Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Letter from Gordon Lish

In the spring of 1987, on April 3, a month before my 25th birthday, Gordon Lish accepted my first published short story, "Chinese," for The Quarterly. I had already changed the title to "Chinese" from "Table-Talk" in the hope of using "Table-Talk" as the title of a short story collection. He subsequently accepted two more short stories, "Fairness" (one I had originally called "Hieroglyphics" and "Domesticity") and "Hors-d'oeuvre." In the course of a year, we wrote notes to each other about contracts for the short stories, proofs of them, and editing suggestions. I was already writing like a minimalist, so editing suggestions were rather minimal, too. Then, in the letter below, which must have followed a sudden, plaintive burst from me -- which might be in one of the banker's boxes in my office; his to me are in a blue-dot file marked "Lish, Gordon" -- he writes that he would not be interested in publishing a book of mine.

25 April 88

Dear Ann,

I'm at your service, but what to do? Sure, I'll read, but my guess is that I am only going to see two or three entries that would make for a book I'd do. But always happy to counsel if that is the thing you want. Damn shame you wasted time schooling yourself as you did, for I am guessing that you would have profited rather considerably from time in my classes--if only in the context that you would have ridded yourself of these doubts, wantings, keenings. You are never going to survive as an artist if you are not entirely self-sustaining. I am even understating the matter--by a lot.

As for the small prose here [rev. as "Almanac"], it is its weakness that makes me say no, not its brevity. If you keep watching Q, you will see prose fictions as short--I believe several show up in Q10.

Look, Ann, you are breaking my heart. Call me if it will help any to shoot the breeze. I am always tickled to meet with you if you come to NY. Please know that my heart and mind are wide open to you. As for making it with me with your writing, the solution is simple: get the work as strong as it is in you to get it--and make certain that the surface writing could not be more exactingly made.

This was a shitty letter. No time--and nothing to say, really, to the matter before us, given that your shrei was too general for me to mount a useful statement in reply.

Be well, feel good, thrive,

Gordon Lish

P.S. My God, Christa Wolf! Does take me back.

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