Captain Fiction

“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.” — John Hawkes

LishI agree with Hawkes. Literature, especially as taught in Junior High English classes, is too important to insist on those archaic unities. Plots went out with I Love Lucy where Desiderio Arnaz clearly demonstrated that there were only three plots known to man, the rest being variations masking as variety. Character is hard to avoid but the classic importance of character development is easy to forget (no, you do not need to identify or fall in love with one of the characters). Setting is only important when the writer needs to bolster his narrative with a setting which evokes themes he (or she) is incapable of evoking himself. Do we need themes? Not really. I suspect the development of thematic fiction was good but it risked falling easily into didactic fiction and that is bad.

I might say that everything is thematic: the boy and girl theme, the levels of fiction theme, the remembrance of things past theme, the talking dog at the end of the world theme. The problem with themes is that they, like plots, get repeated a lot and no amount of variation hides a tired old theme.

One form of narrative I greatly enjoy is what I  call the “one-sided dialogue.” This is where you only hear one character speak or, perhaps more accurately, think out loud. I posted on this form recently when discussing Gina Ranalli.

I recently read Gordon Lish’s collection of short fictions called, What I Know So Far. Gordon Lish, if you recall, wrote one of my go-to one-sided dialogue novels, Dear Mr. Capote. In this highly recommended collection, the author includes another extended one-sided dialogue titled, For Jeromé——With Love and Kisses. This one is right up there with the Capote piece, the difference being that the “narrator” writing to Mr. Capote is delusional because he is whacked whereas the “narrator” of Jeromé is delusional because he is old and lonely.

If Gordon Lish only wrote these two pieces I would still rank him high amongst 20th century writers, but he did much more.

LishAt an early age Lish founded the avant-garde literary magazine Genesis West. He then went on to be an editor at Esquire Magazine and eventually the managing editor at Knopf was known to champion new fiction, publishing works by Cynthia Ozick, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, David Leavitt, Amy Hempel, Noy Holland, Lynne Tillman, Will Ferguson, Harold Brodkey and Joy Williams [see Wikipedia]. After Lish retired, he became a teacher and the list of writers he influenced is impressive. Look him up and give him a try (there’s room for a new kink in your brain, right?). I even forgive him for influencing Don DeLillo.

Here is the partial list of works as posted on Wikipedia:

A Man’s Work (1967)
All Our Secrets are The Same (1976)
Arcade, or, How to write a novel (1998)
Collected Fictions (2010)
Dear Mr. Capote (1983)
English Grammar (1964)
Epigraph, New York : Four Walls Eight Windows (1996)
Extravaganza (1989)
Goings (2014)
Krupp’s Lulu (2000)
Mourner at the door (1988)
My Romance (1991)
New Sounds in American Fiction (1969)
Peru (1986)
Self-imitation of Myself (1997)
The Secret Life of Our Times (1973)
The Selected Stories of Gordon Lish (1996)
What I Know so far (1984)
Why Work (1966)
Zimzum (1993)
Peru (2013)

And a video addendum worth watching over and over:

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