Letters: Gordon Lish Wants Tom Spanbauer’s Shoes

Editor Matty Byloos, Letters, February 28th, 2014

He told me he was going to publish “this fucker.”

tom spanbauer gordon lish

A Note from Tom Spanbauer (taken from the Preface to the Hawthorne Books edition of Faraway Places)

Faraway Places means a lot to me. It was the first time that I gathered myself up to complete a large work. I know it is only one hundred and four pages, but at the time, it seemed a real stretch. I don’t know how I can talk about it without talking about Gordon Lish. I was straight out of his class and Gordon was still over my shoulder. With each new sentence I trembled with fear, thinking that Captain Fiction would not approve.

I don’t know if you know the story of how Faraway Places was published. It ain’t pretty but it’s the truth.

Gordon read it and called me up while he was in the bathtub, making a big fuss that he was in the bathtub while he was talking to me. He told me he was going to publish “this fucker.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy. A couple days later, Gordon asked me to come to his office. What a trip, going to midtown and into those halls of power. I put on my best duds, which for me at that time was a vintage suit and a pair of black high-topped grandpa shoes. Gordon and I talked about some changes on the book, and then he proposed that I take his private class. This was impossible for me because I had just graduated from Columbia and I owed Citibank $25,000. At that time, I was working as a super. I got my apartment free and $400 a month. There was no way I could afford Gordon’s private class. Then after our meeting, he sent me a note. In the note he asked me where I had bought the shoes I had been wearing. He wanted to know where he could get a pair in brown instead of black. I didn’t think much about the note, and then a couple days later, I got another note that read: Tom, don’t forget about those shoes. I’d bought my shoes at a secondhand store on Second Avenue. I didn’t know what else to do so I set out to find Gordon some brown shoes, never thinking there was anything unusual about his request. I finally found a pair of shoes at a saddlery store on Twenty-third. Then I bought a postcard—a cute postcard with shoes on the card— and sent the postcard to Gordon with all the information on where to buy the shoes, their price, etc. That same week I received my manuscript back. In it was a note from Gordon saying that I was copying the rhetoric and style of his novel Peru, and if I was any kind of moral human being—which he was sure I was—I would shelve the book or rewrite it.

That fucked me up good. I went in the bathroom and stood under the shower until the water got cold. And that’s saying something because I was the super of that building. Finally I decided that I needed to get out and do something. Which in those days meant get drunk. I checked my funds and I had fifteen dollars. I was headed across Third Avenue and I was at Astor Liquors when I ran into a guy selling his wares on the sidewalk. I looked down and there for all the world to see was a pair of brown shoes like Gordon wanted. I thought, “Oh, there’s Gordon’s shoes!” Then after a moment, I thought, “No, there are my shoes.” The guy was asking fifteen dollars for them. I didn’t even haggle with him. Right there I put the shoes on. They were a little big, but I figured I’d grow into them.

That next week, I gave Faraway Places to JD Dolan to read, just to see if for some weird reason I had unconsciously copied Gordon. JD told me the only thing similar between the two books was that the fathers both drove Buicks. So I changed the Buick into an Oldsmobile. Then Stacey Creamer got wind of what had happened between me and Gordon and she thought she’d give me a sympathy read. On my fortieth birthday Stacey called and offered me a contract.

Now that was a happy day.

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Below, the letter from Gordon Lish to Tom Spanbauer, and then Spanbauer’s response in the form of a letter published in the Portland paper Rotund World…
gordon lish tom spanbauer rejection letter

gordon lish tom spanbauer rejection letter

Full transcription of the Lish letter to Spanbauer:

Alfred A. Knopf / GORDON LISH

1 Dec 86

Dear Tom– I read SATURN over the holiday, and now here I am,  writing you a letter that I wish might have a different substance to it ,  this because 1) I am so very fond of you, Tom, and have such a deeply sympathetic feeling for the need in you in you [sic]to get yourself on record , and 2) you are such an innately strong writer. Tom, it was real suffering for me to read this . On every page I could hear the heart in me cheering for you to make it on your own, but so often,  often enough , crucially enough, too often,  I  was made to conclude that you have still failed to divide yourself from the ehetoric [sic]of PERU–not just its rhetoric , but so often its structure as well. Tom, how can you expect me a to edit a book that is so rtremendously  [sic] imitative of the manner that I spent such a deal of time and heart on devising? Yes , yes , yes , many of my students both past and present “take from me,” and that’s fine with me–because their taking is within range of what seems acceptable and reasonable (as it certainly was , for instance , in the case of “Sea Animals”), but here is an entire novel whose voice is again and again, without much relief , almostly [sic] entirely borrowed from PERU . Don’t you see , Tom, how it would be impossible for me to edit such a book? How would I fix your sentences if they were needing? Make them more like those of PERU? Look Tom, I have  these thoughts : I think your essential story is fine, just fine, and were you to rerender the book (in a voice that was your own, your own invention, your own art), then I would certainly hope that you would come to me with the new manuscript. Or you might want to try somewhere else with the MS as is. Tom,  I think the finer course of action would be for you to  make this your OWN book,  wherever you bring it out. You are too fine a man, too moral a fellow, to love for very long happily with the notion that you borrowed so liberally from what it took another artist much sweat and heart to invent.  PERU cost me mightily. I cannot, to be sure, say that I own its manner. Once the book is out in the world, anyone who wants can take from it—but certainly it would be crazy (and impossible) for me to be the editor (expected to improve and publish well) of a book that was merely a knock-off of mine. Someone else, howeverm [sic] some other editor, that would be a different matter entirely—and you might want to elect that course of action (with my blessings, Tom). But you cannot ask of me not only to hand over to you the voice of my novel but also the best efforts of my abilities as an editor and a publisher. Tom, myself, I think you botrh can and should want to make it your own. But I will certainly understand if you go forward elsewhere—and will certainly not hold it against you. God knows that you will not be the first to have done this. And I like you, Tom—and could not possibly be makde not unlike you. But do think about my observations. I offered them when I first looked and had hoped that you would see the hint and act accordingly. But you haven’t—and so I have no hmm choice but to make mymmm positiion known to you as a result. Forgive the mess here—typing at top speed; in great rash to catch up on backlog.

Be well and feel good and holiday best to you and yours.


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…and then Spanbauer’s response in the form of a letter published in the Portland paper Rotund World… (click any image below twice to blow it up to full size)

tom spanbauer rejection letter response to gordon lishtom spanbauer rejection letter response to gordon lishtom spanbauer rejection letter response to gordon lishtom spanbauer rejection letter response to gordon lish
tom spanbauer gordon lish lettertom spanbauer rejection letter response to gordon lish

Full transcription of the Spanbauer published response to Lish:

Further Tales of the Gordon

This is a story about a pair of shoes. Like the pair I was wearing when I went to Gordon Lish’s office, to talk about my novel that Gordon Lish said he was going to publish. He had told me he was going to publish my novel over the telephone, the night before. He was in the bathtub, he said, and sloshed the water so I could hear he was in the bathtub. Spanbauer, Gordon Lish said, we’re going to publish this fucker, he said. When I hung up the telephone, I went in the shower and sat under the water and said, over and over, I said, Gordon Lish is going to publish this fucker.

I remember the first time. He was in Vanity Fair. The last page, the picture of him, Gordon Lish, Captain Fiction. Story by Amy Hempel. In Amy’s story of Gordon Lish, I read that he was teaching in the English department at Columbia. I was at Columbia, in the MFA program.

It’s a long story, how I got in Gordon Lish’s class. So I’ll just say: I got in his class.

There were sixty people in the class, Wednesday night. Six o’ clock, I think. He always wore a hat, talked about his psoriasis, and that he could go the whole class without stopping to piss. Pish, he called it.

He asked us, the first night, to tell a secret about ourselves, something scary we’d never told before. When he got to me I had to pish. I told him I had trouble with a dream. That the dream sometimes seemed like it was real. That’s certifiable, he said.

It was all downhill after that — another long story, the downhill part. So, I’ll just say he wasn’t impressed, and from then on, Captain Fiction got me confused with this other white guy with brown hair in the class.

Until the eleventh hour. The eleventh hour, Captain Fiction called it, the last day of class, when he called on me to read. I read what I wrote about my ex-wife. Gordon Lish loved it, Captain Fiction loved what I had written. He said I’d pulled out in front. Captain Fiction said, Look everybody, here’s somebody who couldn’t even write a sentence when he started out, now he has pulled out in front!

I didn’t mention to Gordon Lish that I’d never read in class before, that I’d only told him about the dream on the first day, didn’t mention it was the other white guy with brown hair in the class who had read before.

Then I graduated from Columbia and I owed Columbia twenty-five thousand dollars; that is, I owed Citibank twenty-five thousand dollars. My day job was a super of six buildings on East Fifth Street. I made four hundred dollars a month and got free rent.

I had to get to work, fast. I wrote two short stories that got published, one of them by Gordon Lish in The Quarterly One. My story was the second story in the first edition — only one story ahead of mine — Amy Hempel’s story. One of Gordon’s Girls, Amy Hempel. Esquire called Amy Hempel one of Gordon’s Girls.

Then I wrote a nove, a short novel, and gave the novel to Gordon Lish. That’s when he called me on the telephone in the bathtub and sloshed water and said, Spanbauer we’re going to publish this fucker.

The next day I went to his office and we talked about publishing this fucker — some rewriting he wanted me to do. I wore my suit and a white shirt and a deco tie and my black grandpa shoes — the kind you lace on hooks, soft leather, ankle high. Gordon Lish wanted me to take his class again — his private class that he was charging a couple thousand dollars for. I told him about my day job and about the twenty-five grand I owed Citibank.

The next day I got a note — one of those bread and butter notes, small, light blue or yellow. The note said, Tom you know those shoes you were wearing — the high-tops — do you know where I could get a pair in brown?– G.

I didn’t know. I bought mine on Second Avenue between Fourth and Fifth, secondhand.

Two days later, I got another note from Gordon Lish: Tom — don’t forget about those shoes — G.

What I do is go searching for a pair of brown shoes like my black shoes for Gordon Lish. I can’t find a pair of brown shoes like my black ones anywhere.

This whole time, I’ve been rewriting. When I talk to Gordon Lish on the telephone, we don’t mention the shoes. When I write my bread and butter notes to him, I don’t mention the shoes. What I do, every time I talk to him, or write bread and butter notes to him, is mention that I’ve bought his novel Peru and that I love it.

I was lying. Schmoozing he called it, in class. Captain Fiction called lying schmoozing. As soon as we open our mouths we lie, he said in class. Fiction is a lie. The lie that tells the truth truer. That’s what Captain Fiction said.

Oh Captain! My Captain! So I lie, schmooze, about Peru. I can’t get past seventy-seven.

Here’s the truth: I can’t afford his class. I can’t even afford his book, but I buy his book.

The truth is I want to get this fucker published.

Then I find the shoes. A similar pair — new — at a saddlery on 23rd on the same block as the new-age bookstore. The shoes are expensive.

What I do is find a postcard with shoes on it and send the postcard to Gordon Lish with the information: where he can find the shoes, how much they are, the brand name, etc.

Less than a week later, I receive my manuscript back, by messenger. The note with my manuscript is from Captain Fiction. The note says I’m copying the rhetoric and style of his novel, Peru, and that if I’m any kind of moral human being — which he was sure, Captain Fiction was sure, I was — I would shelve the novel, or rewrite the fucker.

I went into the shower. Stayed in the shower. When the water got cold I knew I had to do something. I checked my funds. Fifteen dollars. I took my fifteen dollars and went out. Movie. Indian food. Just something.

At Astor Place, a place not far away, on the street by Astor Liquors, is a man on the sidewalk selling stuff. I see a pair of high-top brown shoes.

Gordon Lish’s shoes, I say to myself.

When I get to the shoes, though, I say something else. Tom Spanbauer’s shoes, I say. The shoes are fifteen dollars. I try the shoes on. They’re a bit big. I buy the shoes anyway. Lace them up.

Figure I’ll grow into them.

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If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy reading his essay on “Being Queer in Idaho,” here.


Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).