Lydia Davis: Unconventional Yet Masterful Short Stories

Strip a piece of literature down so that it does not include any trace of traditional literary conventions – a plot, character explanation and development, a climax, an ending – and you’ve got a Lydia Davis short story. This complete refusal to stick to the conventional literary rules is one of the key characteristics of her writing. In place of these usual characteristics, Davis creates stories, often very brief stories, whose content centers around largely mundane topics. Her content is expressed through a methodical, sometimes referred to as “nearly autistic” (Marcus) style, whose technique largely revolves around an “affinity for how the mind articulates itself” (Power) and the “circling convoluted progressions and digressions of thought” (Power). As a result, the reading experience is indeed a bit “jarring” (Lydia Davis, The Art of the Flash). However, this does not equate to a reading experience void of value or profundity. Rather, it is her avoidance of traditional literary conventions coupled with her unique writing technique that yields the immensely thought-provoking and stimulating short stories found in her book, Varieties of Disturbance, and ultimately leave the reader with an immensely engaging, “exceedingly intimate” (Marcus), relatable, and refreshing reading experience.

Lydia Davis simply does not abide by literary norms. Though most all literature leaves the reader to come to some conclusions on their own accord, Davis’s literature “is practically unique in the number of blanks it leaves us to fill. Basic things, such as the identity of the story’s narrator and his or her relationship to the other characters, are often totally unclear” (Power). This characteristic is exemplified in a variety of Davis’s short stories, including for example, Collaboration With Fly: “I put that word on the page, but he added the apostrophe” (Davis, 8). The first aspect that one takes notice of is the brevity of this work, which is absolutely uncommon for writings labeled as “short stories”. The reader is taken aback immediately by the lack of traditional beginning, middle, end plot structure and questions why Davis would bring this snippet to light in the first place? Additionally, Davis purposefully leaves out a main part of the story’s non-plot – what exactly is “that word”? Why would Davis leave this vital information out of the story? An LA Times article on Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance does a good job at explaining the thought process of the reader in reaction to the withholding of this important piece of information, stating “what’s left out, the reader works to supply. What is ‘that word’ Davis refers to? Many thoughts cross the readers mind – Cant, can’t? Id, I’d? Surely it matters that the fly’s a he, not to mention that he’s a fly, a creature associated with death” (Jackson). Thus, “Collaboration with Fly becomes Collaboration with Reader” (Jackson). The reader is forced into fretting over and engaging with such a small amount of words, trying to find what it is about this story that “makes [it] tick, if anything” (Lydia Davis, The Art of the Flash). It is in the engagement and stimulation that Davis is able to draw out of the reader with such a plot-less, concise story that keeps vague a vital portion of the writing, that one can see the brilliance of her writing.

Davis’s leaving out of conventional literary norms also serves in making her writing extremely relatable. This is seen in a number of her works, but is exemplified in her short stories Good Times and Forbidden Subjects. In both these short stories, the subject is left absolutely unclear. In Good Times, it is known that there is a “they” and a “them” which refer to a “she” and a “he”, but that is all that is known. Forbidden Subjects is even more vague, with its only “character” being “they” and “them”. Both stories center around the mere discussion of a relationship, though it is unclear which kinds of relationships. In Good Times for example, the “she” and “he” in the relationship seem to be going through a rough patch, where “what was happening to them was that every bad time produced a bad feeling…so that their life together became crowded with bad times and bad feelings…” (20). The same situation goes for Forbidden Subjects. In this short story “almost every subject they might want to talk about is associated with yet another unpleasant scene and becomes a subject they can’t talk about, so that as time goes by there is less and less they can safely talk about” (23). In these similar stories, the reader is once again forced to play the guessing game – who is this relationship between? Could it be a father and a daughter, a mother and daughter, a young husband and wife, perhaps an elderly couple that has been together for ages? What prompted these rough patches that seem to be putting the relationships in jeopardy? Was it something out of the blue, or something long awaited? The result of this guessing game is an intense connection made between the reader and the work, that forces one to reflect on the relationships similar to these that one sees in his or her own life. Davis purposefully leaves out descriptions of these characters, keeping them vague them’s, she’s, and he’s, in order to create that relatable environment. Thus, Davis skillfully utilizes the avoidance of these literary norms to their fullest potential in yielding a story the reader is able to see him or herself or someone else, in.

Even when there is a clearly defined character – which rarely happens in the stories included in Varieties of Disturbance – such as in Katftka Cooks Dinner, meaningful confusion still persists. In Kaftka Cooks Dinner, there is clearly the absence of a defined ending, or resolution to the story which centers around what would occur if Franz Kaftka, the renowned writer of Metamorphosis, were to have to plan a dinner menu for his love, Milena. The story is once again not a story in the conventional sense, excluding a definite beginning, middle, and end and solely deals with the ridiculous ramblings of Kaftka’s inner tortuous thoughts on the simple task of planning this dinner menu. The story goes on this way, with Kaftka questioning his every thought, whether he should make “German potato salad” or a “French dish” (11), and whether Milena even wants to come to the dinner. However, Milena coming to the dinner party is anti-climatic, ends abruptly, and avoids a solid resolution of what will happen to their relationship, the last line in the story being a very seemingly irrelevant, unrelated comment: “after all I am not graceful. Someone once said that I swim like a swan, but it was not a compliment”. The reader is left baffled. What just happened? As the LA Times article suggests, “as in the Kafka parable, the absence of resolution — the missing center — haunts the reader like a presence. We wonder why it’s missing, we wonder why we want it, we wonder whether the absence of meaning is not in itself inevitably meaningful” (Jackson). Indeed the missing portions of traditional literary conventions, especially the lack of clear resolution, are what brings the reader confusion and forces them once again to engage with the text and reevaluate why one feels the need to have these solid conventions in effect, in the first place. The reader is demanded to examine the text and what makes us so uncomfortable and confused with it. This is very much in a nutshell, the experience of reading Davis’s unconventional short stories – her writing is “so convincingly solid,” yet very much jarring “to the normal experience of reading,” that the reader “cannot help but reflect on her pieces” (Lydia Davis, The Art of the Flash). It is evident that from this reflection and engagement stems many things – a discovery of connection to the text and an application to it in our own lives, a reevaluation of our relationship to literature and why we feel the need to have these traditional literary norms in place, and an immense amusement and excitement at attempting to figure out what makes her writings “tick”.

However, it is not only a lack of traditional literary norms that makes Davis’s work stimulating and thought-provoking, but also her writing technique. Davis has been referred to as a “magician of self-consciousness” due to the technique she utilizes in her writing style. She writes in a way that mimics the constant conscious thought-stream of the mind, a technique that very much contributes to the significance of the work. This technique is especially exemplified in the story “Grammar Questions”. The entire story, as the title suggests, is a discussion of grammar questions, however the twist is that these questions are all in context of the imminent death of the narrator’s father. The story takes the reader through the methodical inner-thoughts of the author and his or her’s (once again, the narrator’s character it is unclear) seemingly ridiculous, enormous concern over what tense or pronouns are best to use to describe the father who seems to be in the process of passing away. The inner fretting of the author includes long-winded thoughts such as “In the phrase ‘he is dying,’ the words ‘he is’ with the present participle suggest that he is actively doing something. But he is not actively dying. The only thing he is still actively doing is breathing” (28) and “I will continue to say ‘my father’ in relation to him, after he dies, but will I say it only in the past tense, or also in the present tense?” One is able to see the masterful way in which Davis is able perfectly illustrate the “circling convoluted progressions and digressions of thought,” and the way the mind jumps from thought to thought. However, the technique used is very much purposeful, especially in context of the content of the story. The story is one of death – death of a father, a loved one. Yet, from reading the methodical thought processes on grammar questions in the narrator’s mind, one cannot gather any emotion from the narrator. This is the kind of story which prompts commentators to tag Davis’s writing “nearly autistic”  (Marcus) in how “usage matters more than the dying person” and there is an absolute failure in the narrator to “acknowledge the emotional heart of the matter” (Marcus) – everything seems to be thought out, methodical, orderly, and detached. The technique Davis utilizes may seem to not lend itself to the immensely emotional content of the story, but in this story “without a trace of sentimentality, [the] omission is precisely its power” (Marcus), meaning that it is actually in that tension the technique creates in relation to the content, that the true brilliance of Davis’s writing shines through. As detailed by the New Yorker,  “what deepens the work, and moves it from game to drama, is that this brisk, almost naïve tone is often revealed to be a mask, a public fiction, behind which a person is flinching” (Wood, 88). The provocativeness of the story, then, comes from this tension between the orderly thoughts of narrator in the midst of the emotional chaos that occurs around them. “What is omitted or suppressed [then] becomes highly charged, and the hunger strike of the spare, lucid words on the page can take on a desperate aspect” (Wood, 88).

This covering up of the “flinching” pain behind the self-conscious methodical thoughts of the narrator is also exemplified in the story How Shall I Mourn Them? Vague, nondescript “I”, “them”, and random letters such as “C” and “K”, which are assumed to be shorthand names of people, are the only subjects in the story. The story consists solely of consecutive lines all starting with “Shall I…”, begging different questions such as “Shall I have a strong objection to the drinking of juice, like K.?” and “Shall I put daylily buds in the salads for my guests, like B.?” (183-184). This is very much a story about death, and the questioning of how we will remember and honor our loved ones once they pass away, yet once again it is written to mimic a methodical mind, laying out thoughts in stream. The continuation of this “Shall I” list seems to be a way for the narrator to orderly quantify the lives of the mourned loved ones, in order to ignore the real emotion that lay beyond. In the masterful use of this technique to create tension and thus meaning and introspection, “it becomes clear that Davis is an extraordinary technician of language, capable of revealing elusive human tendencies through the most unusual means” (Marcus). This theme carries through into We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders. The story is exactly what the title describes – an in-depth, tiring account and analysis of get well soon cards from a class of fourth grade students to one of their classmates 4th grade. “As the methodical assessment unfolds,” which includes dry analytic descriptions of the get-well letters such as, “the letters are written on lined exercise paper of two different sizes, most of them on the smaller, 7” by 8 and a half” (36) and “the letters overall contain a predominance of simple sentences…with now and then a compound, complex, or compound-complex sentence” (39), “Davis achieves something uncanny: a disturbing portrait of a bewildered young community confronting the possible loss of one of its own”. Thus, once again Davis reaches something very emotional and intimate through her contrasting technique.

In all of these examples, the reader is stimulated by the fact that these stories are about such emotional topics, such as death and the possible loss of loved ones, yet the narrator’s processing of these issues are very much detached and unemotional. Davis’s technique here then also lends itself to creating a relatable environment for the reader, as the way in which the narrators of Davis’s stories analyze their information is in reality very much indicative of the way we as humans attempt to “understand human nature by means of orderly systems such as language, logic, and mathematics” (Alexander, 176). As Karen Alexander’s Davis critique Breaking It Down suggests, “these stories show characters engaged in various forms of analysis, their minds actively seeking a way to make sense of painful experience, to subdue recalcitrant emotions through intellection. Their failure is both touching and apparent, for in it we witness our own struggles” (Alexander, 176). In this way, then, though “Davis can achieve an impressive degree of realism when it comes to revealing the essence of thinking and feeling,” she is still able to produce writing that is “exceedingly intimate, and it’s this discrepancy that proves rewarding in her work” (Alexander, 176).

It is often questioned whether Lydia Davis’s stories, in all their unconventional-ness, can really be called “short stories”. Yet Davis proves that even in rejecting conventional literary norms, content, and technique, outstanding work can still be yielded. We are thus left understanding that writing does not mean following rules, but rather means connecting and warranting a profound response on the other side of the page.


Works Cited

Alexander, Karen. Scribbling Women and the Short Story Form. New York: Lib of Congress, 2008. Google Books. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Davis, Lydia. Varieties of Disturbance. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007. Print.

Jackson, Shelley. “But is it a story?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 27 May 2007. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

“Lydia Davis, The Art of the Flash in ‘Varieties of Disturbance.'” Young Writers Online, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Marcus, Ben. “Analyze This.” Book Forum. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Power, Chris. “A brief survey of the short story part 24: Lydia Davis.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

Wood, James. “Songs of Myself.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 19 Oct. 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.

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