A Writer of Very, Very Short Stories


I once again got to take advantage of living in the same community that is home to the New York State Writer’s Institute. I haven’t been attending many of their events this year because the writers they’ve been scheduling haven’t been that compelling to me. Just like with the publishing industry, the Writer’s Institute is placing significant emphasis on writers and voices that have historically lacked a platform. I’ve got no problem with the diversification, and I’ve appreciated reading some books and discovering worlds and cultures I otherwise would never have known about, although for my taste, the pendulum has swung too far in that direction and created a literary environment of overcorrection.

But when the institute’s spring schedule came out, I circled the date that Lydia Davis would appear. At age 76 and with 40 years of writing behind her, she might be the most famous literary figure that no one has heard about. She’s won the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, been a finalist for the National Book Award, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and much more. Yet you haven’t read her work.

She’s best known as a writer of what she calls “very, very short stories,” some of which are no longer than a sentence, while others might run a typical fifteen pages or so. Her work is nontraditional. She plays with language, concepts, and reader expectations. She’s also an acclaimed translator, mostly from the French. She’s translated Marcel Proust’s Swan’s Way, which is the first book in his In Search of Lost Time series, Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and dozens of other works.

This is the text of an entire story by Lydia Davis. What do you make of it?

For an audience of about fifty people (sad) at Albany University’s Performing Arts Center, she read from her new book, chatted with the moderator, and answered audience questions. She was interesting, intelligent, and witty. She talked a little about her climate activism. And then she got on her high horse about Amazon. She railed against Amazon’s business practices—mistreatment of workers, wrecker of small businesses (particularly independent bookstores), squeezer of suppliers. She won’t allow her new book to be sold through Amazon, which she admitted will cost her sales and income. She even ended up getting dropped by her prestigious publisher (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Bookshop Editions publishes her new book.

Amazon is a gorilla, there’s no question of that, but I was uncomfortable during her rant. She stood on the dais and from her position of literary privilege didn’t seem aware, or didn’t care, that many writers of quality work have no choice but to sell our books on Amazon because traditional publishing channels have shut us out. I was once published by a prestigious publisher (Random House) and my books appeared in bookstores as well as on Amazon, but I didn’t sell enough copies or make enough money for my publisher and now I’m dependent on Amazon to publish and sell my books. I’ve accepted that.

I have great respect for Lydia Davis as a writer and translator. I find her work weirdly fascinating, sometimes incomprehensible, but always unique. But I wish she could have shown more awareness and empathy toward other, less decorated writers. Maybe she’s just not that kind of person. Anecdote: As I approached the building where she was to give her reading, I arrived at the door at the same time that she and her little entourage did. I recognized her immediately. I opened and held the door for the entire group—the evening’s moderator, a director from the institute, and lastly, Lydia Davis. I said, “Here’s the star of the night.” The others thanked me for holding the door for them. Lydia Davis didn’t acknowledge me or my gesture in any way. Maybe she’ll write a one-sentence story someday about the guy who held the door for her and called her a star.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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