiences of their creator. They all explore the nature of the self and the nature of fiction. In commenting on Zimzum for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Brian Evenson wrote: "Lish is not afraid to violate taboo, to render discourse extravagant, to speak of that which others dare not, in his relentless exploration of the human heart. A consummate stylist," Evenson added, "Lish offers up sentences near perfect in their rhythmical and tonal qualities. Zimzum advances through sentential variation and permutation, employing the formal repetition common to musical arrangement, to liberate the powers of the utterance. The result is a brilliant, dark, comic novella, a book unique in American literature." Finally, Epigraph, a novel in which a character named Lish tells a story that "flaunts autobiographical details," in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Lish takes the tragedy of his wife's long dying and fashions it into an unnerving epistolary novel." The result, noted Will Blythe in Esquire, "is a grief-stricken obscenity, a brave act of self-revelation, a stinking belch in the austere sanctuary of sorrow. It's also funny," added Blythe, "displaying the incongruous and appalling grace of a drunk dancing on the bar in sackcloth and ashes. Mourning has never been quite so eclectic, so wisecracking, so self-obsessed."

Arcade, or How to Write a Novel seemed to Library Journal contributor Ann Irvine to have nothing to do with the art of the novel—referring it to no more than a rambling sort of "internal monolog and memoir," but to Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Alan Tinkler it represents "Lish at his best." Though he noted that the author catapults from the pleasures of childhood too quickly into the disenchantment of maturity, Tinkler found delight in Lish's "wonderful carnival of language," explaining that, while ostensibly a novel, Arcade is more accurately an "attempt to remind readers of the joys of languages."

What I Know So Far, a collection of Lish's short stories, also drew critical attention when it was published in 1984. Alan Friedman, writing in the New York Times Book Review, expressed special appreciation for the story "For Jerome—With Love and Kisses." The story is set in a Florida health spa hosting the parents of Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and J.D. Salinger. This final figure, known as Mr. Ess, has written a letter to his son, the Jerome of the story's title. The story finds its glory, according to Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World, in "Mr. Ess' acrid, self-lacerating, guilt-dispensing tone. He is the most spellbinding Jewish complainant since Stanley Elkin's 'Bailbondsman' raised his voice in outrage, and the story is a classic screed." Friedman called the tale "a sunny piece of savagery" and added that the ending was too stunning to be revealed. Elaine Kendall of the Los Angeles Times also showed her appreciation for "For Jerome—With Love and Kisses," writing: "The tour de force is marvelous vaudeville but it's also something deeper and more resonant; an oblique and surprisingly poignant exploration of the themes of isolation and alienation pervading and unifying the entire collection."

The other stories in What I Know So Far did not receive such unanimous praise. Drabelle suggested that "Other stories in the collection are irritatingly obscure. Owing to the excessive archness of their narrative voices, they manage to fall on their faces and make the reader feel clumsy." Yet, critic Sven Birkerts found that Lish succeeds in using his unique sense of these narrative voices to draw readers in and keep them. Birkerts wrote in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature, "The stories in his 1977 collection, What I Know So Far, progress by way of an anxious staccato, building their episodic structures along the fault lines of discontinuous speech patterns. The sentences capture the reader with their erratic and colloquial beat."

The stories in the author's Mourner at the Door, "are explorations of his favorite themes: himself, mythologizing his life, and the irony of revealing what one does not know is being revealed," Ferrandino pointed out. In stories that include "The Death of Me," "Don't Die," "Spell Bereavement," and "Fish Story," Lish creates characters who "speak in the circular, agitated manner of those under great stress, like people just released from est or therapy, people who feel they have the right to claim the floor," commented Erin McGraw in the North American Review. "Their monologues are small journeys of self discovery, and self-hate pours forth, as characters discover in themselves the capacity for cruelty, or cowardice, or cynicism." For Josh Rubins in the New York Times Book Review, however, these voices from halls of therapy did not ring true. "The first-person voices in these 27 pieces," he wrote, "though fitted out with the soul-baring vocabulary of the analyst's couch, are so mannered, so derivatively styled, as to cancel out all intimacy and empathy."

Mourner at the Door, like Lish's books before it, also turns an eye back toward itself as a collection of fictions. It is with this aspect of the book that Greg Johnson, writing in the Georgia Review, found fault. He commented that the book is filled with "gimmicky, superficial remarks on the inadequacy of fictional conventions and of language as a representational medium. The book is a rehash, in short, of insights already achieved—and with far more originality and skill—by much experimental writing of the sixties and early seventies." Other critics, such as Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Irving Malin, characterized Mourner at the Door as a collection of "brilliant stories. The stories are, first of all, deliberately short. They inform us that basic questions of 'life' are abrupt, shocking, and minimal. The stories are 'amazing'—to use one of Lish's favorite words—because they recognize that we (or the characters or, rather, the words) cannot offer full explanation."

Recent story collections also emerged to mixed reviews. The critical reception of Lish's fiction could suffer from the perceived necessity to define it. In Booklist Mary Ellen Quinn described Self-Imitation of Myself as less a collection of short stories than a gathering of miscellaneous ruminations. A Publishers Weekly critic found the collection "derivative" and "frustrating," concluding that "readers will not wish to indulge Lish as much as he has indulged himself." Library Journal contributor Marc A. Kloszewski commented: "Lish challenges the reader to find some—any—meaning behind his verbal subterfuge." Quinn, however, cautioned the reader to avoid excessive analysis: "Better just to share Lish's love of language and his sense of the absurd."

Admirers of Lish welcomed the more recent collection, Krupp's Lulu. To Irving Malin, a frequent contributor to the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the stories represent Lish's fiction at its best, though he commented: "These new stories are quite disturbing. They offer little consolation" as the author contemplates themes of being, aging, and dying through the minutiae of living. To a Publishers Weekly contributor, however, the minutiae were no more than "sheer stuff, maddeningly vague." The range of critical commentary regarding Lish's body of work seems to imply that the pleasure of reading it comes to those who are willing to work for it.

Gordon Lish's blunt explorations of the self and fiction do not appeal to all readers. Yet, as Joseph Ferrandino commented, even his critics must concede that "Gordon Lish is a writer who reveals the facts. He does not portray the pretty, the elegant, the just, or the desirable: he portrays what, to him are the truths of the human condition." Ferrandino concluded: "What others repress, suppress, and conceal at all costs Lish reveals with the flourish of a sleight-of-hand master pulling from his top hat not only a lushly furred rabbit and snowy dove but sometimes a gnawing rat, slimy with sewage. The narrative trick is the same: produce something from nothing and make the crowd gasp."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Bawer, Bruce, Diminishing Fictions: Essays on the Modern Novel and Its Critics, Graywolf (St. Paul, MN), 1988, pp. 314-323.

Birkerts, Sven, An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth-Century Literature, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987, pp. 251-263.

Clarke, Graham, editor, The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature since 1970, Vision Press, 1990, pp. 123-138.

PERIODICALS

American Book Review, November, 1997, reviews of Dear Mr. Capote, Epigraph, and What I Know So Far, p. 17.

Antioch Review, summer, 1994, review of Zimzum, p. 538.

Best Sellers, August, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 164.

Booklist, November 15, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times: New Fiction from Esquire, p. 320; March 15, 1977, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same: New Fiction from "Esquire," p. 1067; November 15, 1996, Mary Carroll, review of Epigraph, p. 570; December 15, 1997, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of Self-Imitation of Myself, p. 683.

Boston Review, February, 1986, review of Peru, p. 28.

Chicago Tribune Book World, June 19, 1983; July 1, 1984.

Choice, March, 1974, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 80.

Christian Science Monitor, June 30, 1977, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. 22; May 24, 1984, Carl Senna, review of What I Know So Far, p. 20.

Commonweal, September 11, 1987, p. 501.

Esquire, October, 1996, Will Blythe, review of Epigraph, p. 42.

Georgia Review, winter, 1988, Greg Johnson, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 840.

Hollins Critic, December, 1983, Irving Malin, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 15.

Interview, January, 1988, p. 94.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 914; November 15, 1976, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. 1236; March 15, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 330; February 15, 1984, review of What I Know So Far, p. 161; November 15, 1985, review of Peru, p. 1211; February 1, 1988, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 148; January 1, 1989, review of Extravaganza: A Joke Book, p. 8; April 15, 1991, review of My Romance, p. 492; July 1, 1993, review of Zimzum, p. 808; September 1, 1996, review of Epigraph, p. 1258; October 15, 1998, review of Arcade, or How to Write a Novel, p. 1482; April 15, 2000, review of Krupp's Lulu, p. 500.

Kliatt, April, 1988, review of Peru, p. 10.

Library Journal, January 15, 1977, Rowe Portis, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. 219; May 1, 1983, Kevin Urick, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 920; May 1, 1984, review of What I Know So Far, p. 915; February 15, 1986, Peter Bricklebank, review of Peru, p. 194; December, 1987, Bill Katz, review of Quarterly, p. 88; April 1, 1988, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 98; February 15, 1989, review of Extravaganza, p. 176; June 1, 1991, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of My Romance, p. 194; August, 1993, Ron Antonucci, review of Zimzum, p. 153; September 1, 1996, Adam Mazmanian, review of Epigraph, p. 210; January, 1997, reviews of Dear Mr. Capote and What I Know So Far, p. 155; October 15, 1997, Marc A. Kloszewski, review of Self-Imitation of Myself, p. 96; April 1, 1998, Michael J. Rogers, review of Extravaganza, p. 130; January, 1999, Ann Irvine, review of Arcade, or How to Write a Novel, p. 154.

Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1983, Carolyn See, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 10; April 5, 1984, Elaine Kendall, review of What I Know So Far, p. 34; March 13, 1988, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 3; May 14, 1989, review of Extravaganza, p. 9; August 11, 1991, review of My Romance, p. 6; September 20, 1993, p. E3; April 13, 1997, review of Epigraph, May 14, 2000, review of Krupp's Lulu, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 13, 1988, p. 3.

New Leader, July 11, 1983, Emily Benedek, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 19.

New Republic, December 8, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 29; May 28, 1984, Anne Tyler, review of Dear Mr. Capote and What I Know So Far, p. 33; May 5, 1986, Martha Bayles, review of Peru, p. 40.

New Yorker, March 10, 1986, review of Peru, p. 123.

New York Times, October 10, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 45; June 12, 1983, George Stade, review of Dear Mr. Capote, pp. 7-9; April 22, 1984, Alan Friedman, review of What I Know So Far, pp. 7-13.

New York Times Book Review, January 13, 1974, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 26; April 17, 1977, Anatole Broyard, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. 12; June 12, 1983, George Stade, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 9; April 22, 1984, Alan Friedman, review of What I Know So Far, p. 13; February 2, 1986, Stephen Dobyns, review of Peru, p. 7; May 4, 1986, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 43; January 10, 1988, review of Peru, p. 34; April 3, 1988, Josh Rubins, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 11; June 4, 1989, Robert F. Moss, review of Extravaganza, p. 15; October 13, 1991, Jodi Daynard, review of My Romance, p. 22; December 22, 1996, Karen Angel, review of Epigraph, p. 15; January 26, 1997, reviews of Dear Mr. Capote and What I Know So Far, p. 28; January 10, 1999, James Polk, review of Arcade, or How to Write a Novel, p. 16; May 21, 2000, Brigitte Frase, review of Krupp's Lulu, p. 22.

North American Review, September, 1988, Erin McGraw, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 64.

People, June 20, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 20; June 18, 1984, review of What I Know So Far, p. 14; January 20, 1986, Campbell Geeslin, review of Peru, p. 22; May 9, 1988, Ralph Novak, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 21.

Playboy, July, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 40.

Present Tense, spring, 1986, Gerald Jonas, review of Peru, p. 67.

Publishers Weekly, September 3, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 50; April 15, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 41; February 10, 1984, review of What I Know So Far, p. 188; December 6, 1985, Sybil Steinberg, review of Peru, p. 71; September 11, 1987, review of Peru, p. 87; November 20, 1987, John Mutter, review of Quarterly, p. 64; January 15, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 80; January 13, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of Extravaganza, p. 75; May 17, 1991, review of My Romance, p. 54; June 28, 1993, review of Zimzum, p. 57; March 11, 1996, p. 22; September 9, 1996, review of Epigraph, p. 63; October 20, 1997, review of Self-Imitation of Myself, p. 54; October 19, 1998, review of Arcade, or How to Write a Novel, p. 56; April 3, 2000, review of Krupp's Lulu, p. 63.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1986, review of Peru, p. 153; fall, 1988, Irving Malin, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 157; summer, 1989, Irving Malin, review of Extravaganza, p. 247; fall, 1991, Irving Malin, review of My Romance, p. 274; fall, 1993, Brian Evenson, review of Zimzum, p. 214; spring, 1997, Brian Evenson, review of Epigraph, p. 199; summer, 1999, Alan Tinkler, review of Arcade, or How to Write a Novel, p. 139; fall, 2000, review of Krupp's Lulu, p. 137.

Rolling Stone, July 21, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 118.

San Francisco Review of Books, November, 1996, review of Epigraph, p. 34.

Sewanee Review, October, 1974, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 712.

Southwest Review, winter, 1974, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 94.

Time, March 10, 1986, review of Peru, p. 74.

Times Literary Supplement, January 15, 1988, Alice H.G. Phillips, review of the periodical Tribune, p. 60; January 31, 1997, Michael Gorra, review of Dear Mr. Capote and What I Know So Far, p. 20; April 10, 1998, reviews of Epigraph, Extravaganza, and Self-Imitation of Myself, p. 22.

Tribune Books, May 15, 1988, review of Mourner at the Door, p. 7.

USA Today, January 10, 1986, review of Peru, p. 8D.

Village Voice, May 31, 1983, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 54; April 29, 1986, review of Peru, p. 50.

Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1986, Raymond Sokolov, review of Peru, p. W24.

Washington Post, June 5, 1983, Stanley Ellin, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. BW4; May 20, 1984, Dennis Drabelle, review of What I Know So Far, p. BW3.

Washington Post Book World, November 11, 1973, review of The Secret Life of Our Times, p. 21; June 5, 1977, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. G4; August 7, 1977, review of All Our Secrets Are the Same, p. G10; June 5, 1983, Stanley Ellin, review of Dear Mr. Capote, p. 4; May 20, 1984, Dennis Drabelle, review of What I Know So Far, p. 3; February 2, 1986, review of Peru, p. 5; March 23, 1986, review of Dear Mr. Capote and What I Know So Far, p. 12; August 18, 1991, review of My Romance, p. 11.

West Coast Review of Books, September, 1984, review of What I Know So Far, p. 43.

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