on 9 May 2010
Every bad review I've ever read has involved a litany of statements such as 'this is not a short story!', 'this doesn't do what a book is supposed to do!'! What is a book 'supposed' to do? Instruct and delight? Have a beginning, middle and end? Welcome to the 21st (and 20th!) century.
So yes, her stories are 'tedious, obsessive ramblings pointlessly replay the mundane' -- that's the point, and that's why they're so good. Davis very well knows what a story is, what a book is 'supposed' --traditionally-- to do: she's translated Proust. What these stories 'do' is problematise the idea of literary form and in doing so present a complete internal portrait. By 'replaying' the mundane, Davis creates art. Of course repetition -- both of the mundane and as a formal device -- highlights and interrogates what it repeats. Davis fits human emotion into the emotionless: complaint letters, 'Letter to a Funeral Parlor', academic studies, 'We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters From a Class of Fourth-Graders' and 'Helen and Vi: A Study in Health and Vitality', lists, and other 'mundane' forms. Her stories are linguistically mathematical, many exploring the permuatations of reaction, experience, and situations: 'When he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband'; or ways of being, creation of the self or selves: 'Shall I know the classics, like K.? Shall I write letters by hand, like B.? Shall I write 'Dearest Both,' like C.?'
But unlike many 'experimental writers', Davis' prose is accessible. Perhaps this is what frustrates her critics: the extreme accessibility, repetitive language, simple vocabulary. And, unlike many serious, avant-garde works, Lydia Davis is incredibly funny. The clinical, distanced prose is taken to it's extreme only to be transformed in to absurd, deadpan hilarity: 'it occurred to her very suddenly that it might not have been him at all, it might have been the dog, and worse, if it had been the dog, he might think it had been her.'
Can a single sentence tell a story? Lydia Davis is not the only one to do this. One of Hemingway's most famous stories is 6 words long ('For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.') Criticism based on literary tradition, which itself was once radical, is a transparent justification for personal distaste and a weak critical summation. Oh no, the reviewer cries, this does not subscribe to historically prescribed generic conventions!
A book, unfortunately, is not an electronic device with an inherent pragmatic value that either works or doesn't. It is not a hair dryer or an alarm clock. To approach a text with such a viewpoint is to set oneself up for disappointment.
Whatever one thinks about Lydia Davis' short stories, let us not stoop to a kind of ridiculous literary eugenics by saying that her words aren't worth the 'time, money and paper' they were printed on or that even one of her lines 'takes up too much space'. Such a violent reaction to her work perhaps exonerates it of the previous reviewer's charges: doesn't all great literature provoke extreme responses? Whatever moves someone to suggest that her publishers should actually be sued surely comes from somewhere deep within the bowels of literary response...I suppose only time and a few genius grants will tell.