Monday, July 8, 2013

My First Time: Susan Choi

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan Choi whose new novel My Education has just been published to great acclaim (New York Newsday called it "a chaise-lounge literary page-turner par excellence: sexy, smart, well-plotted, jammed with observations witty and profound, and so well-written it occasionally leaves you gasping”).  Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction.  Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and her third, A Person of Interest, a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award.  A recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation, in 2010 she received the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. She teaches at Princeton and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and sons.

My First Time With Gordon Lish

Long before Tess Gallagher's campaign to republish some of the most well-known stories of her dead husband, Raymond Carver; many years before D. T. Max's revealing research on the Carver/Lish collaboration in the archives of the Lilly Library; before, even, Carol Polsgrove's early disclosures about the Gordon Lish editorial style at Esquire; I was a recent college graduate without a clue as to how editing or publishing worked.  My fellow-aspiring-writers and I still spent a lot of time debating the ethics of the multiple submission.  Wasn't it really ok?  Would any one editor ever notice us, let alone two?  We still submitted our stories--to The New Yorker, of course, and to The Atlantic, and, right up there with the big ones if not the big one itself, to Gordon Lish's Quarterly--with SASEs, the appearances of which I would agonize over.  Remember the SASE?  If you do, you've just dated yourself.  Remember agonizing over whether to hand-write or laser-print your own address?  Whether certain stamps were luckier than others?  I knew an aspiring writer who used to make his girlfriend kiss every submission envelope before he put it in the big blue mailbox.  It must have worked; he's a household name now, and a Pulitzer winner.  Anyway, this was back in those days, and I'd never had a publication nor even so much as a hand-written note from an editor.   Then I heard from Gordon Lish--the Gordon Lish!  Of The Quarterly!  The man who'd made himself, and countless other writers, famous!  Been fiction editor ("Captain Fiction") of Esquire!  And mentor to none other than Carver!

Even had I known, then, about Lish's signature editorial style, I would have had no idea how to put it in context.  Like the rest of the general public, I was unaware of the editorial role Lish had played in preparing for publication Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, already a canonical work when I entered college an eager, aspiring writer in 1986.  I wouldn't have guessed that, as Giles Harvey summarized in the New York Review almost twenty years after its publication, the manuscript of that book had been "cut by over 50 percent; three stories were at least 70 percent shorter; ten stories had new titles and the endings of fourteen had been rewritten."  Even had I been aware of what Blake Morrison, in The Guardian, calls "the scale of his interference," I wouldn't have realized Lish's alterations were incomparably off the scale.  For all I knew, cutting half of one's words, rewriting one's ending, and retitling one's story was simply what editors did.  It was, after all, what Lish had done to my story, the one he was proposing to publish.  It had gone from 27 manuscript pages to less than 13, its final paragraph contained almost no words I had written myself; and its new title, "Lamplight," was very different in feel from my original title, "The Way to Live Wisely," which sounded a bit infantile, but at least was my own.

In Carver's case, readers can now compare the pre-Lish stories--published as a volume called Beginners after much campaigning on the part of Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher--with the post-Lish versions in What We Talk About..., and make their own judgments as to whether Carver owed Lish a debt of gratitude or a punch in the face.  In my minor case, it's harder to decide.  The evidence--my original manuscript, Lish's cuts and rewrites, and our brief correspondence, which went back and forth a few times--is buried, effectively if not forever, somewhere in my basement.  Someday, if I am lucky enough to grow old and have nothing better to do, I'll dig it up.  For now I can only go on the evidence of my actions.  If I'd agonized over the stamps on my SASEs, imagine how I agonized over this.  But in the end, I told Lish "No, thank you."  I don't recall his exact response, but it was gracious.

Barely days later, my home telephone rang.  It was Michael Koch, the editor of Epoch.  Was this Susan Choi, who'd written "The Way to Live Wisely"?  Epoch wanted to publish the story.  Now the truth is out at last: I'd multiply-submitted!

I was so astonished by this turn of events I could barely speak.  Finally I managed to say, "You want to publish it?  As is?"

Mr. Koch--who I'd later learn is one of the earth's finest humans--was puzzled and slightly bemused.  "Why--yes," he said kindly.  They wanted to publish it "just as it was."  That's what they did when they liked something--they published it just as it was.

In the fullness of time, I started to write longer things, and want more intervention from an editor--perhaps I should say interference.  I'm no longer elated, but a little suspicious, if someone wants to print something "just as it is."  Still, my ideal editor lies far closer to Michael Koch's end of the spectrum.  I'll never forget the dreadful feeling of first looking over the edits Lish made to my manuscript.  After seeing Lish's edits to his book, Carver wrote a desperate letter to Lish in which he described himself as "confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid."  Not to compare great things to small, but I get how he felt.  That was his own self on the page, being excised or transformed beyond all recognition.  At that point, even publication's holy grail no longer feels worth it.

Author photo by Adrian Kinloch


  1. Great "First Time" story from one of my favorite authors. Today, Three Guys One Book published my review of My Education just as I wrote it!

  2. did she base 'my education' on her own past???