‘Essays One’ by Lydia Davis: An Excerpt

The traditional literary forms—the novel, the short story, the poem—although they evolve, do not disappear. But there is a wealth of less traditional forms that writers have adopted over the decades and centuries, forms that are harder to define and less often encountered, either variations on the more familiar, such as the short-short story, or intergeneric—sitting on a line between poetry and prose, or fable and realistic narrative, or essay and fiction, and so on.

I would like to discuss some of these more eccentric forms, and specifically some of the ones I have read and thought about over the years as my own writing has evolved. So this essay includes something about my writing but is predominantly an excuse to study and read from other people’s writing, both poetry and prose.

[ Return to the review of “Essays One.” ]

I think of myself as a writer of fiction, but my first books were slim small-press books often shelved in the poetry section, and I am still sometimes called a poet and included in poetry anthologies. It is understandable that there may be some confusion. For instance, my collection of stories titled Samuel Johnson Is Indignant contains fifty-six pieces, including what could roughly be described as meditations; parables or fables; an oral history with hiccups; an interrogation about jury duty; a traditional, though brief, story about a family trip; a diary about thyroid disease; excerpts from a bad translation of a poorly written biography of Marie Curie; a fairly traditional narrative about my father and his furnace, though ending in an accidental poem; and, scattered through the book, brief prose pieces of just one or two lines as well as one or two pieces with broken lines.

When I began writing “seriously” and steadily in college, I thought my only choice was the traditional narrative short story. Both my parents had been writers of short stories, and my mother still was. Both of them had had stories published in The New Yorker, which loomed large in our life, as some sort of icon, though an icon of exactly what I’m not sure—good writing and editing, urban wit and sophistication? By age twelve, I already felt I was bound to be a writer, and if you were going to be a writer, the choices were limited: first, either poet or prose writer; then, if prose writer, either novelist or short-story writer. I never thought of being a novelist. I wrote poems early on, but to be a poet was somehow not an option. So if, eventually, some of my work comes right up to the line (if there is one) that separates a piece of prose from a poem, and even crosses it, the approach to that line is through the realm of short fiction.

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