Short story writer and translator Lydia Davis won a MacArthur fellowship in 2003 and a Man Booker Prize in 2009. She’s considered one of the finest literary writers working today. The resident of New York state spoke Thursday afternoon at Scripps College, in something of a coup for Claremont. (Of course, we expect no less from the Claremont Colleges.) I left work early to attend. Nearly 100 people were in attendance, mostly students with some faculty and a few regular folks like me.
Most of Davis’ stories are quite short, many only a couple of pages, some so minimalist they’re only a sentence or two long. They’re probably unlike anything else you’ll ever read.
She read for 40 minutes, and by my count she read 27 of her stories in that time, all from her latest collection, “Can’t and Won’t,” which has 122 (I think) stories in its 304 pages. Here’s a review from the New York Times.
Her stories are often drily hilarious, and Davis’ deadpan delivery in her reading made them even funnier. A few are written as letters of complaint to various companies. This mode began with a letter she wrote but never sent to a funeral home “objecting to the word ‘cremains,’” she told us. She never mailed it but instead made it a story.
Another letter of complaint was to a frozen peas manufacturer, in which she wondered why its packaging made its peas look less appealing than they actually are rather than the reverse. “That one I did send,” Davis explained. “I got an answer but it wasn’t satisfactory”; the company sent her a coupon for a subsidiary’s peas.
After the reading, I approached Davis for a signature on my copy of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” which she translated in 2003 for Viking. In a spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit I haven’t read it — I bought it at a Borders during the closeout sale — but now I’ve got extra incentive. I certainly won’t part with it.