Essays One by Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis is the flagship writer of the “flash fiction” format: fictional works of extreme brevity, sometimes consisting of just a sentence or two. With a publishing record spanning back to the late 70s, Davis has also contributed a number of short stories, novels, and works of translation. Now, for the first time, Essays One collects her nonfiction works written throughout the decades, an archive that touches upon her writing process and influences, featuring elements of memoir, history, and the visual arts. Essays One is so titled because a second volume, mainly about translation, is on the way—but most readers will have had quite enough by the end of this initial 500-page entry. Davis devotees may have a ball, but this essay assemblage fails to sell the average layperson on the merits of microfiction and other obscure writing forms, and will not whet appetites for an equally-sized volume on translation.
If Davis successfully piqued reader interest in the writers she adores, she wouldn’t feel the need to over-explain the fact of their excellence. One essay explores the alleged wonders of author Lucia Berlin’s short stories, celebrated for their voice, economy, imagery and clarity. One long paragraph breaks down multiple mechanics of a passage from Berlin’s “Panteon de Delores.” Davis articulates the way she interacts with it, calling its stylistic bluffs and reveling in the thrill of being seduced by its moments of truth. Awkwardly, this lengthy workshop is followed by a new paragraph consisting of a single sentence, asserting that this is exhilarating writing. If Davis’ analysis was successful, she wouldn’t need to tell us outright that the piece is exhilarating—it should already be self-evident. Insistent proclamations like these read like amateurish over-explanatory adverbs. And this is an essay from 2016, so there’s no “early career” excuse to lean on.
Amongst Davis’ unremarkable sales pitches comes her perennial complaint: The authors she adores ought to be more famous and discussed. Lucia Berlin should have found wider readership by now, Jane Bowles remains unrecognized, and why isn’t Edward Dahlberg’s name heard in conversation more often? Davis holds out hope that the best writers will eventually rise to the top, and is baffled why this doesn’t come to fruition, yet the rest of the book answers her own puzzle. Some of the works worthy of her platform are disposable, such as this one-trick gimmick haiku:
First, five syllables.
Second, seven syllables.
Third, five syllables.
That this might be noteworthy material is laughable—this haiku reads like the tweet of a struggling comedian. Davis even serves up inadequacies of her own creation, such as this two-sentence piece called Ph.D:
All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.
Readers need not feel obligated to bend over backwards to appreciate underdeveloped nuggets like these, certainly not to the extent Davis does.
What else lines this collection’s 500 pages? Elements of memoir, explorations of her literary influences, jabs at the early works of Pynchon, and an arguably-unnecessary meditation on the word “gubernatorial.” Intermittently there are unreadable essays on visual artists, containing Davis’ fanfiction-esque theories about each painter’s works. She also delivers behind-the-scenes looks at some of her own poems and microstories, essentially serving as a DVD director’s commentary. Analysis of how a semicolon or line break affects the meaning of a passage may be useful for aspiring poets, but for the rest of us may come off as just arduous.
The sum of all this investigation has an unfortunate net effect. By indulging a preoccupation about technical literary maneuvers and all their moving parts, it grows increasingly difficult to just enjoy the experience of a work itself. Davis herself admits that when she comes across a poem that moves her, she’s distracted by how good it is, and by the way that it works. Her thinking brain is so interested in breaking down the poem’s mechanics that her feeling heart is unable to experience it in a natural, flowing manner. If forensic analysis like this results in a distracted experience of otherwise enjoyable art, then this does not make a strong selling point for Essays One. Perhaps this content belonged confined to her teaching seminars, not applicable for the general public’s consumption. She absolutely writes with intelligence and clarity, but the way she makes use of these gifts in Essays One will only connect with an already-converted choir.