On the teaching practices of American writer Gordon Lish
“[Gordon] Lish’s engagement with theory was every bit as revisionary as his editing of Carver and others. As he readily admits, ‘if I read a philosopher, and he’s not interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll revise what he’s said… bend it and change it, to make it come out my way’. In the classroom, Lish revised theoretical concepts into provisional models for literary composition. True to the spirit of the program era, his teaching prioritized practical over propositional knowledge, converting conceptual ‘knowing that’ into the creative know-how of craft.”
David Winters: Let’s discuss the ideas behind your teaching. I’m especially interested in your thoughts on literary originality. In the past you’ve suggested that every human being possesses, at some buried level, a unique relation to the grammar of their native language – what you’ve sometimes called an ‘Ur-language’.
Gordon Lish: Yes. In the old days, I called it a khora. An innate melody that some psychoanalysts would claim issues out of the melody of our name, or whatever affectionate name we might be given by our parents. Early in life, we have established within us a certain brief musical jotting. This is what is elaborated if we spread ourselves out into acts of writing. It can be seen in the writing of others, but I believe that it can also be consciously elicited. In order to do so, you must understand that you’re safest when you’re at your most honest – which I would be quick to justify my own scribbling as being. In my writing, I’m psychopathically engaged with the phonemic; the smallest spicule of the construct is a concern to me. At the same time, I try to give way to a speech which has its origin somewhere well beyond my understanding. It is as if something interior is determined to speak. (more…)
Around the time I began writing book reviews, I read that reviewing was “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck.” If so, the only blood I’ve ever tasted is mine. Early on, I already knew that my writing wasn’t entirely about the books “under review” so much as my internal “reading experience” – though that term might be misleading. In suggesting that my reviews reflect something of my “self,” I’m not about to recount my life story, let alone resort to that fashionable form, the “confessional” essay. On the contrary, literary subjectivity isn’t always aligned with autobiography. Right now, I’m writing this in the first person, but I perceive that person as a perfect stranger.
Put simply, I’ve never known who I am. Nor do I feel securely in sync with the world. I intersect with it at an abnormal angle – my link with life is dislocated. Of course, this condition isn’t uncommon. I mention it only to emphasize that an initial alienation led me to literature. Part of me is predisposed to treat reading as, to quote Houellebecq, a practice that pushes “against the world, against life.” At the same time, I don’t see reading as simply a passive escape from reality. As Kafka famously says, books can be “like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of oneself.” Reading is really a dual movement: books allow us to withdraw from the world, while bringing us back toward it. In reading we disappear, and yet we resurface. (more…)
A promising new title from Zero Books: ‘David Winters has quickly become a leading voice in the new landscape of online literary criticism. His widely-published work maps the furthest frontiers of contemporary fiction and theory. The essays in this book range from the American satirist Sam Lipsyte to the reclusive Australian genius Gerald Murnane; from the distant reading of Franco Moretti to the legacy of Gordon Lish. Meditations on style, form and fictional worlds sit side-by-side with overviews of the cult status of Oulipo, the aftermath of modernism, and the history of continental philosophy. Infinite Fictions is indispensable reading for anyone interested in the forefront of literary thought.’ [Read More]