Gordon Lish’s 1983 novel, Dear Mr Capote, begins: “This is the twelfth start of the letter I am writing. Here is the reason it’s the twelfth start. The reason is to try out voices!” This gag – the narrator is, or is pretending to be, a serial killer boasting to Capote about his crimes and inviting him to help monetise them – is not only an oblique gag about the writing process itself, it’s a gag about the teaching process.

Lish’s chief fame resides in being the man who, as an editor at the publishing house Alfred A Knopf, cut out up to 70% of Raymond Carver’s short stories – if anyone should have been called “carver”, it was him. He is also known for his punishing but remarkably successful creative writing course (no one allowed to go to the loo, but a potty in the corner for those in extremis, according to one account). Last year the Guardian website published a piece about him listing, in the piece itself and readers comments, about 50 writers whom he has helped; and if it is true that he licked Ben Marcus into that strange shape, then that alone is testament to his talent, influence and worth.

But Lish is also a prose writer. After all, at some point, you have to get up and show that you can walk the walk. He took his time, though. Dear Mr Capote was his first novel, published when he was nearly 50. And although there have been more novels since then, he has become known mainly for short, fragmentary fiction, reminiscent in tone of the more strangled meta-fictions of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, which wrestle with the problems of language and narrative.

Read the full review at the Guardian.

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