Closing the Literary Circle: Marc Berley on Editing the Work of Gordon Lish

I took Gordon Lish’s famous fiction writing class a good while after Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel had changed the scene. I knew I was crazy. I was finishing a PhD in Shakespeare at Columbia (no easy load), so how the hell was I going to succeed simultaneously with Captain Fiction, a famous teacher known for stopping students at the first sentence to launch his deep critique?

But I wasn’t crazy. At Columbia I was studying the history of rhetoric and poetics, Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s Poetics, Longinus’s On the Sublime, Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry. And there stood Lish articulating for six straight hours a modern poetics informed by the mighty past. Lish reminded me of Socrates, talking without stop toward grand conclusions that got to life’s core. Lish’s rare knowledge of the English language humbled me, teaching me what I had not learned as a PhD student.

I became, Lish told me, the first editor he has ever trusted to edit.

There were no pauses in the six-hour class. No breaks for coffee or smoke. Everyone was all in. Five hours into the intensity, Lish would bring a peroration to a brilliant close and start calling on students to read their most recent work. Lish stopped every writer whose first sentence was more full of error than fictive seduction. He used such sentences as examples, teaching all the writers in the room what not to do.

If Lish liked what he heard, he let the writer read—and read. Sometimes a hush would take the room. Everyone—not only Lish—knew something remarkable was occurring: a writer with a new voice and a new story in astonishing control. Lish would interrupt such a reading only occasionally, and only to take apart stellar sentences word by word to show the ways the writer was succeeding. Lish’s ability to analyze the language of fiction was at a level none of us had ever encountered.

Lish liked the first story I read for the class. He stopped me only to praise and examine. Some nights, when the class ended, just after midnight, I shared a cab home with Amy Hempel, who occasionally attended the class that had launched her career a decade earlier. After one round of edits of my first story, Lish accepted it for publication in The Quarterly. My writing life was good.

The next semester, however, I started to struggle with fiction. I had been right from the start: I was crazy. It seemed impossible both to finish a dissertation on Shakespeare with Columbia’s rigorous Edward “Ted” Tayler and produce crackerjack short stories for Captain Fiction.

Lish invited me for coffees at Knopf and La Maganette. He offered counsel, brutally honest but also deeply caring, generous, and kind. I remember him shouting his encouragement: “You have the music!” But Lish was always going to describe in eloquent detail what you needed urgently to reach for.

Too soon, PhD in pocket, I was leaving the literary world of NYC, flying off to Wisconsin for my first job as a professor of Shakespeare. I kept writing fiction and sending it to Lish in New York. He rejected most of it, urging me to do better, but he accepted a couple more of my stories for The Quarterly. He also wrote me letters full of Lishian flare.

What next? Lish was fired from Knopf by Sonny Mehta. I didn’t send him any stories, and I didn’t see him. I published two books on Renaissance literature. In the 2010s I regained my fiction knack. One year seven top literary magazines accepted my short stories, and I felt grateful. I wanted to give back. How? By founding a literary magazine, LitMag, a print publication dedicated to reading the slush pile to find hidden gems.

During the pandemic, LitMag seemed to be the only part of my life that was unchanged and undamaged (a pandemic cannot slow submissions). I also finished a sexy book on Shakespeare.

I was finally doing it: fiction and nonfiction. And I had Gordon Lish to thank for at least half of it. I had not spoken to him in two decades, and I felt a need to call. He picked up. I spoke my thanks. With his radio broadcaster’s voice, he was gracious.

Lish inspected a recent issue of LitMag. He felt compelled to critique the cover, then apologized for his inability to withhold critique. But he praised my editing. Then Lish sent me his two new novels. I didn’t know it yet, but he wanted me to be his editor.

Witnessing him move words around the page is like seeing an acrobat netless on the high wire.

Even though it was Gordon Lish, I had to love the books and believe in them, and when I read them I was amazed. The first book, To Have Written a Book, effects a plain style that is new for Lish. I was taken by the surpassing dialogue between a witty and worldly six-year-old boy and a neighbor’s non-inclusive nanny. The plot? Murder in a sandbox followed by interrogations. Gripping stuff, and a delightful celebration of language.

The second book, Annals and Indices, goes the other way, pure tour de force, Lish the modernist pushing his avant-garde mastery past known limits while dishing a story about what it is to be human. It contains a dialogue that is among the best arguments between husband and wife ever penned. How, I wondered, could a writer excel at the age of ninety? The answer: Lish has always pushed himself.

Lish has also always been his own editor. The most renowned literary editor since Maxwell Perkins, Lish the writer has a reputation of never allowing his editors to do a drop of editing. Doubtless I could have published his books as is. But in his class Lish taught that all writing can benefit from editing and revision. So I did my thing.

Lish loved my queries and editorial suggestions. I was his former student applying the principles I had learned from him—as well as from Shakespeare. I became, Lish told me, the first editor he has ever trusted to edit. I did my editing in my office, but I also sat with him regularly. And no one, I learned, appreciates the care and effort of an editor more than Lish. The experience has felt like the passing of a baton.

Watching Captain Fiction respond to editorial suggestions with his magical abilities is a masterclass like no other. Witnessing him move words around the page is like seeing an acrobat netless on the high wire, seeking thrill and risk, averting weak-willed moves that could cause a fall.

Lish is a legendary editor, a storied teacher, and a writer often compared to Samuel Beckett. The publishing world is full of impossibility, a world of cruel dead ends. But Gordon Lish and I—once teacher and student, now writer and editor—have closed a beautiful circle.


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To Have Written a Book by Gordon Lish is available from Bard Books.

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