Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lydia Davis, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant_

FOR YEARS I'VE had a grudge against the New Yorker for keeping American short fiction in a strait jacket, as it were. By virtue of its circulation, its reputation, and its rates of payment, the New Yorker remains the place an American short story writer would most want to be published, but for the longest time the fiction editors seemed almost exclusively interested in the classic realist short story, featuring the subdued, minor key epiphanies of middle-class characters in middle-class settings. Cheever and Updike territory, basically. The New Yorker typically had excellent material in this vein -- Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro -- but they seemed never to be outside of this vein, and squads of literary quarterlies followed suit. The sum effect, it seemed to me, was to keep American short fiction on a very short leash, creating a disincentive for innovation and experiment. How, I wondered, would the landscape change if the New Yorker published Diane Williams, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis? What renaissance might ensue?

This was unfair of me, to some extent. After all, the New Yorker published lots of Donald Barthelme and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom did risky things, and George Saunders, who goes out on a limb sometimes. The New Yorker has even published Lydia Davis, I learn from the acknowledgments page of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: "Thyroid Diary," one of the several memoir-like pieces here (e.g., "Jury Duty"), was published there in 2000.

Still, they have published four or five by Moore in the last ten years, and at least ten by Munro, and only that one by Davis. So, if you've been taking your cues on what American short fiction to read from the New Yorker, you have missed out on her, and this volume goes to show what a loss that was. It includes 55 pieces first published over a quarter century's time, from 1976 to 2001, including eight from her first collection of stories, though most (I gather) have not previously been collected in a book.

(This collection, it so happens, was first published by McSweeney's Books, but the edition I read was produced by Picador. Is the selection and arrangement Davis's, or someone else's? I have no idea.)

Some of the stories are very brief, a paragraph or less; the title story is only the second half of a sentence (the title itself being the first half):


that Scotland has so few trees.

This is a story? I think it is. It tells us about our sense of entitlement, about what sorts of things we give ourselves permission to be angry about, about our tendency to insist that places conform to our expectations. They knew I was coming, Davis's Johnson seems to protest, why couldn't they have planted some goddamn trees? It helps to know that Samuel Johnson was a the great man of 18th century English letters, that he had a prejudice against Scotland, that he was an upholder of standards and could be a bit of an intellectual bully on a bad day. But even without knowing all that, one can feel the story in that sentence.

It could, of course, have been turned into the sort of historical short story that Guy Davenport was so brilliant at (speaking of great short fiction writers never published by the New Yorker), with Boswell chattering away, descriptions of coaches and horses and inns, but... does one actually need all that? Not so much.

But would the New Yorker dare publish a half-sentence long short story? No. There's our problem.


Ron said...

The New Yorker published Lydia's story "Thyroid Diary" in September 2000. They had her one their "book club" live webchat feature just this past December. Lydia is, after all, published by FSG, as are many New Yorker short story writers.

Theobald said...

Yes, I know. I mentioned their publishing "Thyroid Diary" in my second paragraph. Good on them, but why only one?