GORDON LISH, novelist and editor at Alfred A. Knopf.
Where: “I never take a vacation.”
What: “This summer, I will read for the fifth time Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. It’s a psychoanalytic reading of the soul. I will read for the third time Harold Bloom’s Poetry and Repression, and for the fourth time Harold Bloom’s Ruin the Sacred Truths. And of course I’ll be rereading my own stuff, for something like the eighty-fourth time. Why? I quote Harold Bloom: He advocates that ‘strong poets’ only read themselves.”
Donald Trump, author, The Art of the Deal (Random House).
Where: Never takes a vacation.
What: The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy. The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, by Bob Woodward. Disclosure, by Michael Crichton.
—Matthew Flamm, “Page Turners: What Lish and Brodkey, Koch and Kunstler, Ivana and Donald, and Beavis and Butt-head are taking to the beach,” New York Magazine (27 June-4 July 1994)
[Rob Trucks:] Your influence as an editor and a teacher has been well documented, but what writers have had an influence on your own work?
[Gordon Lish:] I think if I were to speak to the question of writers that have influenced me, it would be convenient to deflect the force of the question by citing philosophers I read who have, in fact, influenced me enormously, and I cite on of them, in fact, in the novel that brought you to my doorstep, Epigraph, which is to say Julia Kristeva with specific respect to her book Powers of Horror. But it’s fiction writers that you’re looking for.
Not necessarily. Kristeva’s obviously important and I’m certainly curious as to her influence. You mention her as far back as Zimzum, and she has the epigraph to Epigraph.
I want to make it very clear that her fiction certainly has not amused me in any kind of way, but I’m able to read it. But, of course, I wouldn’t even attempt to read it given that I would have to then be reading into English and I’m willing to take the view that any writing of any prospect of making its way with me would have to have been done in English. The kinds of things I’m looking for in a piece of writing can only have been put there by somebody writing in English, or writing in American English.
I read and reread Gilles Deleuze’s Thousand Plateaus. I read everything I can by Deleuze and Guattari. Giorgio Agamven [sic] I’ve read all of and reread and am rereading now. That would be true of at least two Kristeva titles, Powers of Horror and Strangers to Ourselves. I think I’ve read that one three times. I’ve read all of Bloom several times. That is to say, I’m not interested in Bloom, the critic, but Bloom, the theoretician, yes. I’ve read all of Donoghue. I don’t think there’s anybody writing English sentences that produces better ones that [sic] Donoghue.
The authors you mentioned, except for Bloom and Donoghue, all write in other languages, yet you said that you were only interested in American fiction writers. That rule obviously doesn’t apply to philosophy.
Yes, all are in translation with the sole exception of Bloom and Donoghue.
Among fiction writers, living fiction writers, none would be more immediately retrieved by me across that paddle of responses that would count more than DeLillo, surely. And then secondarily, Ozick. I would be a liar if I were to fail to remark the affection that I have had for certain of Harold Brodkey’s short pieces, so called. … I read Brodkey’s novel, A Party of Animals, in manuscript, over the course of one night … started reading it about seven and … stayed with it, I suppose, pretty incessantly until ten that morning, having completed the reading of well over a thousand pages and coming to the view that this was the surpassing novel by an American of the century.
I would now amend that view, holding Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for that post, for that distinction, if my reading of these things has any value at all.
You’re speaking to me on a day when I feel myself rather more vacant from myself than I have ordinarily felt, but each day I’m getting the sense of losing my purchase on that personality that I had sought so hard to disguise myself within and to present myself under the auspices of, and I don’t do that anymore, or I’m losing my grasp on that presentation of myself, and I’m willing to therefore offer, with my comments, the ironic interpretation that they may be completely without value. I mean, everybody else may come to that view, but I know I have come more and more, certainly, to that view.
But anyhow, “influence” is a considerable word and requires every kind of examination, and one does not want to give it, but in an “in my face” or “in your face” kind of way, Brodkey’s fictions and DeLillo’s fictions and Ozick’s fictions and McCarthy, with particular respect to that book Blood Meridian and alternatively Outer Dark, I find them unbudgeable acmes of expression in the language and cannot claim that, as distant as my work may seem from any of the aforementioned, that they are not, to a greater extent than anything else I might posit, on my mind as I write. Is this work, in its appetite, rather to say its absence of appetite, does it make a legitimate claim to a place in the national literature alongside a Blood Meridian? That’s a most disturbing question.
What I’m trying to get at is that what I want from my own activities as a writer is, to put it plainest, everything. What I want is some kind of sufficiency in reply to the incommensurable insult of death. I want everything from the page and reckon that, even though my everything may be an entirely different coloration than McCarthy’s everything, there is an absolutism, or an ultimacy, in which these artifacts can be measured, one to the other. To find oneself insufficient in the face of that, insufficient in the face of DeLillo’s 1,414-page manuscript for the novel Underworld or DeLillo’s Mao II, which I’ve just read for the fourth time, is distracting at the very least.
Is it disabling? Not quite disabling. So it appears because I continue to scribble away, and not without, I beg you to believe, the intention that the mark made by these works will be competitive. I don’t wish to make the claim that my aims exist apart from what is also in that category. I’m not willing to say that I write for myself. I’m not willing to say I write for God. I’m not willing to say I write without a great concern to see the work translated into time and space and therefore occupying, maybe not making, a place for itself with other works that have made themselves.
I don’t think I will ever, given on the one hand the terms of my ambitions and on the other hand the terms of my limitations, however much I may believe absolutely in the Swinburnian notion that one stands on his limitation, one stands on his limitude, and in standing on his limitude one shall be as lavish as one requires. It’s only from standing on one’s limitude that one can achieve that absolute lavishness. Despite all that, I’m not disabled but am much dismayed to reckon with my failing limitations, my failing powers to face my limitations, as measured against these acmes that I’ve remarked: DeLillo, Brodkey, McCarthy, and Ozick.
—Rob Trucks, “A Conversation with Gordon Lish ,” The Pleasure of Influence: Conversations with American Male Fiction Writers (2002). My emphasis.
Harold Bloom: I read it [Blood Meridian] on the recommendation of a friend, Gordon Lish, a New York book editor and a specialist in fiction. He said that it was a very splendid work, but that he was always appalled by the violence of it, and I wondered what he meant. … The first time I read Blood Meridian, I was so appalled that while I was held, I gave up after about 60 pages. I don’t think I was feeling very well then anyway; my health was going through a bad time, and it was more than I could take. But it intrigued me, because there was no question about the quality of the writing, which is stunning. So I went back a second time, and I got, I don’t remember … 140, 150 pages, and then, I think it was the Judge who got me. He was beginning to give me nightmares just as he gives the kid nightmares. And then the third time, it went off like a shot. I went straight through it and was exhilarated. I said, “My God! This reminds me of Thomas Pynchon at his best, or Nathanael West.” … I finally wrote something about it, and I was contacted by his people at Random House; they were going to put out a nice cloth-bound library version of it, and they requested to put what I had to say about it in a book called How To Read And Why in as an introduction, and I of course consented.
—Leonard Pierce, “Harold Bloom on Blood Meridian,” A.V. Club (15 June 2009)
Gordon Lish: Bloom and I had been great, good pals for a number of years; and that friendship came to a very abrupt end, not without relation to a list of writers he proposed special attention be accorded, and given that that list included on it rather robustly non-Bardic poets of the order of Rita Dove, and failed to cite Jack Gilbert for example, I found a breach of judgment of an unforgivable kind. Such a breach was one of not a few of same, and I didn’t feel I could maintain relations with Bloom with honor. […] I could not let myself keep myself in a friendly relation to him subsequent to the list that he, for whatever reasons that he was persuaded to publish it, did publish.
—Douglas Glover, “Causing Damage—Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish,” Numéro Cinq (11 December 2012); qtd. in (& transcribed by) Jacob Siefring, “‘A Breach of Judgment of an Unforgiveable Kind,'” bibliomanic (28 February 2014)
C[hristian ]L[orentzen:] How can you tell what’s good? How can you tell shit from Shinola?
G[ordon ]L[ish:] Because I’ve got the fucking gift for it. Instinct, call it. Whatever the property, in truth or in delusion, I depend on it. Without a hitch. I would regard myself as infallibly able to make distinctions between this and that, distinctions others would either not make or would withdraw from acknowledging. I would think, How can they not see? I would sit with Harold Bloom with some regularity, hand over a book I thought highly of, say, by Jack Gilbert or McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and wait for him to refuse even to look. Or if he did look, he’d not seem to see in it what I’d see. Later, when he was assembling his western canon, he stuck in, I believe, Blood Meridian and the great Suttree. All of McCarthy is great, save perhaps the novels that were so widely read – All the Pretty Horses and The Orchard Keeper. These determinations I make, rightly or wrongly, don’t come about by close study but rather by sense, in the instant, no room for a second thought. My tampering, if that’s the word, with this or that is an act I undertake by reason of the same sensation. Is it intuition? Or is it an act of recognising? I feel I know something – in the Gnostic manner, say. I cannot be talked out of it, nor, for wage’s sake or to hide in the general opinion, talked into it. I don’t go along – but am furious when others don’t go along with me. How can they not revere what I revere? How is it that my gods are invisible to them? It’s inexcusable but, of course, wretchedly expectable. Am I a zealot, a terrorist, out on my own limb? Yes, with a vengeance!
—Christian Lorentzen, “Gordon Lish: ‘Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!” The Guardian (5 December 2015)
Lish says he has already written another book but he won’t talk about it. Yet he says he’s not a writer and told the Paris Review in 2015 that he has “no stake in… being thought of as a writer.” So why, as an editor with famously exacting standards, does he write? “I’m accused, and I have no alibi for doing so,” Lish says. “It keeps me busy. There’s a Yiddish word, potzer: somebody who horses around, plays, moves a thing here, moves a thing there—who devises what would seem a personality via language. But do I have, can I do, any of the things those people I admire do? No, not by a long chalk.”
“I used to hang around with [Denis] Donoghue and [Harold] Bloom,” he [Gordon Lish] says. “We’d have lunch a couple of times a week, and also with Harold Brodkey and Don DeLillo. Bloom would toss a new book back at you and then two decades later write an introduction and say what a great book it was. I find that behavior shameless.” Rhapsodizing about the long dead is easy, he says, but critics should have “no alibi in not being able to apprehend excellence right off the bat.” He adds: “If not, then fuck them! What are they doing as critics?”
—Liz Thomson, “Gordon Lish is Still Vibrant After All These Years,” Publishers Weekly (30 June 2017). My emphasis.