We’ve all heard the common refrain: literature is dead. Film and television have replaced novels, the art of the short story has gone down along with the magazine industry and poetry – well, don’t even get us started on poetry. Last week, however, the Purple Valley had an answer for anyone who thinks that the artistic substance of modern fiction has waned along with its popularity – the short-fiction writer Lydia Davis.
Of course, this is not the first article to acknowledge Davis’s literary prowess. On the contrary, Davis is one of the most decorated American fiction writers of our time, a finalist for the venerated PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Award, recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize for writing. And even on top of her fiction writing (which is prolific, including six short-story collections), Davis is a renowned and much-loved translator of French literature, particularly of Proust and Flaubert, for which she has received glowing reviews from academic and popular periodicals alike.
As J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature and Eloquence Jim Shepard mentioned in his introduction for Davis, the really remarkable thing about Davis is how clearly her work speaks for itself regardless of her awards. It is, he commented, worth nothing that all of the action occurs “inside her characters’ heads,” making the pieces “quietly radical in their rebuke of the ways we normally think and the ways we normally construct our stories.” They are, in a phrase, innovative and fresh, far from the mix of clichés and forced originality that constitute much of the contemporary literary scene.
Once Davis stepped up to the podium, Shepard’s words proved more than true. Hearing her speak was, in all respects, a wholly remarkable experience. For example, Davis’s work, unlike the work of many of her contemporaries, is unbelievably brief. In the period of about 45 minutes, Davis read 41 stories across seven “categories,” including stories of the everyday, stories about dreams and letters of complaint. In spite of the stories’ brevity, almost every one packed a substantial emotional punch. Her brief elegy “The Dog Hair,” about a recently passed pet, brought a melancholic silence over the audience in Griffin 4, while her lighter entries – things like her “Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer” – saw the collective students and faculty explode into laughter.
These stories were not the only treat Davis had in store for us. Another, perhaps even more exciting aspect of the reading was Davis’s oration of some of her new, working fiction. Indeed, while most of the stories came from her latest collection Can’t and Won’t, hearing a selection of about 16 works that have yet to be published – that were, as Davis readily acknowledged, more ideas than fully formed stories, helped the audience see a little into her remarkable process. You could almost hear, as Davis read the works, which parts she was going to pare down or elaborate upon – how she was going to turn an idea she had (about, for example, a conversation overheard at an animal shelter) into a cleaner, tighter version of itself, stripping away all the excess pieces until only the essentials remain.
Finally, there was Davis’s voice itself: a beautiful vehicle for communicating the sharp and multiple vignettes from her collection. Indeed, while it would be a mistake to assume that the speakers in all of Davis’s works are true representations of their author’s psyche, you could see, as she read, the way that she could inhabit her characters long enough to deliver their story – subtle modulations in pitch and volume that let you know who was talking and how they felt about something. In effect, while the stories were entertaining on their own, hearing Davis read them was a uniquely profound experience.
While it can sometimes seem that the world of literature and poetry (and I would qualify these stories as both) is under attack, it was a relief to sit back in Griffin Hall last Monday and see the literati win a battle or two. As long as Lydia Davis is writing and producing stories, lovers of literature can rest assured that, at least in some extent, their intellectual flag is being preserved, maintained and waved very high.