Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Stories of Lydia Davis

One of the books I'm currently reading is the Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Ms Davis is at the forefront of a certain type of short fiction which is gaining popularity among the literary journal set. I've read about 60 of her stories (they range in length from one sentence to thousands of words) and I believe I have figured out what Ms Davis is doing. I have discovered the key to the "Lydia Davis-style short story," and because I am a generous soul, I'm going to share that key with you guys.

How does a traditional story work? We're all familiar with the rising action/climax/falling action structure, right? It goes like this:

1. Introduce characters and problem to be solved.
2. Increase the severity of the problem.
3. Bring problem to a climax (a crisis point which must be resolved before anything else can happen).
4. Show how things are after crisis resolved.

That's your basic story, Ma'am. Short stories, in the search for brevity and power (because there's an idea that concentrating the story elements into the smallest possible space--which is to say, flash fiction--increases the power and impact of the story; I have doubts that this idea is actually true, but it's a common idea these days) often skip steps 1 and 4. The problem, characters and setting all come at once with no introduction. A common short story these days starts in medias res, with all the parts moving and the train about to crash, as it were. Then the train crashes and the resolution of the conflict is implied in the climax scene somehow (the author doesn't say it explicitly, but the reader can figure out that, for example, the guy will end up with the girl or whatever).

What Ms Davis' stories seem to do is jump with both feet into step 2, where the characters/crisis/setting (sometimes just character and crisis without setting) are shown, in the most arresting and concrete terms Ms Davis can muster. And then the story is over. The climax doesn't happen; the story begins and ends with the conflict/problem/crisis. The reader is made uncomfortable and then abandoned to sort out his discomfort.

In other words, Ms Davis writes premises without dramatic action. I may wonder aloud if I think these are properly stories. I think of a story as the telling of what happened. Possibly Ms Davis' art is to demonstrate or illustrate that conflict between people is generally never resolved, that it goes on and on with no relief and that, luv, is how life really works. I don't argue with that proposition, if that's what she's implying. I just don't know if that makes what Lydia Davis writes "stories."

I like reading them, whatever they are.

Anyway, do you think that the crisis/conflict in a work of fiction need be resolved in order for that piece of fiction to be a proper story?


  1. That's an interesting question, Scott..I don't think I know the answer. I think no definitions are set in stone and that art is art because the definitions are fluid.
    However, I think it is easier to stop at 2 without going to step 3 (for me atleast). I know I haven't tried long or hard enough, but the thing I find most difficult to do in a short story, is to actually follow the story arc to the end. I find it easier to hang in the middle of that arc with all the bits of tension (which is probably step 2). It probably may be because most of my life I've only written poetry which is meant to be a snapshot rather than an arc?


  2. Lavanya, I agree that art is art and obeys its own rules, but I do wonder what we mean when we say we're writing a "story." It's obviously not that important to define the term, but I want to anyway because I'm fussy.

    When I figured out what Davis was doing in her work, I was originally annoyed, and I thought, "Oh, she's being lazy, just doing the set up without following through." Now I'm not so sure.

  3. This is a very timely post because I've just finished a collection of flash fiction. I don't know if they are stories--this author does not call them stories--but they are so well done in terms of details and quirky characterizations that reading each one was a pleasure. A quick, sometimes fleeting pleasure, but the fact that they came one after another was very satisfying. (Perhpas if I'd just had one, I'd be less infatuated?)

    My enjoyment, of course, may also be because the last novel I read was "Cutting for Stone" and it is long and dense. Brilliant, but long and dense.

  4. j.a.: That's interesting about the contrast between long and dense and short short. Davis translated a volume of Proust, and I believe I read somewhere that the brevity of her own fiction is a reaction to spending so much time with the wordy French writer.

  5. Perhaps, she says, perhaps that is the appeal of twitter, for novelists. Having to say something in 140 characters.

    So. When are you signing up?

    (Worth a try.)

  6. I'll join twitter when it becomes 1400 words/tweet. Not until then. Brevity isn't always the soul of wit.

  7. Scott - I totally get why you'd want to define what a story means. I think that it is important and necessary to do, more so as a writer than as a reader (again, maybe that's not true. maybe it is important to do so as a reader too). I just meant that the definition can and will change across time.
    But, you are right in asking for a definition- only if you question what a story means will its definitions/forms ever change (without erasing the 'essence' of what a story should be).


  8. I was somehow thrown into the world of flash fiction by flash fiction writers when, really, I just considered myself to be writing short stories. I didn't see any difference between short stories and flash fiction, and I guess the people who liked what I wrote didn't care about the difference either. But having said that, I do believe there are flash fiction writers who have manged to make flash fiction its own format in a really beautiful way. One of my favorite writers is Kathy Fish, and she writes primarily flash fiction. Randall Brown is also excellent. What they create doesn't feel like a full story to me. I wouldn't call them stories. But they aren't poems or anything else either. And I like to read them a lot.

  9. Oh, and I'm with Lavanya when she says following the story arc to the end is difficult. Scott is good with endings. I've learned a lot from him. I've also developed my own ways to get to the end, but mostly it feels like a game of chance.

  10. I am now doing a lot of serious thinking about how necessary it is to resolve a conflict in a story. Murakami moves forward through time in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but he doesn't exactly answer the central questions he raises in the book, does he? And the climax regarding the wife and brother doesn't directly involve the protagonist. So that's a strange book in formal terms and I don't know if it's really a story, either. All of these open-ended ideas appeal to me, but I haven't yet really seen anyone control the materials as well as I'd like to see.

  11. Maybe that person is you, Mr. Bailey!

  12. I don't need a concrete ending to a short story. I like the snap-shot of a single incident, a moment in the life of the character that allows me to get to know him/her, without knowing everything about them.

    I like meeting new people, and walking away with the best possible impression of them. Get to know someone too well, and you could be disappointed. So, short stories are that glimpse; and then I can fill in my own blanks.

    Not many people like that though. I've had to revise several short stories to include an ending that resolves something "for the reader".

    This sounds like an interesting collection.


  13. If the writer and the reader agree that it was a proper story, it was. Rules be damned. Writing / storytelling is a very subjective art, and adding brevity to the mix only makes it more so.

  14. Davin, that's who I was talking about--Kathy Fish. :) I LOVE her "fictions."

  15. Flash fiction is an experimental genre by its very nature, especially the micro flash 1000 words or fewer. I am a contributing editor over at Apocrypha and Abstractions, a 500 words or fewer flash fiction ezine, and have had dozens of my own flashes pieces published. I can say from my experiences writing, publishing, and reading it, that standard story construction rules don’t often apply to flash. That the reader has to infer much of the story is part of what makes flash fiction so intriguing. A storyline in flash is much more open to reader interpretation than in the longer forms, the denouements unresolved very purposefully so. What is most important in flash is what is implied rather than what is said.

    In the flash fiction publishing world, you’ll run the gamut. Some sites want standard story construction like you outline above, and some find that mundane and prefer the experimental, the ambiguous, and they want the argument not the resolution. Slipstream is an excellent subgenre for that sort of thing. Flash is very in the moment, and anything outside the moment isn’t always relative. Most flash contains all the elements of standard story construction: the protagonist, the conflict, the obstacles, and the resolution; it is just that much of it might be left unwritten.

    Flash writers often quote: “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never worn.” as Hemingway’s most famous bit of flash fiction. Debate rages whether he actually wrote it or not, but regardless of that, it is still flash fiction in its most distilled and finest form.


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