Lydia Davis: Master of the Miniature

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Lydia Davis is one of the most singular voices in literature today — a writer’s writer, a celebrated translator of Proust and Flaubert, a MacArthur Fellow. But some of her stories are shorter than a joke in a standup routine, and probably funnier. “There are also men in the world,” begins one tale:

Sometimes we forget, and think there are only women—endless hills and plains of unresisting women. We make little jokes and comfort each other and our lives pass quickly. But every now and then, it is true, a man rises unexpectedly in our midst like a pine tree, and looks savagely at us, and sends us hobbling away in great floods to hide in the caves and gullies until he is gone.

That’s the entirety of “Men,” published in Davis’ new collection Can’t and Won’t. Some are shorter still, such as “Bloomington”:

Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.

Even when Davis’ stories are a more typical length, they sound like no-one else’s. In fact, she won’t call her short stories “short stories,” because they are so unlike the form as we generally know it. Can’t and Won’t contains stories that take the form of dreams and letters of complaint to businesses — some of which Davis has actually mailed as real complaints (earning her, she tells Kurt Andersen, “coupons for frozen peas”). Francine Prose, writing in Bomb, says Davis’ work is “impassioned and obsessive ... painstakingly logical yet often veering more or less sharply in the direction of the demented.”

Davis explains that as the child of a writer and a literature professor, she felt destined to write, although she admits frankly that she didn’t enjoy it until well into adulthood. “It was what I was good at it from a pretty early age,” she says. “The only competing interest was music, and I didn’t feel I was going to be good enough” to be a composer or pianist.

Had she not stuck with it, it would have been our loss. In her late twenties, she found a book by Russell Edson, known as the godfather of the prose poem. In it she discovered the power of the compact, “explosive” piece of fiction, and soon found her voice as a writer. Long considered experimental — or just kind of weird — her work was not well known outside literary circles. But in recent years, a large collection of her stories came out, and her translations of French classics have drawn wide acclaim. The world has finally caught up with Lydia Davis.

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