25 Women to Read Before You Die

KAPOW! celebrating ten years at Powells.com
KAPOW! Decade of Reading essay contest
What was your most memorable reading experience of the last ten years?

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Powells.com, we're asking readers worldwide to describe their most memorable reading experience of the past ten years. To get you started, a few well-known writers and Powell's employees have already taken the question for a spin. Here is one of their answers.
Dear Mr. Capote

Dear Mr. Capote

"Lish's novel speaks in the contradictory cadences and from the skull-chambers of an underground mind. Sinister and vulnerable, lurid and tender, terrifying and pitiable, it is a voice that shocks with the shock of poetry." Cynthia Ozick

"[Lish] wrings from his monster's suffering the special exhilaration that is hard to get from anything but the most exciting art." The New York Times Book Review

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Kevin Sampsell on Gordon Lish and His "Family Tree"

Nineteen ninety-four was a year that provided another step on my twisted path to literary enlightenment. I say this because it was only a few years previous that I developed a reading habit, a book fever, a word-loving codependency. All because an ex-girlfriend made fun of me for not being the least bit read.

I spent my early twenties catching up, reading some of "the fun stuff" (Vonnegut, etc.), some of "the essentials" (Dostoyevsky, etc.), and a smattering of "the beats" (Kerouac, etc.) — stuff that I should have read in my teens. I was never what you'd call a reader until my mid-twenties. My childhood was spent stealing candy bars, listening to records alone in my room, and buying-but-never-actually-reading Marvel comics.

So by the summer of '94, I had managed a sort of Extreme Literary Makeover. I had read enough of the aforementioned categories to realize I wanted a little bit of what they all had to offer — the entertainment value, the serious attention to craft, and the almost freestyle bending and breaking of rules that pushed writing into new territories.

A friend of mine recommended something by Gordon Lish. The book was Dear Mr. Capote, a disturbing novel about a man writing letters to Truman Capote about his plan to kill forty-seven women. The narrator speaks to you like a demented true-crime writer reciting a case study. There are letters started and abandoned, recollections of old schoolmates, constantly tweaked repetition, and enough Freudian material to keep a couch warm for days.

Right away, I started in on Lish's other books. They too were full of odd wordplay, eviscerating details, and personal asides most writers wouldn't dare print.

I found out that he was an editor at Knopf and Esquire. He also ran a literary journal (The Quarterly) and did workshops, one of which I took on a rare stop of his in Portland. I listened to Lish spin, weave, and repeat his stories, rants, and philosophies. Eight hours a day for five days. No lunch break, no bathroom. It was the Lish show... and it was pretty enthralling.

In the couple of years that followed, I tried to get into some of the other writers that GL touted. Many of them I thought paled in comparison to him (like DeLillo). But eventually I discovered a sacred trio of ex-Lish students: Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, and Diane Williams.

Lutz's first collection, Stories in the Worst Way, was published by Knopf but then faded quickly after Lish left his editorial position. What little response Lutz's language-bending stories received ranged from slobbery worship (mainly from other writers) to confused anger (many readers accused him of being a show-off). What could have been a groundbreaking success died in some neglected remainder hell.

Ben Marcus, also published by Knopf, suffered a similar fate when his book, The Age of Wire and String, came out around the same time. Marcus's uncategorical postmodern flash fictions had to have their own glossary, as Marcus recast words in brilliant and hysterical ways.

Diane Williams had several books out, though I suspected that her audience was marginal. Her short blurts of fiction were often more confounding than Lutz and Marcus. But I admired her blunt and unsettling treatment of a subject matter usually dulled down: Relationships.

For a long time it seemed as if I coveted these writers by myself. But in the last couple of years, an enthusiastic readership has caught up with them and newer work has appeared. Gary Lutz has a new and denser set of stories out called I Looked Alive. Ben Marcus keeps popping up in various magazines and his 2002 book, Notable American Women, proved again that his style is uncomparable. The Age of Wire and String, meanwhile, was heroically salvaged by Dalkey Archive. Diane Williams has also been snatched by Dalkey and her beautiful literary magazine Noon has turned into a top-notch journal.

Gordon Lish's influential bloodline could be seen as some wildly unpruned family tree. Tom Spanbauer was a student at one time. And then Spanbauer taught people as disparate as Chuck Palahniuk and Joanna Rose. Amy Hempel has a branch. The amazing Sam Lipsyte. Robert Coover's connected in there somewhere, too.

I'm not sure in what direction my reading would have gone had I not read Dear Mr. Capote. Like so many books that prove key to other people's subsequent discoveries, I'd call Lish my most jarring turning point.

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