The long and the short of it

Lydia Davis is the best writer you’ve never heard of. She’s been rising slowly, writing and publishing since the 70s when she released her first story collection, The Thirteenth Women and Other Stories. She’s a writer’s writer, which means that she writes deliberately, precisely savouring words. Though not a household name in America, Davis has been published in all major Anglo-American literary magazines: the New Yorker, Granta, the Paris Review. She is the new master of the short story, an elastic form which in her hands ranges from a single sentence to forty pages. They are meandering, densely interior, surreal, poignant, eccentric, humorous, and lyrical.

When she is not writing fiction, Davis is translating. In 2004 her translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way was published, followed by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in 2010. Davis is also currently translating the very short stories of the Dutch writer A.J. Snijder and learning Dutch as she goes, whilst brushing up on her German. But Davis believes she won’t undertake any other long projects as her ‘own writing had to be snuck in around the edges.’

When I ask Davis about her response to the statement that women have a reputation for working within the ‘miniature’ (coming from Austen’s ‘two inches of ivory’), Davis says that two of her models for working in the short form were men: Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes and Russell Edson, whose short stories often involve the domestic ‘but in a weird twisted way’.

‘As for my own work,’ Davis says, ‘besides being very drawn to the very short form, I find myself happily expanding into lengths that feel potentially endless and I am currently working on a poem (adapted from a memoir written by a man) that is over 35 pages long and will probably get longer.’ Davis has never felt any pressure to make a particular subject or style her own. ‘I couldn’t write very comfortably if I felt constrained in any way and I don’t feel I’ve adopted certain subject matters because I’m female. It seems much more complex than that.’ Her own ‘apprenticeship’ happened while reading men: Beckett, Kafka, Nabokov, James Agee, Joyce, and Roland Barthes. ‘I studied very closely how they handled language: word choice, syntax, how they achieved their effects.’

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I ask whether or not Davis, as someone who has actively participated in American fiction for the last thirty years, has noticed the current literary establishment being particularly masculine. ‘The current literary establishment does still seem to me somewhat dominated by male writers,’ says Davis. ‘Of the young fiction writers who rise to stardom in the US, more seem to be men than women. It is hard to know whether there are simply more talented young men than women – a little hard to believe – or whether discrimination is at work at the publishing end of the trajectory or discouragement sets in earlier, in the classroom and at the desk.’

In considering Naipaul’s statement that he could spot a difference between male and female writing, Davis says she didn’t believe in the existence of a difference. ‘Any good style must be a strong style – firm, clear, confident. I do firmly believe we are all, to some degree, androgynous anyway – we are all mixes of ‘female’ and ‘male’ traits.’

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2010