according to Lish, there was “no line editing of a kind that I
would do.” Of course not!
As for the collection’s subtitle, witherlings is “stolen” from
Wallace Stevens. “What did he mean by it?” Lish asks. “I think
it says what it says. It’s not of great consequence anyway.” An
odd reply for an editor, but Lish likes the “acoustical sound” of
the word and wishes American writers concerned themselves
more with the “acoustical aspects” of writing, which he believes
British writers do.
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
After All These Years
Gordon Lish, writer, editor, and
terrifying creative writing teacher,
publishes a new collection,
White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings
BY LIZ THOMSON
The reputation of Gordon Lish precedes him. He’s known as a master of avant-garde prose and as a controversial editor (dubbed Captain Fiction in his stint at Esquire) whose slash-and-burn style has made bestsellers out of many nascent authors.
His infamous writing workshops have been described as grueling and hellish, a form of torture. He used to instruct his
students to “seduce the whole world” with their writing; the
classes apparently went beyond mere intellectual seduction.
Reading about him, and reading his latest book, White Plains:
Pieces & Witherlings (Little Island, Aug.), an autobiographical
group of linked stories, one is not predisposed to like him. But
Lish is 83 now, a somewhat mangy lion in winter who leads “a
reclusive life” and who doesn’t “let people in,” metaphorically
and perhaps literally. It’s hard to feel antipathy for a man whose
brain is sharp but whose sight and hearing are dimmed, and for
whom getting about is no longer easy. When I leave his Upper
East Side apartment a few paces from Central Park after a
90-minute chat, I kind of like him. He has been polite and kind,
looking for antihistamines to temper my sudden allergy attack,
concerned lest my perch on a high stool prove uncomfortable.
The kitchen is where Lish prefers to sit, our chat conducted
across the breakfast bar. He misses teaching, he says, and misses
the students, though he occasionally sees them one-on-one,
giving them tutorials at the local Starbucks and sometimes at
his home, where he has lived alone since his second wife died.
“Columbia has hinted that in the autumn they might want me
back to give some lectures,” he says. “I’ll do them if I’m invited.
One ends up talking about oneself.”
Our encounter is prompted by the publication of White
Plains. Lish, who has no tolerance for editorial interference in
his own work, has nothing but high praise for his publisher,
Andrew Latimer (“He’s crackerjack”), whose U.K.-based inde-
pendent, Little Island Press, is publishing the book worldwide.
Latimer’s intercessions were made with “such adroitness,” but,