On Can’t and Won’t

As part of the Lydia Davis symposium that we have published in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation (30,000+ words on Davis, including an incredible interview), I wrote a lengthy piece that considers her latest book, Can’t and Won’t, as well as her work more generally. I think there’s a lot in there for the Davis fanatic (and casual consumer too) to muse over.

We seem to be reaching a consensus that there is something distinctly new about what Lydia Davis does. After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin, and India’s Intizar Husain, the author and critic Tim Parks said that Davis deserved the award because he and his co-jurists “felt that we were reading something we hadn’t read before in any shape or form—that it really was sparkling and new and fresh, a new form for the short story, and that carried the day in the end.” Even discounting the hyped-up language of major literary awards, the claim is staggering: he essentially says that Davis is head and shoulders above nine of the greatest living writers in the world.

Such heady praise may owe something to the International Booker’s provincialism (Davis is their third Anglo out of five awards), but bear in mind that Parks is an estimable reader, and, more importantly, he is not alone. In awarding Davis one of its prestigious fellowships in 2007, the MacArthur Foundation raved, “eschewing the conventions of plot, character, and drama, Davis shows how language itself can entertain, how all that what one word says, and leaves unsaid, can hold a reader’s interest.” She “grants readers a glimpse of life’s previously invisible details, revealing new sources of philosophical insight and beauty.” Once again, this is language that underlines how particularly new Davis feels. Even The New Yorker’s difficult-to-impress James Wood was unambiguous in claiming that she has made something authentically new: “A body of work probably unique in American writing. . . . I suspect that [Davis’] prose will in time be seen as one of the great, strange American literary contributions, distinct and crookedly personal, in the way of the work of Flannery O’Connor, or Donald Barthelme, or J. F. Powers.” The list goes on: David Shields says “she has utterly altered how I think about writing”; Francine Prose raves: “[she] expanded my ideas of what fiction could be, what language could accomplish.” There seems no end to her devotees, all making claims for Davis’ arresting newness.

These are major assertions, but they’re not excessive: Davis’ body of work really does seem this original. . . .

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“After awarding her the 2013 International Booker Prize over a slate of titans like Marilynne Robinson, Russia’s Vladimir Sorokin”

Although I’ve been a fan of Sorokin for quite a while and consider him to be an extremely important contemporary Russian writer, to call him a “titan” is too much of a hyperbole. Unfortunately, there are no titans writing in Russian today. Even Mikhail Shishkin is anything but. The only recent writer to whom this term is applicable is Alexander Goldstein, but alas, he’s not with us anymore.

In all likelihood, this is probably not true. Have a look at the last 200 years of Russian literature and try to find a period of time where no writer was writing who we consider a Titan today. Right, it is difficult. The problem is to find and recognize them…


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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