Writers on Writing #73: Snowden Wright
The Fictional Gordon Lish
The day he visited a class I was in, Gordon Lish, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses a bit too large, seemed to have some kind of rash. Red blotches circled his mouth. Blisters dotted his chin. Dry skin peeled from his cheek. “I’d like to say I’ve been eating pussy all morning,” he told the class, “but the truth is I’ve got shingles of the face.”
Our professor, one of Lish’s former students, had invited him. For class that week we had read his novel Dear Mr. Capote.
In the back pages of my copy, I scribbled notes about Lish. “He wears the kind of giant cowboy hat that might have once been worn by Annie Oakley. His pants are made of a waxy cloth so worn it looks like leather. He makes up words. He hates people who don’t hyphenate words that should be hyphenated.” Now, however, looking back on how it felt to hear someone say, “The absence of psychosis means, indeed, the practice of convention,” with a fanatical timbre that showed he believed it, all I can remember thinking of him is, This guy’s a character.
I am not the only person, it turns out, to have ever thought that.
Two novels feature characters widely considered to be based on Lish. Both portrayals, simultaneously in spite of and because they are fictional, offer a unique perspective on the man whose time as an editor at Knopf and Esquire and whose work with Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, and Raymond Carver, among other great writers, earned him the nickname “Captain Fiction.”
T. Gertler’s Elbowing the Seducer concerns literary life in New York City. That the protagonist of the novel, a writer named Dina Reeve, is first introduced androgynously as “D. Reeve” is only one of many indications that T. Gertler, whose given name is Trudy, based her characters on real people. “This is fiction. The characters don’t have counterparts in real life,” reads a statement in the front matter. “No reference to any person, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.” Similar to how smoking’s understood prohibition has made signs forbidding it in elevators, cabs, and airplanes about as useful as ones that read, “No Murdering,” disclaimers on characters not having counterparts in real life are pointless. A novel’s readers are going to make assumptions about the nonfictional antecedents of its fictional characters regardless of any statements from the publisher’s legal department. Madame Bovary, they will always wonder, c’est toi?
In Elbowing the Seducer, Dina Reeve begins an affair with Howard Ritchie, Lish’s apparent stand-in. Editor of a university-sponsored literary magazine named Rosemary—similar to Genesis West, a publication Lish edited early in his career, from 1961 to 1965—Ritchie is described as a “midwife to literature,” helping to discover talented new writers. “The aura of teacher lingered about him. He was a medium for talent, not a possessor of it. His name was Howard Ritchie and he wanted to make it memorable.” Well-known for his many affairs, he spends “extended lunch hours in strange bedrooms, lying on, under, and beside the women who found him irresistible,” one of whom is Reeve, an aspiring fiction writer.
Odds are Gordon Lish is familiar with the conflation of literary aspiration and literate seduction common to the incestuous world of New York publishing. In his foreword to The Secret Life of Our Times: New Fiction from Esquire, Lish writes of his youth, “I found out reading got you girls—not the choicest ones perhaps; perhaps the broody, darksome types—but from there on there was no quarreling with the good a ‘good’ book could do you.” A passage from Elbowing the Seducer exemplifies not only the title of that volume but also the possible reason Gertler based a character on its editor. “[Dina] had told secrets, betrayed her parents and her husband and her shame to a mumbling stranger in a bowtie; and [Howard] had given her the odd exhilaration of having no secrets. Before they’d spoken, he’d known her secrets by reading her story. If she couldn’t learn to trust him, she could learn to betray him.” Thus her novel is both a revelation of our times’ secret life and the betrayal of a man whom others can’t learn to trust.
Halfway through this novel based on actual people the protagonist begins writing a novel based on its characters. Gertler is writing about her life to the extent she is also writing about the same sort of writing being done by her alter-ego Dina. Such a technique literalizes the term metafiction. Whether the technique also exemplifies a common criticism of romans à clef—that they result from not just a lack but a failure of imagination in the author—only compounds a question inherent to the popularity of novels of said type. Why do readers like them so much?
In 2003, Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, a novel featuring a character allegedly based on Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, spent six months on the New York Times Best Seller list. In 1996, the anonymously published Primary Colors, a novel allegedly based on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, spent nine weeks as number one on the New York Times Best Seller list. Other examples of romans à clef include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, novels that prove the genre’s popularity is not a recent development. Their appeal is similar to that of memoirs. Both types involve gossip. It’s just that the gossip in romans à clef is scintillatingly veiled. Memoirs have boldfaced names. Romans à clef have blind items.
Elbowing the Seducer is unique in that its blind items are not based on political figures, expatriate socialites, fashion experts, or suicidal poets but rather individuals from the very industry that produced the novel. Although a book about publishing books may sound, to anyone not involved in that business, like torture by way of tedium, some of the novel’s best writing occurs when it gazes most intently at its own navel. Consider this list of guests at a dinner party:
A sexually ambiguous novelist in rawhide; his underfed groupie deseptumized by cocaine and the sere air of vicarious success; an agent, appropriately walleyed, rumored to have been the lover of a daughter of a lover of Simone de Beauvoir, or was it Colette; another agent, a sober exquisite woman joined at either hip to the two preceding guests, having been wedged between them like an extra book on an already organized shelf; and a literary critic with severe taste and cheekbones, whose new weekly spot on a local TV news show was the reason for celebration.
One would assume the element of scandal inherent to romans à clef would make publishers hesitate to acquire a novel such as Elbowing the Seducer. Referring to the fictional roman à clef being written by this actual roman à clef’s protagonist, one character, a friend of Lish’s stand-in, says, “You’ll have to change this. You can’t publish it this way. Howard has a family and a job to keep.” If she doesn’t change the novel, he goes on to say, people will end up getting hurt.
Elbowing the Seducer was published by Random House in 1984, a time when Lish was an editor at Knopf, which happens to be a division of Random House. It stands to reason that one of the most well-known authorial kingmakers would have enough influence within the company where he was employed to stop the publication of a novel in which a character obviously based on him is described as “a villain.” Perhaps the reason why he did not do so is right there in the title of the novel.
At one point in Elbowing the Seducer, Dina’s jilted husband sends an accusatory letter to Howard, noting, “Kierkegaard writes about the seducer, that he perverted the others not outwardly but in their inward natures.” He’s referring to “The Seducer’s Diary.” In that chapter of Either/Or, Kierkegaard depicts the efforts of an intellectual cad to teach a young woman “all the powers of erotic love, its turbulent thoughts, its passion, what longing is, and hope.” His method for doing so is to push away the young woman after seducing her, and his reason for doing so is a preference for interesting situations to boring ones. The seducer engineers scenes in life as a writer would scenes in a work of fiction. Gertler provides a similar modus operandi for Ritchie. “He couldn’t write a satisfactory story,” she states in the novel, “yet he’d created a real-life one.”
Ultimately the goal of either seducer, Kierkegaard’s and Gertler’s, is to create a satisfying narrative. I would venture it felt enormously satisfying for an editor who once wrote, “My mystery went before me,” to have his colleagues gossiping about whether a character was based on him. If indeed that were the case—Elbowing the Seducer getting published, despite its conflict of interest, not out of corporate oversight or rivalrous subterfuge but because Gordon Lish, man about town, liked the intrigue—he would have exemplified just the sort of hubris so often accused of autobiographical-fiction writers.
David Leavitt’s Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, an autobiographical novel about literary ambition, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000. More of a kunstlerroman than a bildungsroman, the novel concerns the development of its titular character into an acclaimed fiction writer, following him through the 1980s literary scene. Bauman, narrating while in his late thirties, recounts the trajectory of his life and career after having been labeled, in college writing workshops, “a sure thing.”
The novel wears its nonfictional heart on its jacket sleeve. On the back flap, beneath a headshot of Leavitt looking the same age as Bauman at the time of his narration, the bio begins, “David Leavitt’s first collection of stories, Family Dancing, published when he was just twenty-three, was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award.” That sentence about the author of this novel could also be applicable to its protagonist. Although neither the school nor the magazine are explicitly named, Martin Bauman, while still an undergraduate at Yale, publishes a short story in The New Yorker, its first to address openly gay themes. Subsequently, like his creator, who published that same kind of story in that same magazine while attending that same school, he uses the publication as a springboard for his first story collection, which is successful enough to make it into a paperback edition, get nominated for an award, and be featured in articles focused on the author’s young age.
Despite those similarities, the most significant correspondence between author and protagonist is rooted in the former’s college writing instructor, Gordon Lish. Martin Bauman’s college writing instructor is named Stanley Flint:
As the former fiction editor of Broadway magazine, Flint was already notorious in those days, though his notoriety was of an oddly secondary variety, the result of his having published, during his tenure there, the first stories of some writers who had gone on to become great—so great, in fact, that their blazing aureoles shone backwards, as it were, illuminating the face of Flint the Discoverer, Flint the Seer, who had had the acumen not only to recognize genius in its rawest form, but to pluck it from the heap, nurture it, refine it.
The rumors that circulate about Flint’s writing seminar echo those Lish’s own has incited over the years. “It was said that at the beginning of the term he made his students write down their deepest, darkest, dirtiest secrets and then read them aloud one by one. It was said that he asked if they would be willing to give up a limb in order to write a line as good as the opening of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.” Devotion from his students is nearly hagiographic. “His detractors are right to describe Stanley Flint as the leader of a cult. They are wrong in assuming that it was a cult of personality. If Flint was a missionary, then literature was his deity.”
Throughout the length of his career, the nonfictional inspiration for Flint developed a similar following, one that is undiminished even now. People who are still in thrall to Gordon Lish, whether due to his reputation as an editor or from personal experience of his teaching, include current acolytes of his former acolytes, syntax masochists, grammar sadists, writers so bad at telling stories they publicly declare that ability irrelevant, minimalists, maximalists, miniaturists, and anyone crass enough to begin an essay by describing Lish’s shingles of the face. Much of it seems by design. In the foreword to All Our Secrets Are the Same, Lish’s second anthology of fiction he edited while at Esquire, he writes, “Is not the station of editor correctly occupied by a fellow hunched over in silence?” He then argues that instead of being hunched over silent he has been “mixing in” with the world at large on behalf of the writers he believes matter most. One consequence of such vainglorious efforts by Lish has been the idolatry from a wide range of adherents. He celebrates himself but does not contain multitudes. They contain him.
The real question, therefore, is not why two of the writers he has influenced decided to fictionalize him in their work but, rather, why haven’t more writers done the same thing?
Prior to Martin Bauman, Leavitt published a novel, While England Sleeps, some of which was inspired by the autobiography of Stephen Spender. The English poet sued the novelist for copyright infringement, based partly on the United Kingdom’s law of moral rights, which has a much wider scope than its counterpart in the US. Leavitt’s publisher withdrew the book. Eventually a revised version was published by a different publisher.
Leavitt wrote of what he learned from walking that fine and litigious line between a play on and a rip off in a defensive essay for the New York Times. “I can’t think what greater homage could be paid a writer than to see his own life serve as the occasion for fiction. I wouldn’t try to dictate the way that writer portrayed me. Instead I’d give him my blessing; I’d even give him my encouragement; I’d tell him: ‘Write freely, in peace, without fear.’” That his next full-length novel was Martin Bauman indicates his conviction in those words.
In a metafictional twist both similar to and different from the one in Elbowing the Seducer, it is not the protagonist of Martin Bauman but Gordon Lish’s stand-in who writes a novel that mirrors its own ink-stained, dog-eared precursor. Stanley Flint’s book is titled The Writing Teacher. Hailed by critics as “a fascinating postmodernist conundrum, an interrogation of the self and of the border territory between fact and fiction,” the novel, a roman à clef à clef, includes a character based on Martin Bauman. “As I came away from it I found myself charged with emotion,” Bauman claims after reading The Writing Teacher, “a combination of humbled surprise at the degree to which he had gotten me exactly right, and a connoisseur’s gratitude for the spectacle of a well-made thing.”
His understanding of the novel as altruistic rather than exploitative attests to an essential truth of literary pursuits: Most often people read and write fiction not in order to know characters but to care about them.
Comparable to that “naked empathy” for Flint’s “cruel, unforgiving, beloved face,” both novels, Elbowing the Seducer and Martin Bauman, show respect for Gordon Lish, partly in awe of his authoritative charisma, partly in honor of his devotion to literature. The students in my class seemed to feel the same way when he came to visit. There in his floppy hat and big sunglasses, Lish bore proof that writers should be willing to give their lives to the craft of writing, editors should be willing to give their biographies, and that, in fact, some devils could not care less about Prada.