from print issue 3

This interview originally appeared in Issue 3, Gigantic Indoors.


Gordon Lish was an editor, author, and teacher. He is now, primarily, a performer for hire. This past summer, I paid the price of admission and spent twelve weeks in a hot room in the Center for Fiction in Midtown, New York City observing his arduous, infuriating, and heartbreaking piece of theater. The setting was "writing class" and Lish's role was "teacher" and, weekly, he performed without cessation for six or seven hours in his eccentric genius wizard costume comprised of waxed-up khakis, worn ankle boots, and a safari hat, the strap of which he chewed during rare seconds of pause. Here is your star, Gordon Lish: a man once so tenderhearted and trusting that he wandered around hip hangouts in San Francisco hoping to meet Dean Moriarty, turned now to a white-haired ranter, beleaguered by failures—artistically and personally; real and perceived—and the impositions of a life lived in the presence of others; Lish, who, in the ever-autumnal days of his lessening life, possesses little else but his loud loud voice, his love of language, his contempt for mediocrity, and, of course, his legend. This is how he'll tell it to you. Emphasis on legend.

The Gordon Lish performance is suitably dramatic and his writers soon became showmen themselves, offering up their egos as supporting cast. Lish manipulates the vulnerability of his student-audience-actors beautifully, making heroes of some and villains of others. Rivalries are invented; antagonism and aggression, prized. The rumors are true: people cry and faint and send themselves in straightjackets to institutions upstate; however, emerging from the daedal drama are moments worthy of genuine astonishment. After Lish finishes telling his I-used-to-get-drunk-with-this-famous-author stories, he turns to his class and asks them to stand and read a sentence. Here the collision of language spoken and the ear that receives it becomes nearly tangible, and not many have a sharper ear than Lish. He responds to his students with the mesmerizing force of a man maniacally in love with language, a true believer in the power wielded by a great sentence—the power to leave one on their knees in awe, in gratitude, in envy, in a state of grace. I have rarely seen a person willing to be so vulnerable as to desire anything as much as Lish desires to witness a great work of writing. Lish, sans-caricature, is impressive, inspiring and, in these spare moments, it finally becomes clear why so many of the best contemporary writers claim a debt to his tutelage.

In this interview, I attempted to compel Lish to speak on one of his favorite topics: television. Lish—when feeling lighthearted—would gleefully ruin the endings of the week's episode of Mad Men to a smattering of students covering their ears, hissing, "No, no, I have it TiVo'd!" He claimed to always have a television on in his home and I became curious to know if he had opinions—as many of the postmodernist authors he counts as friends do—as to the effect of television and other forms of media on the possibilities of the contemporary narrative. As you'll read, he quickly grew tired of my questions and our conversation reverts to his more well-tread speaking points. But read on, I implore you, for few are as entertaining as dear Mr. Lish.


GIGANTIC: I'm specifically interested in speaking to you about the ways that television has affected how people can think and therefore the ways in which people can read and write fiction. It seems to me that one of the major changes brought about by television is that people are simply exposed to more constructed narratives than ever, whether they be narrative arcs within television programs, seasons, or even in commercials and so—

GORDON LISH: The question is dumb because…are you recording me?


LISH: Because everything that occurs around us or within us is narrative.

GIGANTIC: I guess I'm asking specifically about the proliferation of constructed narrative—

LISH: To think that narrative is to be bracketed within a certain realm such as television or novels or so on is just silly.

GIGANTIC: What I'm saying is that one has access to more constructions of narrative because of televisions in nearly every home or the expansion of—

LISH: No, no, no, no, no. There are not "more" narratives. You can't increase narrative. It is infinite. It occurs in us and around us all the time. It's everything that occurs. There are no more narratives.

GIGANTIC: Okay, but do you think—


GIGANTIC: What? What are you saying no to now?

LISH: Narrative is always at its limit.

GIGANTIC:  I'm going to stitch that on a pillow for you.

LISH: What?

GIGANTIC: Do you think you're being a bit platitudinous?


GIGANTIC: Okay, but do you acknowledge any difference between narratives that "occur around and within us" and narratives that are constructed as a means of entertainment or art or—

LISH: Chloé.


LISH: You are not hearing what I'm saying.


LISH: Narrative.


LISH: Occurs in us and around us all the time—

GIGANTIC: At its limit.

LISH: At its limit.


LISH: There's never more of it or less of it. It's always all there is. It is all there is. It is narrative. It's not brought into the home; it is already in the home. It is the home.

GIGANTIC: So television hasn't—

LISH: No, no. Nonsense. It's all nonsense.


LISH: TV has had nothing but a beneficial effect as it has expanded capitalism, which is what keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

GIGANTIC: And television has had no other effect than that?

LISH: That's right.


GIGANTIC: In an essay about DeLillo's Americana, Frank Lentricchia says, roughly, that the invention of television is the invention of America.

LISH: Frank Lentricchia is too young to make such an observation.

GIGANTIC: You don't see television as having any effect on what it means to be an American?

LISH: I've answered the question already. I think the question is preposterous. It's like saying, "Did whispering over the fence to your neighbor define America?" "Did radio define America?" "Did hearing the wind going through the trees define America?" It is just a silly statement.

GIGANTIC: It is Lentricchia's statement. Why do you think he made that claim?

LISH: I guess he gets his living from saying such things. I mean it is just outlandish, outlandish. Not thoughtful.

GIGANTIC: Well, he is specifically responding to DeLillo's work. In White Noise, the television functions both as a tool that brings death deeply within the individual American home and also as a tool that distracts a family from facing the fear of death. Do you think the television has changed the relationship between the individual and their understanding of their mortality?

LISH: Are you asking me about White Noise or are you asking me about television again?

GIGANTIC: I'm asking if you think that, because television allows us to see death in a new way, closely, in our living rooms, if—

LISH: I don't think that's true. I think that's nonsense. We see death. People die. They are seen dying. Have you ever seen anybody die?


LISH: All right, so have you been shielded from death because you, ah, didn't watch television? Death is all around us. People die. We all die. You're going to die. I'm going to die. It will be seen.

GIGANTIC: Well, certainly television brings death to us in a new way—

LISH: No, I think this is absurd. Everything that occurs to us, instant by instant, is new. It hasn't occurred to us before. It's new. Television is not in this category. It is not new in that sense. It's like anything else that we undergo: It occurs. Boom. Here it comes again. Boom. Here it comes again. It is neither new nor old. It is what is. That is all. It's nonsense to interrogate matters of this kind. They are the ambient fluid in which we move. They are the infinitude in which we exist.

GIGANTIC: If these things are constantly around us—

LISH: That is right, they are constant. They are the elements. They are the element. They are elemental.

GIGANTIC: Okay, well, one of the things you asked us in class was how we, as writers, would sever ourselves from "the noise"—all these things around us, television, being a part of that "noise," right?

LISH: Yes.

GIGANTIC: So do you think that is any more difficult now—

LISH: I think we should, if we are determined to project our own noise louder than the noise around us. It is necessary to attempt some kind of severance between ourselves and the noise that is everywhere thus. Is that doable? I don't know that it is doable, but one makes the effort. We have to first be cocky enough; we have to first be solipsistic enough, to believe that our noise, the noise we hope to project, is the noise worth hearing.

GIGANTIC: How does one move to that point?

LISH: Arrogance. Desire. Need. Wanting. Will.

GIGANTIC: You said in class—and this is certainly echoed in Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence—that our words are always struggling against the weight of the influence of others. I believe you said, if you copy another, the psychism is forever dirty.

LISH: Contaminated. Yes. Shamed. You could apply this to everyone who writes, everyone who sings a song, everyone who produces any kind of creative act to the extent that it is informed by prior creative acts. In what you are calling the noise, it is less than. To the extent that it is not, to the extent that it seems—and it is always an apparition, it can never be proved—but to the extent to which it seems detached from or discrete from all that it is, is the extent to which one feels that one has done something worthy, to the extent that one feels one has achieved a kind of exception. Can this be tested by laboratory method? Of course it can't. Every one of us, and I mean all of us, each person who exists in other than the naked state and has some time left over for thought, examines the extent to which that thought, that act, that gesture, is an original one.

GIGANTIC: It seems a daunting task to find a way to speak against all the influence and, as you said in class, there are already these giants in the earth, these writers of such accomplishment who already have written and the task of getting in to the ring with them seems so impossible—

LISH: One has no choice. There is no place else to be. One either absents himself entirely from the game or one tries to invent the game, tries to create a game that is distinct from other games and that seems to be the life job. That is what I think we must do and if we don't, then I think we perish less interestingly.

GIGANTIC: With the expansion of media, there are more artistic—

LISH: I don't think that's true. I really don't think that's true. I think that's a kind of loose assumption. The expansion of media? Media at any given time is equal to whom the media is addressed.

GIGANTIC: You don't think it is harder today—

LISH: No, no. Nothing has changed. There are no alibis.

GIGANTIC: How did you navigate this working against influence in your writing?

LISH: I think I answered the question already by saying arrogance. Another way to put it would be self-delusion.

GIGANTIC: How successful do you think you are in deluding yourself?

LISH: I'm no longer any good at it. I haven't been good at it for years. There was a time when I believed myself to be good at it. Certainly, I no longer am. It helped to drink. That was great. Being drunk all the time was a great aid. Being drunk much of the time. Being either drunk on myself or drunk with spirits. In some way transfixed by some specter I had iterated by reason of self-delusion.


GIGANTIC: You talked in class to think of writing as a speech act.

LISH: Yes.

GIGANTIC: To try to speak with truth.

LISH: Well, truth, I don't know about that. I don't know if any of us can speak with truth. We can say what is in our mouths. Can we say what is in our minds? I'm not so sure that's doable. We certainly can produce what is in our mouths, mainly without thought. Without thought. I think, and this is certainly an ancient observation, that thought is what does us in every time. Heroes have said in the past and will say in the future, don't think about it. Just do it. Isn't that Nike? Just do it?


LISH: Well, there you go. Mass killers have the same motto, don't they?

GIGANTIC: I guess so.

LISH: There it is. It's creativity.

GIGANTIC: All artists must be fascists.

LISH: Yes, I do believe that. I do believe that is true. I think that is absolutely the case. If only because we think of the fascist as he who would behold all beings turned out the same way. They should all be marching in the same line, wearing the same uniform. I think anyone who sits down to his paper with a pencil tends to wish for just that kind of recumbency in his audience. Let them all be of one mind and of one manner. Let them all, as they encounter what I make here, see it as I wish them to see it, the same way, not differently, not uniquely, not individually. I want them all marching in the same line.

GIGANTIC: In class, when you would explain writing as an act of speech, I'd often think of something Socrates said which is something like, if one wishes to speak in a manner that reaches others, he must speak with the full force of his intelligence, character, and good will and you've spoken frequently as to one's—

LISH: I don't know if Socrates can be admired for that observation. Intelligence, character, and good will? I don't think any of them apply. In order for one to be listened to, he must speak with intelligence, character, and good will? No. He must speak with the menace of death at hand. He'll be listened to then. That's where we have the popularity of the Bible, don't we?

GIGANTIC: Do you think there is any place for "good will" in writing?

LISH: It doesn't enter the question at all. It is as irrelevant as television. Who is to say what is good will or bad will? It's nonsense. Good will? Meaning what, exactly? One wants some kind of happy occurrence for the person whose ears one's words fall upon? No. That's all crazy.

GIGANTIC: Is it possible that Socrates was saying to speak with the other in mind?

LISH: Well, he was a nice guy as Greeks go.

GIGANTIC: You've spoken before that it is a writer's job to displace the other.

LISH: To displace the other, yes. That goes back to what I was saying. I remarked on that. I spoke of arrogance. Delusion, the will, yes. Project your voice louder than the other, sure. Have the loudest voice. Wasn't that the title of Grace Paley's story? "The Loudest Voice"?


LISH: She didn't sing well, but she sang louder than everybody else. That was her merit. That was her triumph. She had the loudest voice. There is a way that we can agree that decibels are measurable. The quality of a voice, whether it is a voice we find pleasing or not, is a matter of disposition subject to our subjectivity, but decibels, that we can measure. We can find out who has the loudest voice. So, in a kind of way, it's not a bad thing to have as a kind of measure. It is susceptible to less debate.

GIGANTIC: It seems that the "loudest voice" comes less from some idyllic or romantic idea of talent and more from incomparable desire.

LISH: We agree.

GIGANTIC: Where does such desire come from?

LISH: Being human.

GIGANTIC: Some seem so mortified, terrified, to attempt

LISH: They've been dehumanized. Early on.


Chloé Cooper Jones's fiction has appeared in The Black Warrior Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. More information about Chloé can be found at

Art by Andrew Bulger.

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