The Grain of the Choice
Lydia Davis's inimitable decision process
Can't and Won't:
by Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26.00 List Price
When Lydia Davis won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, the attempt to fix a label to her work reduced one of the judges, professor Sir Christopher Ricks, to a bit of flailing. “Lydia Davis’s writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind,” he fretted. “Just how to categorize them? Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories? Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apothegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations?” Personally, I’m not sure what the problem with just calling her a writer is, unless it’s this: If what she does is writing, we need a new name for what everyone else is doing.
Davis is the author of a novel and five volumes of short stories, some of which are as long as fifty pages and some of which are no more than a phrase. (It’s the latter that have attracted the most interest.) She doesn’t do narrative scenes at any length, and her “characters” are often just pronouns involved in an action or caught up in a memory. She’s like a monochrome painter; she makes the impossible look easy. The title story of her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, goes as follows:
I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to say can’t and won’t.
Two sentences that begin at laziness and end with will: Writing, like life, is a series of