Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Lydia Davis Has a Good "Almost No Memory"; But Anis Shivani Begs to Differ

If you just wait long enough, it's easy to find a firestorm of controversy regarding certain literary topics of interest online. The last big one I can recall was Katie Roiphe's lamenting testicles being figuratively cut off contemporary male authors, though I think she maybe put it in somewhat less crass terms. But yesterday I woke up to the lit blogosphere sirens sounding about Anis Shivani's list of the 15 most overrated authors writing these days and questioning the merits of creative writing MFAs (which that latter point is one that's been made by lots of folks I needn't link to / is a popular point to attempt to make these days). YAY! I for one am thrilled about this article, in part because it somewhat involves Lydia Davis, who is the primary subject of this post, because of her short story collection, "Almost No Memory," which about a week ago I got around to finishing. (Shivani invokes Lydia Davis as one of a slew of authors who are popular in MFA circles because they are just so easily imitable, and, thus, I guess frauds for other frauds to ape like fraudulent apes. I think this is probably too glib, personally.)

A friend of mine recently made the comment that even regarding the authors he likes best he is certain he could exposit at great length on their flaws, on what about their writing, in effect, irks him. I think this is true in my case, also. For as much as I love the authors I love their are plenty of things about their writing that is, in my mind, less than perfect. It wasn't until my friend pointed this out to me that I realized it's perfectly reasonable for this to be the case, also. It's perfectly reasonable to like and yet still take exception to the work of the writers you admire. Nobody is beyond reproach. And that's the point.

And it's in part why 1.) I can say I think Lydia Davis is on to something interesting but not always something that is interesting to me (given my own personal interests) and that 2.) for as much fun as railing about how overrated certain writers is, as I'm sure Anis Shavini felt no small satisfaction in putting things so bluntly about those whom he deems the literati's sacred cows, it also seems tremendously beside the point -- because anyone could stamp "overrated" on any writer who has ever existed, especially if they've breached the boundaries of anonymity to the capricious embrace of the general public. "Shakespeare is overrated." Google that. Go ahead, and tell me you don't get a million pages worth of tirades against him (ok, 100,000), the man who might not have existed in the first place. (Then Google, "Fraudiam Fakespeare is gay." You'll no doubt get fewer page results.) And who cares? It's beside the point. You can also find a million reasons to argue that Fakespeare is good. These lists are superfluous because in the end they amount to one thing: personal preference, however nuanced and well thought out it may be / appear to be.

There's something too "Donald Barthelme" to ignore about Lydia Davis' work. I mean that in the best possible sense, that the two authors share a certain fundamental quality that informs their work, capturing that similar muse. Or maybe Lydia Davis has been influenced by Barthelme to some extent I'm not aware of. I know that I do not know about that.

"A Second Chance" was one of her stories in "Almost No Memory" that hit my personal mark of "being interesting." Tell me there's not something Barthelme-esque in there, someplace:

If only, for instance, you could get married at eighteen twice, then the second time you could make sure you were not too young to do this, because you would have the perspective of being older, and would know that the person advising you to marry this man was giving you the wrong advice because his reasons were the same ones he gave you the last time he advised you to get married at eighteen.

I think it's a worthwhile trudge to trudge through those great many moments of disconnection if only to get to the great many few-and-further-between moments when you do find something you value in what the author has written (which is to say: finding things of value is not so much on the author to provide, but for you to determine by yourself that they have value to yourself). This is something that can't really be cherry-picked through, as I see it. You have to read the whole and sum total of a work or collection to be sure you've given it the old college try. No skimming of passages is really efficient enough. I don't know about speed-reading, since I'm not a speed-reader and wouldn't want to be one, neither, gauldurnit. I therefore won't speculate where speed reading is concerned.

Anyway, you also don't have to trudge through something that doesn't interest you. I'm just saying, hey, maybe you'll find that there's something(s) worth liking in that trudge through Wharton or Woolf or Faulkner (although admittedly I had to stop with Woolf, full disclosure being the thing what it is). And maybe that will make you feel like those minutes you spent reading said work weren't crap minutes flushed down the crapper, because you'll never ever get them back, no way. That's not how time works, physicists have theorized and perhaps proven.

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