Friday, March 2, 2007

The Greatness of Lydia Davis

At the bookstore the other day I was flipping through the spring Farrar Straus Giroux catalog, a little on edge because seeing the wrong face (enemy/rival/ex) in the FSG catalog can ruin your day, when I was delighted to see, instead, one of my favorite instense bespectacled stares: that of Lydia Davis. I always imagine that in the divorce with Paul Auster I would take her side (though I have nothing against him and know neither of them personally) because though he's been getting lots of attention for years, Davis has been doing wonderful work for just as long and has only recently been getting her due.

But though she's been one of my favorite writers since I read Almost No Memory in 1998, I almost never recommend her to anyone. Maybe for the same reason I don't like to recommend my favorite Vietnamese place to people: if you don't like that kind of thing, you won't like it, no matter how totally great it is.

So what kind of thing is it? Most of her stories are quite short and center on one or more small ideas or observations that are examined coolly and intelligently and with wonderfully restrained humor. Some of them are kind of surreal and some are internal and personal. I like the personal ones best, just as a matter of taste, but they are all of a consistent high quality that is clearly the product of a powerful artistic vision working hard to perfect itself. She's not just goofing around, or trying out the latest clever trope, or even making a political point. She's trying to work something out.

Lydia Davis reminds me how many different ways there are to be a writer, and that the most important part is staying true to your thing, whatever that happens to be.

The new book will be coming out in May and will be called Varieties of Disturbance.


5 Red Pandas said...

I second your feelings on Lydia Davis. Her stuff always leaves an impression no matter what mode she's writing in.

I now wish I hadn't sold her book all those summers ago. Maybe I'll pick up something by her tomorrow at the Strand.

Ugh. FSG. Whew. Brings back memories. I got my first non-temp, big girl job at Holtzbrinck in 2001, which of course includes FSG. Naturally, one of the reasons I sold the Davis book was because I didn't make enough money working for Holtzbrinck to eat(after paying rent and bills). I used to use my unlimited metrocard to take the subway down to Chinatown so I could eat a dollar's worth of dumplings and a dollar sized hot and sour soup. I became an expert on all the less-than-five-dollars lunch specials in the below-23rd street area.

My boss was afraid that I was secretly writing a novel on the clock. I wasn't. I was too depressed and too busy carting water for her, when not being harassed on the telephone by the author of a grammar book.

When I quit the job my boss bought farewell donuts, but nobody bothered to leave their offices (I was the only one without an office) to share the donuts with me. Not even my boss. I swear, it doesn't seem possible, but donuts can taste passive aggressive.

I think I earned some bad publishing world Karma when I stole those stamps from the New Yorker. Hopefully that cycle finally ended when I got fired from Penguin.

I did a reading two years ago, and an editor from Penguin talked to me afterward and told me she really enjoyed what I'd read. I'm such an idiot, during our conversation I said, "Penguin? Oh yeah, I got fired from there." Then I reassured her that it was probably the best thing to happen to me, mostly because I was running out of publishing conglomerates to work for.

I've since learned to be less forthright. Well, this being the exception.

Have a good weekend!

w said...


5 red pandas, I'd be curious to know what you had to do at FSG.