Much of Lydia Davis ‘ short fiction could fit on a postage stamp. Maybe a more modern comparison would be that her short stories fit nicely into a Facebook status update. When discussing her work, most of the discussion is spent trying to figure out how to catagorize what she has written–short story? parable? anecdote? prose poem?
Her short story, Insomnia, reads: “My body aches so–it must be this heavy bed pressing up against me.”
That’s all there is to it.
Lydia Davis has mastered her own invented genre with such success that she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize (worth roughly $90,000) in acknowledgement of her collected works.
Lydia Davis’ Collected Short Stories are a beautiful exploration in the power of editing. The stories are like model ships in glass-bottles–the larger world captured in minute detail, yet so concisely organized in the form. Davis is at her best when illustrating what is most familiar:
He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her. This was about the screen door. That it should not be left open was her idea, because of the flies; his was that it could be left open first thing in the morning, when there were no flies on the deck. Anyway, he said, most of the flies came from other parts of the building: in fact, he was probably letting more of them out than in.
Not all of Davis’ stories are this brief. But they are all tightly-cropped. Although her stories are not expansive, when read they together, depict a multi-faceted portrait of life.
Your house, being the place in which you read, can tell us the position books occupy in your life, if they are a defense you set up to keep the outside world at a distance, if they are a dream into which you sink as if into a drug, or bridges you cast toward the outside, toward the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books.
Today Cereus Readers–a book club devoted to Eudora Welty & and the writers she loved–is discussing “Where Is the Voice Coming from?” (1963), “The Demonstrators,” (1968) and the essay, “Must the Novelist Crusade?” (1965).
If you’re interested in joining Cereus Readers, send me an e-mail (lisa at lemuriabooks dot com) or stop by the store.
As I read “Must the Novelist Crusade?”, I realized that this essay has just as much truth for us today as it did when Miss Welty wrote it. If you have never read this essay before, it can be found in The Eye of the Story. I feel it is also one of those essay that beckons to be read more than once. The entire essay is a marvel, and I hate to chop it up, but I’d like to share some stand-out passages with you.
From “Must the Novelist Crusade?” by Eudora Welty
‘All right, Eudora Welty, what are you going to do about it? Sit down there with your mouth shut?’ asked a stranger over a long distance in one of the midnight calls that I suppose have waked most writers in the South from time to time. It is part of the same question: Are fiction writers on call to be crusaders? For us in the South who are fiction writers, is writing a novel something we can do about it?
. . .
The ordinary novelist does not argue; he hopes to show, to disclose. His persuasions are all toward allowing his reader to see and hear something for himself. He knows another bad thing about arguments: they carry the menace of neatness into fiction. Indeed, what we as a crusader-novelist are scared of most is confusion.
Great fiction, we very much fear, abounds in what makes for confusion; it generates it, being on a scale which copies life, which it confronts. It is very seldom neat, is given to sprawling and escaping from bounds, is capable of contradicting itself, and is not impervious to humor. There is absolutely everything in great fiction but a clear answer. Humanity itself seems to matter more to the novelist than what humanity thinks it can prove.
When a novelist writes of man’s experience, what else is he to draw on but life around him? And yet life around him, on the surface, can be used to show anything, as readers know. The novelist’s real task and real responsibility lies in the way he uses it.
. . .
We cannot in fiction set people to acting mechanically or carrying placards to make their sentiments plain. People are not Right and Wrong, Good and Bad, Black and White personified; flesh and blood and the sense of comedy object. Fiction writers cannot be tempted to make the mistake of looking at people in the generality–that is to say, of seeing people as not at all like us. If human beings are to be comprehended as real, then they have to be treated as real, with minds, hearts, memories, habits, hopes, with passions and capacities like ours. This is why novelists begin the study of people from within.
. . .
What must the Southern writer of fiction do today? Shall he do anything different from what he has already done?
There have been giant events, some wrenchingly painful and humiliating. And now there is added the atmosphere of hate. We in the South are a hated people these days; we were hated at first for actual and particular reasons, and now we may be hated still more in some vast unparticularized way. I believe there must be such a things as sentimental hate. Our people hate back.
I think the worst of it is we are getting stuck in it. We are like trapped flies with our feet not in honey but in venom. It’s not love that is the gluey emotion; it’s hate. As far as writing goes, this is a devastating emotion. It could kill us. This hate seems part shame for self, in part self-justification, in part panic that life is really changing.
. . . Yet I would like to point something out: in the rest of the country people seem suddenly aware now of what Southern fiction writers have been writing in various ways for a great long time. We do not need reminding what our subject is. It is human kind, and we are all part of it. When we write about people, black or white, in the South or anywhere, if our stories are worth the reading, we are writing about everybody.
Ramona Ausbel’s short story collection, A Guide to Being Born, is a wonderful romp through magical realism, exploring the fabric of life itself. The curtain between life and death is as thin as that between the real and imagined.
Ausubel is sensitive to our precarious position between safety and peril — locked out of full access to one another’s inner lives, locked into the pitiless machinations of our own biological systems, left certain only of our uncertainties.
The collection opens with “Safe Passage,” a story of a ship adrift in at sea, captained only by hundreds and hundreds of Grandmothers. In “A Chest of Drawers” a father-to-be develops a series of drawers in his chest in which he can store any number of sundries, including his wife’s lipstick. In “Atria,” a high school freshmen blurs the line between truth and lies after she finds herself very pregnant.
Reminiscent of the fantastical and tragic of Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us,the characters in A Guide To Being Bornare struggling through life-altering events and decisions in extraordinary and unusual ways. Ausubul handles the weaknesses and strengths of her characters with a deft touch, allowing their strangeness to be their salvation.
I am 3/4 of the way through Claire Messud’s newest novel, The Woman Upstairsand am having trouble putting it down long enough to finish this blog.
The narrator of this novel is angry–angry that she is moderately successful (an elementary school teacher), reliable (she calls her father every day and helped care for her dying mother), and boring. In short, everything your parents wanted you to grow up to become, but upon achieving, you realize it would have been a lot more fun to have messed around a bit.
How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.
I’m a good girl, I”m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parent’s shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I”m over forty fucking years old, and I”m good at my job and I”m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone–every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say ‘Great Artist’ on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say ‘such a good teacher/daughter/friend’ instead.
But this novel isn’t just a series of angry rants. It is a portrait of relationships–their saving and destructive power. Messud is at her best in describing the minutiae of life. The way light pools in a dark room. The feel of winter on a walk home. The way a new friend can rattle your daily life.
Mary Ward Brown’s collection of short stories Tongues of Flame won the Penn/Hemingway Award for Fiction. She last signed at Lemuria in August of 2009 (pictured above with John Evans) for the publication of her memoir Fanning the Spark. Brown writes:
“When I was writing the stories in Tongues of Flame, nobody, including me, thought that what I wrote would ever be worth the effort, so I was thought to be deluded and was generally let alone. When “The Amaryllis” was published in McCall’s and a newspaper reporter tried to find me, he was told that I was something of a recluse. It hurt my feelings, because I’ve never wanted to shut myself away from the people or the life around me. But to write, one does have to somehow be shut away. In bed every night, I think of people I haven’t stayed in touch with, letters and emails I haven’t answered, opportunities I’ve let go by, even flowers I haven’t put on the graves of my family.”
Mary Ward Brown is just the kind of person–even if you know her just a little–who you wish could stay with us forever. At Lemuria, we’ll continue to share her beautiful writing with others.
It’s a grim title, but Murderland it was, a term coined by a New York reporter who had come to expose the story of the two feuding families on the West Virginia and Kentucky boarder. We have long been enamored with the story of the Hatfields and McCoys- our very own fair Verona tragedy, only more backwoods and less…well, fair. Recently the History Channel undertook this infamous generation-spanning inter-family squall in the form of a miniseries and companion documentary. Now Dean King has joined the ranks of committed researchers who have decided to sink their teeth into very often two-sided tale with his new book The Fued: The Hadfields & McCoys, the True Story.
The Fuedreads beautifully, like fiction even, which isn’t a hard thing to believe considering that the whole story seems too bad to be true. King follows the two families from the first shot, to the rumored romance between Johnse Hatfield and Roseanne McCoy, all the way to the official peace treaty signed by Reo Hatfield and Bo and Ron McCoy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. King experienced first hand how tense the situation is even today, as he wrote in the author’s note:
“On my first trip, in the summer of 2009, with the help of two forest rangers and my daughter Hazel, I bushwacked down to the mouth of Thacker Creek on the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River to see the place where Jeff McCoy had been shot and killed in 1886. We had not been there fifteen minutes when some locals let it be known in a feud-worthy fashion that they did not appreciate my snooping around…gunshots sprayed the river surface near us– making me, as far as I know the second chronicler of the feud (Creelman being the first, in 1888) to be warned off with rifle fire while researching the story.”
This is the best kind of “fly on the wall” book, and King has researched so thoroughly that it transcends dry history text and is transformed into a real story. In some cases, truth really is stranger than fiction, and maybe that’s why we love this story so much. The tragedy, passion, and longevity of this feud is irresistible to us- and I imagine it always will be.
One good thing usually leads to another, and World Book Night led me to Roderick Red of Jackson Voices. The purpose of Jackson Voices is to put “the power of storytelling in the hands of Jackson residents with the goal of elevating voices not often heard, particularly within the African-American community.”
Roderick Red is one of ten Jackson correspondents and he found out about Sheila O’Flaherty, a regular on JATRAN, who was giving away books for World Book Night on April 23rd. As you’ll hear in the video, I met Sheila through World Book Night a couple of years ago and have always admired her love of reading and her desire to share it with others.
James Franco’s film adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying will premier at the Cannes Film Festival on May 20. I wonder if we will ever be able to see it in Jackson . . .
Check out the trailer and see what you think!
The film tells the story of the death of Addie Bundren (Beth Grant) and her family’s quest to honor her wish to be buried in the nearby town of Jefferson.
Franco wrote, directed and stars in the film as Darl Bundren, Addie’s second oldest son, and “True Blood” star Jim Parrack as Cash Bundren, Addie’s eldest son. Additional members of the cast include Richard Jenkins, Danny McBride, Logan Marshall-Green, Ahna O’Reilly and Tim Blake Nelson.
Last year, many of you will remember that we hosted the author and creator of the Fancy Nancy series, Jane O’Connor. Tomorrow, we are honored to also host the illustrator of this famed series, Robin Preiss Glasser! Robin has had two successful careers, the first as a ballet dancer and the second as a best-selling children’s book illustrator. She will be here promoting the newest addition to the Fancy Nancy story,
Fancy Nancy’s sister JoJo can really be a pest sometimes …like when she put Easter-egg dye in the kiddie pool and dunked Frenchy in it! But this time she’s done something really bad, and Nancy is livid (that’s fancy for très angry and upset)! JoJo drew a tattoo on Nancy’s precious doll, Marabelle Lavinia Chandelier! Even worse, it’s in permanent marker …that means it will never come out! When Mom suggests a fancy doll party to make Nancy feel better, Nancy is excited to accept. But when Marabelle gets mixed up with another doll, is the doll drama over? Fancy Nancy fans and their très fancy dolls will delight in this sweet story about the love little girls feel for their favorite dolls…and their favorite sisters!
We will have tres fantastic time! So come in your fanciest attire, and bring your own fancy doll for a Fancy Nancy extravaganza! Come as early as 3:30 to our events building to take pictures with the Fancy Nancy tres fancy bus and to enjoy some fancy coloring! Robin will read at 4:00, with a signing to follow. See you there!