[originally published Nov 16, 2019 ]
The New York Times, with glistening basset eyes, says, of Lydia Davis (the sensible one in the otherwise airheaded subliminal ménage of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt and Davis):
“The story “Collaboration With Fly” consists of a single sentence: “I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe.” Another, “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could Be a Little More Comfortable,” comprises seven pages of minor irritations — a loud clock, a dry orange. In 2009, her landmark “Collected Stories” was published; 30 years of her writing life (minus her novel, “The End of the Story”) contained in just 750 pages.”
One of the blurbs on or in Lydia Davis’ copiously-blurbed “Varieties of Disturbance,” a book I own, claims that Ms. Davis is “REINVENTING THE SHORT STORY… IN OUR TIME.” While I’m sure Ms. Davis is a kind and intelligent woman, on the evidence of the stories in that copiously-blurbed collection, Ms. Davis was doing no such thing. Did the blurbers know or care? Blurbers blurb: that’s what blurbers do. If baseless encomia cost more to use than modest claims, the use of baseless encomia, I predict, would quickly dry up. Not that baseless encomia is the enemy; the enemy is the reading public’s susceptibility to baseless encomia.
I suggest an experiment: three consecutive examples of the baseless encomia blurbing Lydia Davis’ collection of short stories that I own ( “Varieties of Disturbance”) followed by three actual “stories” from the book:
“A VERY WITTY, VERY SERIOUS AND SUPREMELY INTELLIGENT
WRITER…LYDIA DAVIS CONFRONTS THE ESSENTIAL
MYSTERIOUSNESS OF EXPERIENCE AND, IN SOLVING THE
MYSTERY, DEEPENS IT.”
—A. O. SCOTT, NEWSDAY
“[THESE STORIES] ARE THE HEARTS OF STORIES—THUMPING,
MUSCULAR MIRACLES—AND THEY CIRCULATE COMPLEX
EMOTIONS WITH A MARVELOUS EFFICIENCY OF BEATS.”
“WILL LODGE IN YOUR MIND FOREVER.”
—ANN HARLEMAN, THE BOSTON GLOBE
A Man from Her Past
I think Mother is flirting with a man from her past who is not Father. I say to myself: Mother ought not to have improper relations with this man “Franz”! “Franz” is a European. I say she should not see this man improperly while Father is away! But I am confusing an old reality with a new reality: Father will not be returning home. He will be staying on at Vernon Hall. As for Mother, she is ninety-four years old. How can there be improper relations with a woman of ninety-four? Yet my confusion must be this: though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.
Dog and Me
An ant can look up at you, too, and even threaten you with its arms. Of course, my dog does not know I am human, he sees me as dog, though I do not leap up at a fence. I am a strong dog. But I do not leave my mouth hanging open when I walk along. Even on a hot day, I do not leave my tongue hanging out. But I bark at him: “No! No!”
I don’t know if I can remain friends with her. I’ve thought and thought about it— she’ll never know how much. I gave it one last try. I called her, after a year. But I didn’t like the way the conversation went. The problem is that she is not very enlightened. Or I should say, she is not enlightened enough for me. She is nearly fifty years old and no more enlightened, as far as I can see, than when I first knew her twenty years ago, when we talked mainly about men. I did not mind how unenlightened she was then, maybe because I was not so enlightened myself. I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it’s not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I am willing to postpone being more enlightened myself so that I can still say a thing like that about a friend.
Reinventing the short story? Only if raiding one’s moleskin for pithy and/or piquant or merely banal jottings and passing these jottings off as “short stories” catches on and eventually somehow becomes mandatory. I can see the advantage, to a time-starved minion in the habit of fingering a well-blurbed book on her/his commute, of framing these jottings as Lit, but what’s next, gulping herbal supplements in lieu of breakfast and hailing that as the reinvention of breakfast? We tried that in the ’70s.
In my frame of reference, the reinvention of breakfast would have to involve something at least as nutritive and satisfying as bacon and chocolate (on a Ouija Board) for breakfast. I write bacon and chocolate (on a Ouija Board) with one hand tied behind my back. Lydia Davis doesn’t come close.
“DAVIS IS A MAGICIAN OF SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. FEW WRITERS NOW WORKING MAKE THE WORDS ON THE PAGE MATTER MORE.”
“Magician”? If you want to make real money in the Writing Game, invent a Blurbing App. You can tell that it’s important to Jonathan Franzen that he come up with something better than a run-of-the-mill blurb for his pals’ books. He’d pay good money for such a time-saving app (with a drop-down menu for wildcard phrasal adjectives, say).
The Nepotism, Cronyism and Cultural Protectionism encouraged by the fact that so many well-reviewed writers and high-profile reviewers, as well as the staff (from the bottom up) of all the leading imprints, are products of the Anglo-American Degree-Mill Industry, is blatant and damaging to Lit.
Writers spawned in the hatchery of the academy have very narrow, if not generally fraudulent, worldviews: they haven’t even been half-way “around the block” but how would the credentialed literary critic, or book reviewer, with a similarly truncated range of experiences to draw on, judge or notice? Too many writers who have actually put their backs to the great stone wheel of the World, and everything in it that is Adverse and Perverse, in a struggle to make sense of, or peace with, the wheel’s unreasoning weight, are ignored, shut out, uninvited. The system is designed to filter such voices out and I’m still not sure if it’s a class thing. Lydia Davis (a kind and intelligent woman, no doubt) writes from within the dim-but-cozy corner of comfort in the undisturbed dust of her academic cloister. Reinventing what? Not the short story.
The first three stories in Lydia Davis’ most recently published (as far as I know; 2014) collection of fiction, “Can’t and Won’t”:
A Story of Stolen Salamis
My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.”
The Dog Hair
The dog is gone. We miss him. When the doorbell rings, no one barks. When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us. We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes. We pick them up. We should throw them away. But they are all we have left of him. We don’t throw them away. We have a wild hope—if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.
On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is.
The fancy technical lit crit term for these stories is “cute,” I think. If these stories were cartoons they’d be in the New Yorker. That’s the best I can say about them.
What does Lydia Davis know of “chocolate and bacon (on a Ouija Board)”? What do you, for that matter? Do you know how good it is? Chocolate and bacon, in a certain sequence, on a Ouija Board… delicious.
Does Davis even quite understand Lit’s most magical potential properties? Very few do; it isn’t taught; talentless teachers grind the capacity to detect such subtleties from hapless students’ eyes, droning on about plot and theme and trite biographical gossip regarding the author. The basic unit of meaning in Lit is the sentence, not the word, and with word-choice and rhythm the writer can generate ghost-melodies like harmonic overtones in a throat-singer’s spooky, ancestors-conjuring, performance. The occasional vogue for reanimating the artificial debate regarding the relative literary merits of “writers who concentrate on sentences” versus “writers who tell stories” is a floating irritant of critical misapprehension* at best: stories are sentences; Literature is sentences. If one glittering sentence doesn’t lead to the next in a story by a writer famous for glittering sentences; if the glittering is awkwardly meretricious; the writer needs to re-work the story… not abandon “the sentence” as her/his life’s work. Dull, dry, banal and lifeless sentences make lifeless stories (which make okay TV). Dull stories are okay but so are day-old bread and pleather.
About forty years ago I wrote a poem the conceit of which being that the poem’s title was much longer than the poem. This poem can also be considered flash fiction. The poem goes:
The Evening of the Air Show Over Mid-Century Paris
a girl looked up
Well it’s slightly evocative. It’s nice and short and maybe a bit Zen. There’s a poignancy. But there aren’t enough carefully-chosen words rubbing against one another in sentences, and there aren’t enough carefully-constructed sentences rubbing against one another in paragraphs, to generate the sparks and heat and harmonics of genuinely engaging Lit. Flash fiction is a toy; a marketing gimmick; the perfect fad for a culture of tiny-screen readers with blood-draining jobs and the meth epidemic to worry about.
All around the world, mute inglorious Miltons like me (and our fallen Comrade Edmond Caldwell, who started in academe but blasted his way out) actually reinvent “breakfast” on a yearly or even weekly basis while Lydia Davis and her academic cronies hype their pineal-chakra-spirulina morning supplement capsules (or maybe Lydia’s stories are Tic Tacs) on late night High Culture Infomercials with more market penetration than any of us real writers could handle. And people love it.
The following chocolate and bacon will revolutionize breakfast or your money back…
*I was actually going to use the word “misprision,” instead of “misapprehension,” but decided not to, because people don’t tend to own actual dictionaries, these days, and online dictionaries are flattening many words into one-definition concepts. And readers who *think* they’ve caught me misusing a word might as well be right: I cleave… make that “cling”… to safer word-choices when writing particularly combative, and self-aggrandizing, pieces.
And while we’re at it (swinging a righteously black-smoke-gushing torch at “flash fiction” in our living room): the Ur-specimen of the decadent fad is (supposedly) Hemingway’s “six word story”:
For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.
This is invariably touted as a marvel of narrative compression when, in fact, it fails at the first hurdle: there’s nothing inevitable about the maudlin reading everyone indulges it with. Maybe the baby didn’t like the shoes; maybe they didn’t fit? Maybe Mama bought a better pair? Etc. The story only “works” if the reader is already predisposed to campy, maudlin readings. The “power” is not in the story, it lies entirely in the poor (corny) tastes of the audience at large. If a “story” were just the word
… and the reader conjured, by default, a heartrending painting by (Margaret) Keane, of a big-eyed waif, just because Keane’s paintings were popular that year… that would not represent an ineffable triumph of the Spooky Art. You see?