Despite the fact that he was Captain Fiction while he was editing fiction for Esquire and later worked for Knopf and discovered people like Carver, Hempel and Hannah, i.e. despite the fact that he has had a mainstream job list, Lish is not a mainstream writer, nor does he possess a mainstream aesthetic. He’s really a modernist of the experimental sort. This is a classic American misreading of the signs. He edits fiction for Esquire, therefore he is one of us. But mostly his own fiction gets terrible reviews, and, after he left Knopf, he hasn’t really had mainstream soapbox from which to pontificate and so he’s become a bit of a cult figure/teacher which is how America relegates and diminishes its off-centre wise men/women. His fiction is actually brilliant but looks idiotic if you try to apply mainstream expectations. The first thing of his I read was the novel Extravaganza which is basically a couple of hundred pages of old-style Jewish stand up comedy, old-style as in dating from about the 1930s. As the jokes go on and on and on, a rupture or fissure begins to appear and expand within the joke language itself. Through the rupture, words that belong to the discourse of the Holocaust begin to appear. The book had no conventional narrative arc; the narrative, if there was any, was purely linguistic; the words became the sign, the objective correlative. The next thing of his that I read was My Romance which purports to be the text of an extemporaneous talk beginning with Lish’s father’s watch, Lish’s skin problems, his affairs, and ends up, if it really does end up, being about his father’s death (I am writing from memory). It’s much more conventional than Extravaganza but still very peculiar, self-obsessive, recursive, confessional. If you want to see what Lish means when he talks about attack sentences, consecution, torque, swerve, etc., this is the place to start. Many of the people who study with Lish are American mainstream writers trying to catch Captain Fiction’s coattails without understanding that what he teaches is really an unconventional, unmarketable, cosmopolitan aesthetic. He wants people to be brilliant, to write for the ages (not for the dumbed-down readership of our Kindle-lit era). Everything he says could make you better than you are. Do you want to be better than you are? Or worse, better than most everyone around you, including the people who buy books?
I say all this while quite aware that Lish sells a lot of snake oil and can be belligerent, self-aggrandizing and irritating. This is mystifying to people who have been educated by the marketplace to expect brilliance in neat, digestible (half-hour) packages with commercial breaks. If it helps, think of Lish’s life as performance art.