Gordon Lish’s Brand of “Fairness” in Fiction | A Micro-Lesson by Jeff Bender

Posted Fri, 6/19/2015 - 5:15pm by  |  Category:

gordon-lish-580I first heard the term fairness in a workshop with Amy Hempel at Columbia. She got it from her teacher, Gordon Lish.

In a Vanity Fair article that Hempel wrote about Lish, called “Captain Fiction,” Hempel catches Lish saying, “Don’t glorify yourself, convict yourself. And the wonderful paradox is that it’s how you make yourself angelic.”

Fellow Hugo House teacher Peter Mountford echoes this concept: “Throw your narrator under the bus.”

I overheard another Hugo House teacher, Claire Dederer, call any disclosure of failures “a gift” that the narrator gives to the reader.

Whether convicting or throwing or gifting, the idea is that it’s “just decency” (Lish’s words) to bare our characters’ flaws up front. The harder we hit the flaws, the more the readers of our fiction will root for our characters.

It’s a basic but powerful concept—and it’s easy to pull off. (“It’s the simplest thing in the world,” Lish says.) Ask: What is your character bad at?

I think of Holden Caulfield saying, “I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.”

Or Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, opening a chapter with “Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there.”

Or Antonio’s opening line in The Merchant of Venice: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.”

Don’t fake it. You are truly bad at a number of things. These are good fodder for your writing.

If you can pull this off (again, it’s not impossible), you’ll find your characters winning your readers’ sympathy and backing. You’ll find they’re more willing to root for and go with your characters. Why? Because—this is the other important thing—your characters are not asking for it.

Think about a time you saw someone ask for sympathy—with a sigh, a complaint, or a whiny tone of voice. Did this person win your sympathy? Of course not.

Now think about someone you’ve seen lose or fail at something—and not complain.

Think of a guy asking out every woman he sees on Second Avenue. He’s not handsome (good), but he’s tenacious. After three, four, or five rejections, he squats on his heels and holds his head. Soon he’s back up, asking out girl number six with all he’s got.

What do you want girl number six to say?

Eventually we all want her to say yes.

This is what Lish means by angelic. The guy looks so good right now—so likeable—while failing so badly.

An exercise I like to use to use to highlight this idea is first to look the beginning of a short story by Marie-Helene Bertino called “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” from her collection Safe as Houses.

(Bizarre Fact: Bertino and I were in the same production of West Side Story in the summer of 1994.)

The story begins: “I am like everyone else—good at some things, bad at others.” From there she starts a number of sentences by trading the phrases “I am good at _____” and “I am bad at _____.”

What I like about playing with this format is that it pushes us to write what we’re bad at. Often my students start saying they’re good at unflattering things—really capturing the spirit of “fairness”:

  • I am good at overeating
  • I am good at failing tests

Et cetera.

More important is to start thinking about this powerful idea and working it into your writing.

When we meet an important character in your story or novel, we want to see him or her failing—or losing—or winning but really losing.

True, no one likes a sore loser.

No one likes a winner, either.


“Captain Fiction” by Amy Hempel (Vanity Fair, December 1984)

“Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” by Marie-Helene Bertino (from Safe as Houses)

Jeff Bender will teach “Intermediate Fiction Workshop” in Bellingham beginning July 11. Find out more information and register on the class page.