theory and the creative writing classroom

an essay on Gordon Lish, pedagogy, and literary theory

Lish’s teaching was inseparable from his intellectual formation, including his extensive reading of philosophers and literary critics. But Lish was less an authentic philosopher than an eclectic bricoleur. Eschewing exclusive commitment to any single tradition, he combined the concepts and terminology of often dissimilar thinkers—from Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze, and Julia Kristeva to his close friends Harold Bloom and Denis Donoghue—while also maintaining an interest in earlier influences, including analytic philosophy and the New Criticism. Moreover, Lish’s engagement with theory was every bit as revisionary as his editing of Carver and others. As he readily admits, “if I read a philosopher, and he’s not interested in what I’m interested in, I’ll revise what he’s said… bend it and change it, to make it come out my way”. In the classroom, Lish revised theoretical concepts into provisional models for literary composition. True to the spirit of the program era, his teaching prioritized practical over propositional knowledge, converting conceptual “knowing that” into the creative know-how of craft.

read the essay in Contemporary Literature, 57:1 (Spring 2016)