“Captain Fiction”

The class was taught by Gordon Lish. He’s sort of famous now, too — or he was there for a while, anyway. He was fiction editor at Esquire in the seventies. Then he was an editor at Knopf, ran prestigious writing seminars and made some kind of a stir in the publishing industry in the eighties by suing Harper’s Magazine. The books he edited were critically acclaimed stylistic bare bones masterpieces but never seemed to make much money — things by guys like Don DeLillo and Barry Hannah and Rick Bass and Raymond Carver and Harold Brodkey and Cynthia Ozick and Amy Hempel — and the five or six books he wrote himself enjoyed some critical success themselves but made even less money, which made it hard to show any actual damages when he sued Harper’s for publishing an unauthorized handout from one of his seminars. I’m not sure how it all came about.

Somewhere along the line, Gordon Lish had taken to calling himself “Captain Fiction” and charging all kinds of money to go to his seminars, and I guess it ticked him off that Harper’s went around giving away what he had to say for the price of a magazine. Nor am I altogether sure what he got out of the lawsuit, either, but I think he won. All I know for a fact is that in the spring of 1963 you could get him for free if you were under twenty-one and for seven bucks a semester if you weren’t. I got him for free myself — well, for the first semester anyway (and he was worth every nickel of it, too). The next semester I had to pay the seven bucks.

The College of San Mateo was still over at Coyote Point back then. If you’ve never heard of it and don’t feel like looking it up on a map, Coyote Point is this rocky bunch of red clay cliffs and eucalyptus trees jutting out into San Francisco Bay, just south of the airport. The classrooms were old army barracks left over from World War II. Gordon Lish stormed into one of the dilapidated Quonset huts with a leather satchel under one arm. He had his own literary magazine called Genesis West and hung out with guys like Ken Kesey and Gregory Corso. His hair was short and blond and thick; he was sort of short and blond and thick in general.

The satchel under his arm had loose papers and books sticking out around the edges, as if it couldn’t begin to contain all the wisdom he was eager to impart. His face was flushed. He was out of breath. His gray wool sport coat was rumpled. His tie was loose at the neck of a faded blue work shirt. He seemed pretty image conscious. He wrote his name on the blackboard. Big initials. Chalk chips flying here and there. I’m not an expert graphologist, by any means, but the way he screeched the “G” and the “L” across the slate made it clear that he wanted people to know he thought a lot of himself — and the way he scrawled the rest of his name showed that underneath all that initial bravado, he was as least as interested in making a buck as any self-respecting orthodontist might be. I thought that was a nice touch. If you want people to think you think a lot of yourself, you damn sure better have something to gain by it.

He thought the stuff I wrote had “merit.” He liked finding people he thought might write serious fiction someday. He was interested in…

(Whoops. I have to leave stuff out here. I got in touch with Gordon Lish through his publisher to see if I could get his permission to quote a line or two from my copy of the forty-year-old mimeographed, coffee stained syllabus he passed out to the class. He said no. I couldn’t use his quote. He declined to give me permission. Oh, well. It wasn’t that great of a quote anyway.)

…No wonder none of his books ever made any money. Not making money was his criterion for writing serious fiction. I wish Danielle Steele had been teaching the class. Gordon Lish’s dilemma was that on the one hand, he wanted to make big bucks, and on the other hand, making big bucks was anathema to the making of serious fiction. He seems to have solved it by charging all kinds of money to go to his seminars about how serious fiction shouldn’t make any money.

I was the one who got him started in the seminar business, as a matter of fact. When the second semester was over, the College of San Mateo didn’t renew his contract, so I called Lish up and talked him into continuing the class as a seminar. I had to be pretty persuasive, but he finally agreed, and for a hundred bucks each — in the form of a check made payable to the Chrysalis West Foundation — three other of his former CSM students and I all went over to his house in Burlingame and read our serious, dreary, puerile fiction out loud to each other. That was his first fiction seminar. He’s parlayed it into a moneymaking bonanza over the years.