The Writers’ Writer’s Writing
by Lydia Davis
Published November, 2019
Lydia Davis began publishing her distinctive short stories in the mid 1970s – which is to say, right in the middle of a now defunct ‘postmodern’ era of American fiction. Allowing for the fact that such categorisations resist neat enclosure, this could reasonably be said to have spanned the second half of the twentieth century, a period when the cultural heights were occupied by a conspicuous gang of hyper-ambitious male novelists – Bellow, Gaddis, Barth, Mailer, Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo, Wallace et al. – who were engaged in a creative arms race to see who could write the mightiest, brainiest, zeitgeistiest tome. Their unofficial competition reached something of an apotheosis in the late 1990s, when the literary world was pummelled by a series of concussive haymakers – Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, DeLillo’s Underworld, Roth’s ‘American Trilogy’ – at which point there was general agreement that everyone needed to calm down for a bit.
Davis’ work stands in striking contrast to such ostentation. She excels as a miniaturist. Though she has published one novel, The End of the Story (1995), she betrays not the slightest interest in making any kind of grand statement. Her stories rarely extend beyond a few pages. Many consist of a single paragraph. Some are no more than a line or two. There is no striving for cultural definitiveness, no panoramic vision or flaunting of intellectual pretensions. Davis’ fiction is narrow in focus and precise in execution, written with an eye for the unusual angle. She is a major writer who produces almost exclusively ‘minor’ work.
Yet Davis is, in her own way, very much a product of that late twentieth-century postmodern era. In the first instance, her fiction can be classified as ‘postmodern’ in the straightforward sense that it is influenced by modernism. One possible definition of literary postmodernism is that it is what happened when postwar Americans tried to write like Europeans, and Davis’ tastes certainly incline in that direction. No one who is familiar with her work will be surprised to find her in Essays expressing her admiration for short fiction by Kafka, Beckett and Bernhard. Nor is it surprising that she should often draw inspiration from French literature, given that her numerous translation credits include works by Flaubert, Proust, Blanchot and Leiris. And it is not hard to detect the spirit of Gertrude Stein, that singularly Europeanised American and doyenne of high-modernist prose, moving in arch sentences like this one, for example, from Davis’ early collection Break It Down (1986):
Though everyone wishes it would not happen, and thought it would be far better if it did not happen, it sometimes does happen that a second daughter is born and there are two sisters.
But more significant than any specific literary touchstones or telltale stylistic influences is the thoroughness with which Davis has absorbed that postmodern self-consciousness about language and form. She is a writer for whom the subject of a piece of writing is always, on some level, writing itself. This has only become more evident as time has rolled on. Now that the Zeitgeist has turned on its head and thousand-page cultural satires by white overeducated male American novelists are considered unspeakably gauche, perhaps the most salient feature of Davis’ fiction is how scrupulously it avoids the kind of self-exposure practised by currently fashionable purveyors of personal essays and ‘autofiction’ (which, she quietly points out in Essays, is not a new concept or even a new term). Whatever sentiments her stories contain – and many of them do deal with emotionally charged material – they are careful to establish an element of formal distance. Their affect is often that of a critical essay or report, and they have frequent recourse to the simplest and most neutral of all literary forms: the list. The concision of Davis’ work is itself a product of her exacting, analytical sensibility. In one of her essays, she quotes a line from Joseph Joubert, which might be taken as her credo:
Everything that is exact is short … because what is isolated can be seen better.
This objectifying approach manifests as a kind of eclecticism. Davis is, among other things, a collector of curios, a writer who takes delight in unusual forms and scraps of found literature. There is an entire subcategory of her fiction that is descended from William Carlos Williams’ purloined plums: stories in the form of letters of complaint, grammar lessons, emails, lines from newspaper obituaries, odd bits of text, and fragments of overheard conversation. From these humdrum materials, Davis extracts humour, twisted poetry, and a refined pathos. Even a single phrase, when isolated and scrutinised, can seem to open up an imaginative space beyond itself. One her shortest stories, titled ‘Index Entry’, consists of one line:
Christian, I’m not a
How are we supposed to read this decontextualised fragment? Could it be a real index entry that Davis has come across somewhere? Was she simply so tickled by its quirkiness that she decided to share? Or is the story perhaps a joke at the expense of writers prone to fits of existential angst? Were it not for the fact that the story predates Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, one might be tempted to conclude Davis was wittily summing up his six volumes of scourging autobiography in four words (‘Christian, I’m not a, pp.1-3600’). Had he read it, Knausgaard might have saved himself quite a bit of trouble. Or maybe ‘Index Entry’ is a confession: a sincere admission barely disguised as a paratextual gag. What kind of index is written in the first-person anyway?
The formal playfulness of Davis’ work extends to some metafictional moves. ‘The Center of the Story’ from Almost No Memory (1997), for example, is a story about a woman who has written a story. It describes how she came to write the story and her subsequent dissatisfaction when none of its various elements seem to have provided her with the definitive centre she feels it needs. Within the space of four pages, Davis takes us from conceptualisation to realisation; she presents us simultaneously with the outline of the woman’s story and its critical analysis. As the woman becomes her own reader, she starts to realise that a story she had initially conceived as being about ‘religion’ (though she is not religious) has become meaningful in a way that has outrun her intentions. Its lack of any clear centre comes to speak of her uncertainty in a wider sense. The formal problem of writing the story, the act of drawing together its ill-fitting components and placing them into a necessary relation with each other, sharpens her understanding of her own beliefs, fears and doubts.
A similar technique is used in The End of the Story, in which the narrator struggles to write an account of her affair with a younger man. Her explicit foregrounding of the problem of how to tell the story becomes the means by which the story is told. The framing device is used to acknowledge the unreliable and partial nature of her version of events and gesture toward all that it excludes: ‘everything surrounding the story,’ she writes, ‘everything I am leaving out of it, would make another story, or even several others, quite different in character from this one’. But the act of writing is also presented as a way for her to defamiliarise and order her own experiences, give them a coherent form.
In this way, with a minimum of fuss, Davis is able to turn familiar narrative perspectives inside-out. Her stories, in opening up that reflective space, allow for the play of wit and irony, but avoid the mise-en-abyme of self-referentiality by presenting the distance between experience and contemplation as a simple condition of being in the world. They are grounded in a no-nonsense view of things, evident in her clear preference for titles that avoid opacity, poeticisms or clever allusions. There is no false advertising with Davis. You do not need to guess at the subjects of ‘What I Feel’ or ‘Mothers’; you will not be disappointed by ‘Boring Friends’ or ‘The Sock’. Yet the deflection of intimate concerns into the technical realms of writing and matter-of-fact observation has an underlying dramatic purpose: it establishes a dialogue between head and heart. Problems of understanding assume the form of problems of description and interpretation – linguistic problems that are resolved (though not necessarily solved), paradoxically, in the creation of an ambiguous, independent, scrutinisable artifact.
In ‘Go Away’, for example – an early one-paragraph story – a man yells at someone: ‘Go away and don’t come back’. One could readily conceive of this angry phrase, which is dramatic in a prosaic kind of way, as the decisive moment in a story of domestic disharmony written in the style of, say, Raymond Carver – and indeed there is a Carveresque flavour to the subject matter of some of Davis’ early stories, if only in the sense that quite a few seem to describe breaking or broken relationships that have been marinated in unhealthy quantities of alcohol. Such a story would exist to provide an appropriate setting for its climactic line, supplying just enough contextualising information to allow us to appreciate the full force of the words, their layers of expressiveness, the tensions and frustrations and resentments that lie behind them, the character’s regret as soon as the line is uttered, and so forth.
Davis is perfectly capable of writing in a more or less conventional narrative mode (and she sometimes does), but this is precisely what she declines to do in ‘Go Away’. The story provides no context for the angry words; it makes no attempt at dramatisation. Instead, it examines the phrase itself. It considers how the specific choice of words might reveal the extent to which the speaker means or perhaps does not entirely mean what he says. And it addresses itself to the target of the man’s anger using the second-person ‘you’, which introduces a significant ambiguity, as it is unclear whether a third party is trying to console the abused woman or whether the woman is addressing herself in an objectifying way, trying to distance herself from her hurt feelings and arrive at a clear understanding of her situation. Either way, the indirect effect of examining such impassioned words in dispassionate language is to reinforce just how hurtful they really are.
Essays is the first of two volumes of Davis’ non-fiction, the second of which collects her reflections on the subject of translation. It gathers articles that have appeared over the past four decades in a variety of publications, ranging from literary journals to mainstream magazines and newspapers. It continues the late-career consolidation of her work that began with the publication of Davis’ Collected Stories (2009) – a book that was rendered uncomprehensive by the subsequent appearance of Can’t and Won’t (2014), but which nevertheless stands as one of the landmarks of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American fiction.
This first volume of essays is predominantly concerned with writers and writing, though it includes several essays on visual artists (unsurprisingly, given her acutely observational bent, Davis is a dab hand at ekphrasis). As is often the case with collections of occasional writing by significant authors, a good deal of the volume’s interest lies with its insights into the author’s approach to her own work. This is in no small part because a sizeable portion is given over to essays in which Davis explicitly discusses her influences and writing practices, but even in the assorted encomiums and critical essays on specific writers – including Rimbaud (as translated by John Ashbery), Pynchon, Jane Bowles, Blanchot and Stendhal, among others – there is a notable emphasis on the finer points of technique. Her analytical intelligence is always to the fore. ‘When I read a really good poem that moves me,’ Davis observes at one point, ‘I am at the same time slightly distracted by how good it is, and by considerations of the ways in which it is good. I am so interested in how it works that my thinking brain is as engaged as my heart is.’
This is the same divided consciousness, the familiar dialectic of head and heart, that is enacted in her fiction, though it takes on different implications when it comes to her non-fiction. In certain respects, Davis is as quirky an essayist as she is a short-story writer. The greatest practitioners of the form – Hazlitt, Woolf, Orwell (choose your own) – tend to write in ways that seek to draw the reader into the movement of their thoughts. There is a sense of ideas and arguments being pursued on the page. Davis’ essays are interestingly unlike this. She does enliven them with the occasional autobiographical reminiscence; some of them even have the bones of a narrative structure. In an essay on the now little-read American writer Edward Dahlberg, for example, she undertakes an informal survey, asking every bookish person she meets their opinion of him. But her approach tends to be plainspoken and paratactic. There is often a sense that the thinking is already done and Davis is simply reporting her results, leaving readers to make of them what they will. She sets out the information she wishes to provide, then she stops. Her fondness for lists, as much in evidence here as in her fiction, becomes a way to be clear and direct, but without forcing any kind of conclusion, lists having the virtue of allowing a writer to present facts and propositions without finality. You can always add to a list.
The essay cited above, in which Davis quotes Joseph Joubert, dates from 1986, making it the collection’s earliest inclusion. It might also be read as the volume’s keystone. At very least, it is a revealing exploration of the kinds of aesthetic ideas Davis would go on to develop in such striking and original ways in her fiction. It examines the concept of the ‘fragment’, drawing its examples from unfinished works by Flaubert, Hölderlin and Mallarmé, but finding its focal point in Roland Barthes, who was notoriously wary of the tendentious nature of narrative and sought to develop a practice of fragmentary journal writing that resisted conclusiveness.
Davis proposes that there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of reading. There is a certain kind of narrative fiction that is meant to be an immersive experience. The reader is supposed to forget herself. She ceases to be conscious of the work as an artifact and the mediating role of language. But there is second kind of reading experience, in which ‘the text remains visible and present to me, and object of interest by its language and / or form; and in these cases I remain present to myself as well (i.e., conscious of my own thoughts)’.
In light of this distinction, the fragment can be seen to have a usefully paradoxical quality. The word implies the existence of a larger whole and thus a sense of incompletion, yet a fragment might also be viewed as ‘complete and substantial’, something that ‘does not need more, and cannot do with less’. An incomplete work will naturally draw attention to itself as an artifact by virtue of the fact that it is visibly incomplete. But its incompletion also places it at the boundary of apprehension: the point at which the acts of thinking and writing have glimpsed something beyond, something the author has not been able to grasp or articulate. In this way, the fragment can seem less mediated than a complete work, closer to the original thought and the act of composition. It has an openness; it can make us conscious of an absence. What Davis ultimately comes to see in the concept of the fragment is a responsible way of negotiating formal and potentially alienating problems of language and representation. The fragment, she concludes,
can be seen as a response to the philosophical problem of seeing the written thing replace the subject of the writing. If we catch only a little of our subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it. We have written about it, written it, and allowed it to live on at the same time, allowed it to live on in our ellipses, in our silences.
The essay’s concerns are noticeably influenced by the poststructuralist theorising that was in vogue at the time, but its enduring interest, particularly when viewed in the context of the volume as a whole, is that Davis is writing as an artist who is far more interested in practice than theory. One of the striking things about the more practice-oriented inclusions in Essays is the extent to which she sees her writing as an ‘art’ in the archaic sense of the word, meaning a craft or trade. Everything arises from her paying close attention to language and form.
Like most writers, Davis is generally happy to acknowledge her influences and dispense advice. One of the longer inclusions in Essays has the self-explanatory title ‘Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits’. She freely admits that her story ‘Jury Duty’, which takes the form of an interview transcript with all the questions omitted, was adapted from David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and that the dream stories in Can’t and Won’t were inspired by Leiris. What is less common is her willingness to explain her aesthetic choices in minute detail. She does not simply confess that ‘Head, Heart’ – one of her best-known stories, and one that genuinely earns the honorific ‘poem’ – was influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins in its use of alliteration and its preference for a stout Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. She presents us with an early draft and leads us through to the finished work, explaining the intended effects of the subtle refinements she made along the way. She subjects her own writing to the kind of close scrutiny that most fiction writers would be content to leave to archival scholars and close-reading critics.
There is an explicitly pedagogical motivation behind this. Several of the volume’s most substantial inclusions are, in fact, teaching materials from creative-writing ‘masterclasses’. Davis is, like most fiction writers of her generation, very much a product of what Mark McGurl called the ‘program era’. Another possible distinction between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism’s self-consciousness about language and form arose from a profound crisis of European civilisation, while postmodernism was basically about intellectualising in front of a seminar room full of grad students.
This is not to speak slightingly of Davis’ work. In fact, one of the chief virtues of Essays is that it emphasises the extraordinary discipline that is necessary to become a writer of any consequence. To write well requires a state of perpetual vigilance, an almost fanatical attention to detail, an ability to objectify your own thoughts and feelings, and a willingness to pay constant attention to technical questions of structure, genre, grammar and etymology. Even the subtlest changes to a piece of writing will have significant effects; even the smallest forms of inattention can have large, unintended consequences. Reading Davis’ essays, I was often prompted to recall an aphorism of Ezra Pound’s, which I first encountered many years ago in an essay by another ‘program era’ writer, Raymond Carver: accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.
One of the criticisms that would come to be levelled at some of Davis’ postmodern contemporaries was that their fiction was all head and no heart, that there was something meretricious and perhaps even evasive about all the showy satire and metafictional gamesmanship. Not the least of her achievements as a writer is to have found her own inimitable way to solve this apparent dilemma. Her stories demonstrate that there is no necessary contradiction between intellect and feeling, that it is perfectly possible for a writer to display her considerable intelligence without seeming pretentious, that it is possible to be formally self-conscious, precise and inventive, without compromising humour and pathos. Her essays are valuable insights into the distinctive sensibility that produced all those remarkable stories that, like good poems, seem to resist paraphrase. But since she is generally reluctant to reach for any grand conclusion, let’s give the last word to Flaubert, whose exacting, exhausting approach to writing made him one of the great wellsprings of modern literature. Davis quotes him in a wonderfully perceptive essay on Madame Bovary (a novel she has translated) and his conflicted feelings sum up that strange combination of exasperation and idealistic striving that goes along with the endlessly frustrating business of trying to arrange words into some kind of meaningful order:
What a bitch of a thing prose is! It’s never finished; there’s always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse. A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.