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The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Once again, Andy admits to some bemusement

August 2, 2014

Jonathan Franzen: “Davis is a magician of self-consciousness.”

Dave Eggers: “I push her books on everyone I know.”

Philip Hensher: “A real revelation of the remaining possibilities of fiction.”

Ali Smith: “There is no other writer quite like her.”

Rick Moody: “The best prose stylist in America.”

These quotes taken from the e-version of Davis’s coillected stories I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I’m sure the quotes in Netty’s hard-copy version are identical. I’m sure if I hit Mr Google I’d find a load more praise for Davis’s stories, and style, her brevity and her wit.

davisUp front, I wasn’t as bemused by the praise lavished on Davis as I was on Sylvia Plath’s iconic status among, well, pretty much anybody who reads anything other than car manuals. Plath left me cold, confused, utterly perplexed. Davis doesn’t have quite Plath’s legendary place in the literary pantheon, not just yet, anyway (she hasn’t topped herself, obviously). And I probably appreciated, and certainly understood, Davis’s writing a lot more than Plath’s. But why these stories would garner the praise I’ve summarised above leaves me bewildered.

Netty disagrees, just quietly. While I thought Mary Gaitskill’s stories were completely awesome, and while I got, I think, exactly what she was trying to do with them, Netty found them tedious and self-indulgent. Netty much prefers Davis’s stories -although exactly why is something you’ll have to wait for her to explain.

One of the problems here maybe that I’ve read  700-plus pages of Davis’s stories in four or five weeks. It’s the first I’ve read of her work. Perhaps if I’d read her first stories in the mid-’80s, and read her following collections as they were released, my appreciation would be greater. As it is I’ve read so much “stuff”, “stuff” in which I could not detect anything that remotely resembled a pattern, or a purpose, that I find myself swimming in an ocean of rather well-written fiction, probably fiction, some of which may actually be reportage, or perhaps fiction masquerading as fiction, some of it perhaps poetry, or perhaps prose poetry, if you actually believe such a thing exists. Some of it is obviously flash fiction, or whatever label you want to use. A lot of it is funny, and clever, and it’s rarely boring (although some of it is -obviously this particular story sticks in my mind because it’s at the collection’s end, but Cape Cod Diary or whatever it’s called is pretty meh). That she can make the recreation of a doomed explorer’s diary fascinating, or an examination of a class of schoolchildren’s letters to a sick classmate entrancing, is one thing. But you – or at least I – read these (much longer) pieces, and then the one-line or one-paragraph or one-page pieces that are scattered between the longer pieces and they are, for the most part, enjoyable but insubstantial, they do not take you as a reader – or at least not me as a reader, anyway – anywhere.

Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that’s what I’m missing. I mean, given those who praise her, obviously I’m missing something.

These stories made me smile, and think, occasionally. But they did not live for me in the way Gaitskill’s did. Or Carver’s. Or Flannery O’Connor’s. Clearly I am missing something. But I’m not sure I care.

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