So here I am at midnight, sitting in a Barcalounger, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish while idly masturbating. Idly, that is, not idol-ly, because Lish is no god of mine so much as he is a lazy indulgence. And if what comes of this is merely tedium with the occasional spasm of delight, then so be it. Nearly all of these one hundred Collected Fictions are written in the first person—no other people exist for Lish—which will explain this guilty pleasure: me speaking as me, but imitating him.
Perversion, awareness of language, a perverted awareness of language, brevity, comedy, stock phrases, repetition—these mark the fictions of Gordon Lish. Not the stories of Lish, the fictions (Lish enjoys italics, too). Over the past three decades, Lish has published five collections, bound now into one volume that either reliably diverts or dulls with its obsessions: men and women, literature, sex and the self.
I’m of both minds, then, here in my Barca. Lish so obviously knows what he wants out of writing—a single voice singularly voicing, a monologue that pleads but does not please. And yet it’s not what I want out of writing—which is to say utter immersion within the tale; not just facile sentences comprising facile clauses, rhetoric-schmetoric, the cant that ultimately can’t. Reading prose like “Shun negativity. Eschew negativity. Send down negativity. Turn a cold shoulder to negativity. Never know the name of negativity. Make yourself the assassin of negativity,” all I want to do is play Mad Libs, negating each instance of negation with a scatological noun.
Sitting here in my Barca, reading with one hand, it’s difficult not to pronounce the pained and painful line, the line that will make me seem even more ridiculous than any public whacking: Lish, editor extraordinaire—reviser of Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, and Cynthia Ozick—needs an editor. Less collecting, more selecting—there it is. I’m mortified. One of us has no clothes on.
In the twentieth century, editors, supposed to sublimate their egos, developed them to match writer with market: Think of Maxwell Perkins, editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, fleshing out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books while trimming Thomas Wolfe’s; think of Lish at Alfred A. Knopf, similarly editing—minimizing—Raymond Carver. Whereas Perkins worried over Wolfe’s pacing—and about keeping Fitzgerald sober and solvent—Lish’s editorial interventions went beyond deletion and reordering, as he changed words and, along with them, the very intentions of Carver’s corpus. He also bragged openly of this redaction while Carver, a Fitzgeraldian figure, drank himself away—their collaboration less amity than an agon. Since the originals of Carver’s stories are often two or three times longer than the canonical versions, what Lish did to them requires another verb. Not edit but traduce, violate, or molest. And it’s precisely this violence perpetrated by an ulterior intelligence that would make Lish’s fun, filthy fictions into something better—into Fiction.
That hazarded, try and take a red pen to this—the beginning of a piece called “The Practice of Everyday Life”:
What is it? You think it’s me? If it’s me, then, okay, then I’m not arguing, then it’s me. But what I mean is am I just being too stippy-minded all of the time? Because some of the time I think I am all of the time being just too stippy-minded for my own good. Like take this word come which they use. How come it’s come? Didn’t you ever stop to think I don’t get it how come it’s come? How come people don’t say go? You know, I’m going, I’m going, I’m going! I just for once in my life would like to hear somebody screaming my God, my God, I’m going! Oh, but they can’t, can they? They say they’re going and you think they’re making a peepee. You say to somebody I’m going, the first thing they’re going to think about you is what are you doing, are you making a peepee? Remember when your mother said to you will you please for godsakes go already? Remember when your mother would stand outside the door and say to you I don’t have all day, so for godsakes will you please go already? My mother used to do that. My mother used to say make and go. Make was to, you know, make was for you to make a number two, whereas go, go meant do the other one. It was like make was like this productive thing, wasn’t it? You make and, presto, if you did it, you made something. There was like this poiesis involved. It was like taking a dump was like having this poiesis which was involved. Okay, I am just thinking my thoughts out loud. Or how about this—how about aloud? You don’t hear people saying aloud anymore. Who says aloud anymore? But so who’s in charge of these things like this—humanity saying out loud instead of saying aloud? Remember when everybody used to call it a Coney Island Red Hot? There were these places that sold you these frankfurters and they called them Coney Island Red Hots. Forget it. You’re not interested. I was just over at my friend Krupp’s.
Etc., etc., etc.—for another two pages. Now, this fiction could be cut in different ways: It could begin with “Remember when your mother would stand outside the door”; it could begin with “Okay, I am just thinking my thoughts out loud”; or, and this might be the best solution, it could begin with “I was just over at my friend Krupp’s.” Alternately, most simply, it could just be cut altogether, for being pointless as a narrative, too long or too short for a prank, and—what’s worse—too much like a dozen other pieces in this collection.
Sitting here in my Barca, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish, I could be doing anything else. I could be describing my Barca, for one, the color and texture of its upholstery; I could be describing the room surrounding my Barca, for another; the room’s shelves and what is on them and how the items got there—but that would be literature and so a betrayal of Lish, for whom even furniture is made of language, and who would be more interested in whether I called the room’s other seating element a sofa or a couch than in telling the stories of the people who have sat there.
But while Lish’s work can always be likened to self-pleasure, self-pleasure—mine and yours—cannot always be likened to Lish’s work. It is in this way—in its personal, private aspect—that his inky spatter is truly seminal. The first person, the ascendant voice of the past two centuries—from Dostoyevsky’s underground origins to Beckett’s authorial endgame—is today the shrillest voice of daily expression: the online overshare, the chat-window confessional. What once was literature—revelatory direct address—has become blogorrhea: the timestamped account of what happened this morning, of what our peeves and attractions are, of what we do to ourselves and one another by night. Lish was former laureate of that plaint, of its degrees of self-knowledge, its valences of tone. If Lish’s soliloquies have any counsel for today’s solipsistic culture it’s this: Every “I” will always be a fiction; every first person is the last person you were.
Joshua Cohen is the author of three novels, including Witz, published this year by Dalkey Archive Press.