By Liz Thomson

IT'S unlikely that Gordon Lish has read any Roddy Doyle – it’s hard to imagine the editor of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford settling down with The Commitments or Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha. He would agree, however, with Doyle’s assessment of that most celebrated of novels by his compatriot James Joyce. “Ulysses,” Doyle once said, “could have done with a good editor.”

Lish, a sometime novelist most celebrated as an editor and teacher of writing, believes Joyce’s most acclaimed novel is “a lot of hoopla over nothing”. In Finnegans Wake, he allows, there is “some merit”, but “the only thing in Ulysses that’s been read by me more than once is Molly’s soliloquy at the end of the book. I don’t care for the rest of it all”. So much for the novel widely regarded as one of the most important contributions to modernist literature. It’s safe to assume that had Lish – “Captain Fiction”, as he signed his Esquire memos – been editing it, many of its 260,000 words would not have survived.

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Somewhat ironically, it was another great stream-of-consciousness novel, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which had a profound effect on Lish, prompting him to up-sticks in Arizona and pack his pregnant wife, their son and their home into a $50 car and drive west across the Mojave Desert, headed for San Francisco’s North Beach, “which I took to be a beach”. Kerouac idolised Joyce and made no secret of the fact that his own novel had been inspired by the Irish writer. “It is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity,” he said.

Lish thought Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were real, and assumed he’d find them in San Francisco’s Grant Avenue scene which, in the second half of the 1950s, was a mecca for aspirant beats. He did, however, befriend Neal Cassady who – both real and imagined – featured in several Kerouac outings, and also Ken Kesey, the link between the beats and the hippies.

“I was greatly fond of Cassady and greatly wounded on his behalf because I felt he was exploited by all those who knew him,” Lish continues. “He had everything to give and took nothing. Kesey I had different feelings about. He was an impresario as it were and he had an enormous effect upon me. I worshipped him and at the same time wrestled him,” literally and metaphorically. “It was impossible not to be in thrall given that I’d been in the bug house and he wrote about the bug house.”

Not so in thrall, however, that he accepted Kesey’s invitation to join the Merry Pranksters on that epoch-defining1964 bus trip. A trip in more ways the one.

Ever the editor, Lish speaks precisely. We are perched on high stools, talking across the breakfast bar in his Upper East apartment in New York, a few steps from Central Park. Curiously, when asked about the meaning of witherlings, as in White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings, his latest collection of stories, he is unforthcoming. The word is “stolen” from Wallace Stevens, he explains. “What did he mean by it? I think it says what it says. It’s not of great consequence anyway.” An odd reply for an editor, but Lish likes “the acoustical sound” of the word and wishes American writers concerned themselves more with “the acoustical aspects” of writing, as he believes British writers do.

The linked stories are autobiographical and Lish has another book on the stocks about which he won’t be drawn. Yet he says he’s not a writer and told Paris Review in 2015 that he has “no stake in my being thought of as a writer”. So why, as an editor with famously exacting standards, does he write? “I’m accused, and I have no alibi for doing so," he says. "It keeps me busy … There’s a Yiddish word, potzer – somebody who horses around, plays; moves a thing here, moves a thing there, who devises what would seem a personality via language. But do I have, can I do, any of the things those people I admire do? No, not by a long chalk.” Naturally, he doesn’t take kindly to being edited, though he did allow his own publisher, Andrew Latimer, whose Little Island Press is publishing the collection, some flexing of his blue pencil because his intercessions were made with “such adroitness”.

It is as an editor that Lish is famous, perhaps infamous. He’s championed innumerable authors, among them Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford and of course Raymond Carver, on whose 1980 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love he performed “surgical amputation and transplant”, as Carver’s papers in Indiana’s Lilly Library attest. Then there were his writing workshops, variously described as “gruelling”, “hellish” and “like some ghastly form of torture”. He’d instruct his students to “seduce the whole world” with their writing, but the classes – immortalised in two plays, Todd Solondz’s Storytelling and Theresa Reback’s Seminar – apparently went beyond mere intellectual seduction. They went on for hours, students permitted to go to the bathroom if they must – Lish would not, which doubtless accounts for what his son calls “a boggy bladder”, which has twice required surgery. Asked to read aloud from their work, students frequently did not make it through to the end of the first sentence. “I have a gift. Or I have an opinion or I have a prejudice or a bias,” Lish explains. “Would that I were otherwise, but I’m not. I have a quick sense of the destiny of what’s before me.” This is the case whether it is read aloud in class or on the pages of manuscript that poured over his Esquire “transom”.

Lish, now 83, was born in New York, the son of a milliner. A high school drop-out, he married young, working first as a radio broadcaster before reading English and German at the University of Arizona, a locale chosen because it was thought the sun would help his psoriasis. In fact it gave him skin cancer. After hanging out in San Francisco, he settled with his family in the Bay Area town of Burlingame, teaching high school English: “I had much more fun teaching the young. They hadn’t been corrupted by having read so much.” He founded a literary magazine, Genesis West, which led to his being refused tenure, and so became director of linguistic studies at the Behavioural Research Laboratories, producing such texts as English Grammar and Why Work? “They were largely for the Johnson administration but the delight was they put me in touch with writers I wanted to be in touch with, [JD] Salinger among them.” It also brought him into contact with another guy editing educational materials in a nearby office: Raymond Carver. Lish edited a number of his stories, which led to Carver’s first appearances in national magazines.

After he remarried following what he terms "an angry divorce", Lish returned to New York and a job as fiction editor of Esquire. His brief was to deliver new fiction and he informed agents he would be concentrating on “the slush pile”, the unsolicited manuscripts sent in by hopefuls which, then as now, few editors and agents bothered to read. “Instead of paying $10,000 to Saul Bellow or John Updike, I’d pay $1,000, hoping to conserve the budget so I could spread it among people readers hadn’t heard of. I’d get in at six in the morning. In those days I could look at a page of text and arrive at some kind of view of its qualities, its values. I can’t do that now because I’m quite impaired by macular degeneration so I can’t see enough, only a snippet.”

Over the course of almost 10 years, Captain Fiction published work by such now celebrated authors as Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick and T Coraghessan Boyle, as well as Ford and Carver. He also published an unsigned piece, “For Rupert – with no promises”. The stylistic implication was that Salinger had written it and the fiction, which aimed to boost Esquire’s flagging sales, led to a guessing game – and a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. Salinger’s agent denounced Lish, now revealed as responsible, as “despicable and absurd”.

The next stop was Knopf, one of America’s most distinguished houses, where Lish remained for almost 20 years, still championing new fiction. But as publishing became increasingly corporate, power draining from editorial to sales and accountants, with editors required to “present” their books, saying what each was “about”, Lish became increasingly disenchanted.

“I never felt competent to express what a book is about. It’s not about anything. Nothing but the writing. I kept my distance and the whole time succeeded in exasperating my betters by declining to attend meetings.” He is scathing about the quality of today’s editorial input. “I knew an editor at Knopf. He’d have a phone in one hand and a calculating machine over here. And that’s how he worked. It astounded me – and yet he’s gone on to great fame as an editor.”

In Britain as in America, editors, too indolent to read the slush pile, are spoon-fed by agents, who in turn outsource the reading of their slush piles to interns. “You have to be born with an agent. Do they know, these editors in publishing houses, do they know or care how to edit? I don’t think either. They’re order-takers.”

“I’m comfortable with words,"Lish concludes. “I write them down psychotically. If I come upon a word I don’t know I write it down. Their effect on me is potent and delicious.”

White Plains: Pieces & Witherlings by Gordon Lish is published by Little Island Press, £16.99