Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Samuel Johnson is indignant

I've gotten in trouble a few times this semester for describing too many works of literature as "experimental," and now here's my favorite author Lydia Davis disdaining the term (link via Maud Newton). Davis has a new collection of short stories out this month called Varieties of Disturbance, and she is speaking at the Astor Place Barnes and Noble on May 22. She gave an interview to the Boston Globe about her work:
I haven't met a so-called experimental writer who likes the term. It must be people who aren't experimental writers who call people experimental. It's just the wrong word. 'Experiment' carries the suggestion that it may not work. I prefer the idea of being adventurous, exploring forms. You wouldn't call Beckett an experimental writer, would you? You look at the whole span of his career--he started with poems and short stories and novels, and then he got into these strange texts. Kafka is the same with his parables and paradoxes. You wouldn't say, "Oh he's an experimental writer," you would just say, "That's Kafka writing in that way because that's what interested him."

This semester, I had learned my lesson by the time we got to Beckett and kept my mouth shut about why we couldn't say Beckett was experimenting with tape recording technology in Krapp's Last Tape--or I suppose the real problem was, what else would I say after making that claim, which was somewhat self-evident? Lately I've been somewhat convinced that the term 'experimental' loses its currency when it's applied to too many works (or to an entire century...).

But one way of thinking about experimentation in writing is trying out a number of different ways of getting at a problem and seeing what happens. A few weeks ago I was talking with a few University Writing teachers who are interested in teaching first-year college students about formal experimentation and I wondered if we were limiting ourselves if we thought of experimentation only as something that looked weird or cool (or "experimental"). It's just as much of an experiment--albeit one of a different type--to tell students to write four different introductions to an essay and consider what they're doing differently in each essay, what works and why, and what might work better in a different essay. That's a productive form of experimentation that forces us to think about why we make certain choices; done thoughtfully, it can be a great exercise. Talking about writing as experimentation opens up a lot of vocabulary other than the worry that it's of lesser quality or more interesting as a failure.

Ben Marcus gets at some of the more productive possibilities of experimentation in his review of Davis's new book in this month's issue of Bookforum, but he manages not to use the word "experimental" at all. The review is one of the best appreciations of Davis's work I've ever read, and it's also useful for me to think about how to talk about experiment in other ways. Marcus praises her interest in what breaking things down can and can't do. Here's his take on one of the stories from Varieties of Disturbance:
These developments are most strikingly on display in "We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders," a title that—-lest you think it's a joke—-perfectly serves this text. Unlike some writers, who might adopt such a formal conceit as a gateway into a narrative, Davis never wavers from the critical task she sets herself in the piece, and the result is confoundingly literal. A series of get-well cards is parsed and analyzed for the meaning in each line, studied under a magnifying glass in the manner of a kind of linguistic archaeology: "The letters are written on lined exercise paper of two different sizes.""The teacher has inked in corrections on some of the letters." "Only a few children express curiosity about Stephen's experience in the hospital."

As the methodical assessment unfolds, burrowing into the usage strategies of each student and the implications of their stylistic choices, Davis achieves something uncanny: a disturbing portrait of a bewildered young community confronting the possible loss of one of its own.

Whether the cards are an invented conceit or a "maniacally odd" archaeology of found objects is irrelevant, Marcus says, for the story's formal constraints show something larger.
By scrutinizing the sentences spoken or written by her subjects, Davis performs a forensic examination on their personalities, proving that even their most casual or accidental phrases, the little bits of banal and inaccurate language we all use daily, can serve as dramatic evidence of our fears and desires. Her effort suggests that the creation of character could just as well be a matter of science as of art. And it's the empirical method of science, rather than an intuitive style of storytelling, that drives her best stories. But this method has not previously been applied to the texts of get-well cards or to the maid-hiring practices of a woman over the course of her life ("Mrs. D. and Her Maids")-—and it's this pairing of technique and content that yields vital, genuinely original writing, fiction as fascinating and absorbing as the most engrossing traditional narrative. Thus the issue of genre—whether this is fiction or something else—quietly stops mattering...

Marcus's essay has changed the way I think about Davis's work in the best way: I read the Globe interview yesterday, re-read a couple of stories in Break It Down and the beginning of The End of the Story, worried about why I wasn't as taken with her narrative precision and remove at this particular re-reading, sighed a little, went to Labyrinth, saw the issue of Bookforum and was delighted to see Marcus's review of the new collection, read the review, re-read the stories from Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, thought about how Davis's one-sentence stories compared to Amy Hempel's (not better or worse, just what are they doing differently, and why do both of them work so well when I'd usually think they were contrived? Marcus has a great take on what the one-sentence stories do in Davis's stories), went home and read Almost No Memory, and was torn apart (as always, but in a slightly different way this time) by my favorite of her short stories, "The Professor." So I highly recommend the essay to Davis's fans.

Lydia Davis is, by the way, my favorite Barnard alumna. I saw Cynthia Nixon on the street the other day and nearly ran up to her to shout "Barnard!" but decided against it. I'd like to think she'd be cool with that. I mean, I probably would have said something else, but that would have been the gist of it.