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Old 03-09-2014, 08:09 PM View Post #1 (Link) 2. Lydia Davis, The Art of the Flash in 'Varieties of Disturbance'
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2. LYDIA DAVIS (1947-), THE ART OF THE FLASH IN 'VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE'

We move on from Canada's first Nobel Literature laureate to a country that has, within its gargantuan canon, eleven laureates. I am of course referring to the behemoth that is the United States of America. Why then is this discussion not dedicated to William Faulkner nor Ernest Hemingway, unquestionably two of American's greatest short story writers? Their influence is undeniable; it ripples through every caveat of American literature in its present state, and Hemingway in his sparseness and prosaic meanness has carved out a style for the short story that has been engulfing for the form. If anything there has even been a backlash against the fervent emulation of writers like Carver, Hemingway and Cheever, particularly noteworthy within the criticism against the supposed 'short-story-by-numbers-and-mysgony' stereotype that typifies MFA programmes.

So at a time where it seems America needs a reinvention - or dare I say, rebranding - of its literature, Lydia Davis in defying the American tradition of the short story seems like a breath of fresh words. She is one of the most highly regarded and controversial writers of the genre to be writing at the moment, and like Munro, she almost deals exclusively in what we would mostly call short stories. Equally she is a critically acclaimed translator of Blanchot, Proust and Flaubert.

Born in Massachusetts she has published six collection of stories, including Break It Down (1986), Almost No Memory (1997) and Varieties of Disturbance (2007). In 2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a beautiful collection if I may add, describing her as 'one of our most original and influential writers'. The publication of that collection was dubbed 'an event in American letters.' Although perhaps alienating and unknown in mainstream circles, she is a tour-de-force amongst the literati, with fans of her writing including Franzen, Eggers and Foster Wallace. (They themselves are ironically what most people call to mind when they think about American literature.) Cementing her place last year with her winning of Man Booker International Prize, perhaps there is a prophetic nod to a possible Nobel laureate in the making?

Lydia Davis for me is one of the greatest contemporary short story writers. I picked her because I think for us, as young writers who are interested in breaking tradition, we can learn a lot from her; she does it all but without the ego. Her writing is so convincingly solid yet jarring to the normal experience of reading, that you cannot help but reflect on her pieces - on what makes them tick, if anything. There are few writers that redefined the way I viewed prose but she takes her place amongst that select group - when I read her, I feel as if I am not in my body, as if I am both reading her and observing myself read at the same time. It would be easy to place her work as post-post-modern, or meta-modern, - whatever these airy terms may mean - but at its most basic she is still a flash-fiction writer: that is, her shorts are very short as you will see below. Nevertheless her writing goes beyond that simple definition - she has largely created a writing of her own invention, something that does draw from the history of flash-fiction, a brief summary of which I provide below, but it is this avant-garde invention that is so complex in its seeming simplicity, it urges upon itself awe.

HISTORY OF FLASH-FICTION

Spoiler:
Because of its universality, flash-fiction has never had a coherent definition though most journals would define that anything a thousand words or less constituted flash-fiction. There are other names of course: sudden-fiction, micro-fiction (micro used in Hispanic countries), short-short - and in China the style is termed 'smoke-long', as in one story would be as long as it took to finish smoking a cigarette.

Flash-fiction has never been purely an American invention, dating back instead from arguably the fables of Aesop, mixing itself with other ancient tales and parables. Its current definition springs primarily from the influences of French prose-poetry that began with Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire, the succinctness of prose-poetry transferred into the narrative medium of prose; in Japan haibuns, a mixture of prose and haiku poetry, have been developing since the seventeenth century. Nowadays, flash-fiction has taken greater residency online through the forms of social media and blogs where the style is increasingly popular; indeed so much so that the very medium flash-fiction is written upon has done much to change the definition of the fiction itself, what with 'twitter-fiction' etc.

Nevertheless people would have you believe that Hemingway pioneered the flash-fiction story on the grounds of his most experimental work In Our Time, a collection of eighteen inter-linked vignettes. Even now his most (in)famous contribution to flash-fiction is the oft-quoted, questionably-accurate story: 'For Sale, baby shoes, never worn.' However great Hemingway no doubt is, flash-fiction has been resonating around the world for as long as the short story. Below I have listed some influential writers often associated with flash-fiction, with an accompanying short for anyone who wants to peruse at their own leisure: some are longer than others, some are about dinosaurs.

Augusto Monterroso, 'The Dinosaur' via Complete Works and Other Stories
Spoiler:
When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.
Bolesław Prus, 'Shades'
Spoiler:
As the sun's rays die away in the heavens, twilight emerges from the earth. Twilight: a great army of the night, with thousands of invisible columns and billions of soldiers. A mighty army that from time immemorial has contended with light, broken in rout with every dawn, conquered with every nightfall, held sway from sunset to sunrise, and in the daytime, scattered, has taken refuge in places of concealment and has waited.

Waited in mountain chasms and urban cellars, in forest thickets and depths of dark lakes. Waited as it lurked in ageless caverns in the ground, in mines, ditches, corners of homes, recesses of walls. Dispersed and seemingly absent, yet it fills every nook and cranny. It is present in every crevice of tree bark, in folds of people's clothing, it lies beneath the smallest grain of sand, clings to the finest spider's thread, and waits. Flushed from one place, in the twinkling of an eye it moves to another, availing itself of the slightest opportunity to return whence it had been banished, to break into unoccupied positions and flood the earth.

As the sun expires, a twilight army, silent and cautious, moves out in serried ranks from its refuges. It fills the corridors, hallways and poorly lit staircases of buildings; from under wardrobes and tables it creeps out into the middle of the room and besets the curtains; through cellar airholes and through windows it slips out into the streets, storms in dead silence the walls and roofs and, lurking on the rooftops, patiently waits for the rosy clouds to fade away in the west.

Another moment, and there will suddenly spring up an immense explosion of darkness reaching from earth to heaven. Animals will hide in their lairs, men will run home; life, like a plant without water, will contract and begin to wither. Colors and shapes will dissolve into nothingness; fear, error and crime will take their sway over the world.

At that moment, on the streets of Warsaw that are falling desert, there appears the curious figure of a man with a small flame over his head. He dashes down the sidewalk as if pursued by the darkness, stops for an instant at each lamp, then having kindled a merry light, vanishes like a shade.

And so it is every day of the year. Whether, in the fields, spring breathes out a fragrance of blossoms, or a July storm rages; whether, in the streets, unbridled autumn gales hurl clouds of dust, or winter snows billow through the air — always, as soon as evening comes, he runs down the city's sidewalks with his little flame, kindles light, then disappears like a shade.

Where do you come from, man, and where do you keep yourself, that we know not your features nor hear your voice? Have you wife or mother who awaits your return? Or children who, having set your lantern in the corner, climb to your lap and embrace your neck? Have you friends to whom you tell your joys and sorrows, or acquaintances with whom you might speak of everyday events?

Have you, indeed, a home where you may be found? a name by which you may be called? needs and feelings that would make you a man like us? Or are you truly a formless, silent and intangible being that appears only at twilight, kindles light, then disappears like a shade?

I was told that he really was a man, and I was even given his address. I went to the tenement house and asked the porter:

"Does the man who lights the street lamps, live here?"

"Yes, he does."

"Where would that be?"

"In that cubicle."

The cubicle was locked. I looked in through the window but saw only a couch by the wall and next to it, on a tall staff, a lantern. The lamplighter wasn't in.

"At least tell me what he looks like?"

"Who knows?" shrugged the porter. "I don't even rightly know him," he added, "because he's never in by day."

Half a year later, I went there again.

"Would the lamplighter be in today?"

"Oh, no!" said the porter, "he isn't, and he won't be. Yesterday they buried him. He died."

The porter became thoughtful.

I asked about a few details and went to the cemetery.

"Gravedigger, show me where the lamplighter was buried here yesterday?"

"Lamplighter?" he repeated. "Who knows! There were thirty passengers yesterday."

"He's buried in the poorest section."

"There were twenty-five of those."

"But he was in an unvarnished coffin."

"They brought in sixteen like that."

So I never did get to know his face or name, or even see his grave. And he remained in death what he had been in life: a being visible only at twilight, mute and elusive as a shade.

Amid the murk of life, where wretched mankind gropes its way along, where some smash into obstacles, others fall into an abyss, and no one knows a secure path, where superstition-bound man is prey to mischance, misery and hate — in the dark trackless areas of life,lamplighters also bustle about. Each carries a small flame over his head, each kindles light along his path, lives unknown, labors unestimable, and then disappears like a shade…
Yasunari Kawabata, 'Harbor Town' via Palm-of-the-Hand Stories
Spoiler:
This harbor town is an interesting one.

Respectable housewives and girls come to the in, and, as long as a guest is there, one of the women will stay overnight with him. From the time he gets up, at lunch and on walks, she is at his side. They're just like a couple on their honeymoon.

Yet, when he says that he will take her to a nearby hot-spring inn, the woman will tilt her head and think. However, when he says he will rent a house in this town, she, if she is a young woman, will most likely say happily, "I'll be your wife. As long as it's not for too long. As long as it's not for a year or even for half a year."

*

That morning, the man was hurriedly packing his things in preparation for his departure by boat. The woman, as she helped him, said, "Won't you write a letter for me?"

"What? Now?"

"But I'm not your wife anymore, so it's all right. All the time you were here, I was by your side, wasn't I? I didn't do anything bad. But now I'm not your wife anymore."

"Is that so--is that so?" He wrote the letter to the man for her. It was evidently a man who, like himself, had spent half a month with this woman at the inn.

"Won't you send me a letter, too? On a morning when some other man is boarding the boat? When you're no longer his wife?"
Anton Chekhov, 'Bliss'
Spoiler:
It was midnight. Suddenly Mitia Kuldaroff burst into his parents’ house, dishevelled and excited, and went flying through all the rooms. His father and mother had already gone to rest; his sister was in bed finishing the last pages of a novel, and his school-boy brothers were fast asleep.

“What brings you here?” cried his astonished parents. “What is the matter?”

“Oh, don’t ask me! I never expected anything like this! No, no, I never expected it! It is — it is absolutely incredible!”

Mitia burst out laughing and dropped into a chair, unable to stand on his feet from happiness.

“It is incredible! You can’t imagine what it is! Look here!”

His sister jumped out of bed, threw a blanket over her shoulders, and went to her brother. The schoolboys woke up —

“What’s the matter with you? You look like a ghost.”

“It’s because I’m so happy, mother. I am known all over Russia now. Until to-day, you were the only people who knew that such a person as Dimitri Kuldaroff existed, but now all Russia knows it! Oh, mother! Oh, heavens!”

Mitia jumped up, ran through all the rooms, and dropped back into a chair.

“But what has happened? Talk sense!”

“You live like wild animals, you don’t read the news, the press is nothing to you, and yet there are so many wonderful things in the papers! Everything that happens becomes known at once, nothing remains hidden! Oh, how happy I am! Oh, heavens! The newspapers only write about famous people, and now there is something in them about me!”

“What do you mean? Where is it?”

Papa turned pale. Mamma glanced at the icon and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and ran to their brother in their short night-shirts.

“Yes, sir! There is something about me in the paper! The whole of Russia knows it now. Oh, mother, keep this number as a souvenir; we can read it from time to time. Look!”

Mitia pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and handed it to his father, pointing to an item marked with a blue pencil.

“Read that!”

His father put on his glasses.

“Come on, read it!”

Mamma glanced at the icon once more, and crossed herself. Papa cleared his throat, and began:

“At 11 p. M., on December 27, a young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff — ”

“See? See? Go on!”

“A young man by the name of Dimitri Kuldaroff, coming out of a tavern on Little Armourer Street, and being in an intoxicated condition — ”

“That’s it, I was with Simion Petrovitch! Every detail is correct. Go on! Listen!”

“ — being in an intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under the feet of a horse belonging to the cabman Ivan Drotoff, a peasant from the village of Durinka in the province of Yuknofski. The frightened horse jumped across Kuldaroff’s prostrate body, pulling the sleigh after him. In the sleigh sat Stepan Lukoff, a merchant of the Second Moscow Guild of Merchants. The horse galloped down the street, but was finally stopped by some house porters. For a few moments Kuldaroff was stunned. He was conveyed to the police station and examined by a doctor. The blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck — ”

“That was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”

“ — the blow which he had sustained on the back of the neck was pronounced to be slight. The victim was given medical assistance.”

“They put cold-water bandages round my neck. Do you believe me now ? What do you think ? Isn’t it great ? It has gone all over Russia by now! Give me the paper!”

Mitia seized the paper, folded it, and put it into his pocket, exclaiming:

“I must run to the Makaroffs, and show it to them! And the Ivanoffs must see it, too, and Natalia, and Anasim — I must run there at once! Good-bye! ”

Mitia crammed on his cap and ran blissfully and triumphantly out into the street.
Jamaica Kincaid, 'Girl' via At the Bottom of the River
Spoiler:
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don't walk barehead in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn't have gum on it, because that way it won't hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won't turn someone else's stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don't sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn't speak to wharf–rat boys, not even to give directions; don't eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don't sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a button–hole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father's khaki shirt so that it doesn't have a crease; this is how you iron your father's khaki pants so that they don't have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don't like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don't like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don't know you very well, and this way they won't recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don't squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don't pick people's flowers—you might catch something; don't throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don't like, and that way something bad won't fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man; and if this doesn't work there are other ways, and if they don't work don't feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn't fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it's fresh; but what if the baker won't let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won't let near the bread?
Ernest Hemingway, 'A Very Short Story' via In Our Time
Spoiler:
One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night.

Luz stayed on night duty for three months. They were glad to let her. When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema. He went under the anæsthetic holding tight on to himself so he would not blab about anything during the silly, talky time. After he got on crutches he used to take the temperatures so Luz would not have to get up from the bed. There were only a few patients, and they all knew about it. They all liked Luz. As he walked back along the halls he thought of Luz in his bed.

Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.

Luz wrote him many letters that he never got until after the armistice. Fifteen came in a bunch to the front and he sorted them by the dates and read them all straight through. They were all about the hospital, and how much she loved him and how it was impossible to get along without him and how terrible it was miss­ing him at night.

After the armistice they agreed he should go home to get a job so they might be married. Luz would not come home until he had a good job and could come to New York to meet her. It was understood he would not drink, and he did not want to see his friends or anyone in the States. Only to get a job and be married. On the train from Padua to Milan they quarreled about her not being willing to come home at once. When they had to say good-bye, in the station at Milan, they kissed good-bye, but were not finished with the quarrel. He felt sick about saying good-bye like that.

He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordonone to open a hos­pital. It was lonely and rainy there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never known Italians before, and fin­ally wrote to the States that theirs had been only a boy and girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to under­stand, but might some day forgive her, and be grateful to her, and she expected, absolutely un­expectedly, to be married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realized now it was only a boy and girl love. She hoped he would have a great career, and believed in him absolutely. She knew it was for the best.

The major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time. Luz never got an answer to the letter to Chicago about it. A short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.
Julio Cortazar, 'Instructions on How To Sing' via Cronopios and Famas
Spoiler:
Begin by breaking all the mirrors in the house, let your arms fall to your side, gaze vacantly at the wall, forget yourself. Sing one single note, listen to it from inside. If you hear (but this will happen much later) something like a landscape overwhelmed with dread, bonfires between the rocks with squatting half-naked silhouettes, I think you'll be well on your way, and the same if you hear a river, boats painted yellow and black are coming down it, if you hear the smell of fresh bread, the shadow of a horse.

Afterwards, buy a manual of voice instruction and a dress jacket, and please don't sing through your nose and leave poor Schumann at peace.
Jorge Luis Borges, 'A Dialog About a Dialog' via The Maker
Spoiler:
A: Absorbed in our discussion of immortality, we had let night fall without lighting the lamp, and we couldn't see each other's faces. With an off-handedness or gentleness more convincing than passion would have been, Macedonio Fernández' voice said once more that the soul is immortal. He assured me that the death of the body is altogether insignificant, and that dying has to be the most unimportant thing that can happen to a man. I was playing with Macedonio's pocketknife, opening and closing it. A nearby accordion was infinitely dispatching La Comparsita, that dismaying trifle that so many people like because it's been misrepresented to them as being old---I suggested to Macedonie that we kill ourselves, so we might have our discussion without all that racket.

Z: (mockingly) But I suspect that at the last moment you reconsidered.

A: (now deep in mysticism) Quite frankly, I don't remember whether we committed suicide that night or not.
Franz Kafka, 'The Trees' via 'Contemplations'
Spoiler:
For we are as tree-trunks in the snow. Apparently they are merely resting on the surface of the snow, and a little push would be enough to knock them over. No, that's not the case, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, even that is only seemingly the case.
Donald Bartheleme, 'Pepperoni' via Forty Stories
Spoiler:
Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper's timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine corrugated-box, and greeting-card divisions, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data-processing and satellite-communications groups are all flourishing, with overall return on invested capital increasing at about eleven percent a year. Compensation of the three highest-paid officers and directors lsat year was $399,500, $362,700, $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

The new VDY machines have hurt the paper, no doubt about it. The people in the newsroom don't like the machines. (A few say they like the machines but these are the same people who like the washrooms.) When the machines go down, as they do, not infrequently, the people in the newsroom laugh and cheer. The executive editor has installed one-way glass in his office door, and stands behind it looking out over the newsroom, fretting and groaning. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained.

Middle management has implored top management to alter its course. Top management has responded with postdated guarantees, on a sliding scale. The Guild is off in a corner, whimpering. The pressmen are holding an unending series of birthday parties commemorating heroes of labor. Reporters file their stories as usual, but if they are certain kinds of stories they do not run. A small example: the paper did not run a Holiday Weekend Death Toll story after Labor Day this year, the first time since 1926 no Holiday Weekend Death Toll story appeared in the paper after Labor Day (and the total was, although not a record, a substantial one).

Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The paper's very creative real-estate editor has been a fountain of ideas, and his sections, full of color pictures of desirable living arrangements are choked with advertising and make the Sunday paper fat, fat, fat. More food writers have been hired, and more clothes writers, and more furniture writers, and more plant writers. The bridge, whist, skat, cribbage, domino, and vingt-et-un columnists are very popular.

The Editor's Caucus has once again applied to middle management for relief, and has once again been promised it (but middle management has Glenfiddich on its breath, even at breakfast). Top management's polls say that sixty-five percent of the readers "want movies," and feasibility studies are being conducted. Top management acknowledges, over long lunches at good restaurants, that the readers are wrong to "want movies" but insists that morality cannot be legislated. The newsroom has been insulated (with products from the company's Echotex division so that people in the newsroom can no longer hear the sounds in the streets.

The paper's editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, and the obituaries to Nabisco, so that the staff will have "more time to think." The foreign desk is turning out language lessons ("Yo temo que Isabel no venga," "I am afraid that Isabel will not come"). There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No 1 story was pepperoni--a useful and exhaustive guide. It ran right next to the slimming-your-troublesome-thighs story, with pictures.

Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing--not now but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.
Extracts VIA VARIETIES OF DISTURBANCE (2007) [PDF version can be accessed through the google document, linked to the left. If there are any troubles, I can also send the PDF. Let me know!]

I actually have both Break It Down and Collected Stories and from her entire body of work, I decided to choose parts of her most recent, and in my opinion most mature and reflexive, collection. Within the extracts I hopefully have presented some of the central themes that Davis uses in her writing: artificiality, speech and language, domesticity, normality and relationships, these being just a few things that jump out straightaway.

The passages I chose come close to 4000 words and there are about 20 'stories' in total. I tried to pick out a wide range of types, from the one-liners to the two-parters, from one-paragraph tales to the longer stories such as 'Varieties of Disturbance' and 'Grammar Questions'. And these only account for some of the linguistic and literary styles Davis employs throughout the entire collection.

Her work may seem fantastically odd and new to some readers, and you may ask yourself "What is going on here?" Take your time. Read as a poem: that is, slowly. Like sweets, pick and choose the ones that jump out, demand to be re-read. Come back to it. Most importantly, do not take it too seriously - if one thing links all of her stories together it is their strange, yet utterly familiar, humour. (And in one respect I picked Davis because she does subtle humour so well, and if there is one thing that is lacking in prose so much these days is the lack of comedy.)

I guess this week, the questions will be broader and tackle more general questions of genre, style and whether we like her writing (and if we do, why; if not, why not)? Whether we can even come to define what her writing is, and whether or not it matters. There are some discussions below, as always, which might get you thinking about some theory, and more in-depth at how a story is built and how Davis uses grammar and sound and other structures to create potency.

DISCUSSIONS

1. In her win of the Man Booker International Prize, the Chairmen of the judges claimed her writings fell under the many taxonomies of, 'miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorism or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations.' Is there truth to any of those qualifications? Think about the ways we classify fiction and literature in general, about how we separate the idea of 'story' from, say, 'fable' or 'jokes.' Do we need these boundaries, and is it important to view Davis' work as transcending these boundaries? In what ways do her stories both subscribe and flaunt prosaic tendencies and attributes?

2. 'Grammar Questions' was a story published in an anthology of writing about people's reaction to 9/11, compiled by Ulrick Baer, in '110 Stories'. Of course, without knowing that piece of extratextual information the short story is read considerably differently, seemingly having throughout another underlying 'meaning'. What is the story trying to achieve through its long-winded meditation on grammar? How does the story stylistically adopt and reflect the central concerns of its theme? Do you think, in light of the above information, that the piece shifts its focus - is it a key shift in terms of understanding?

3. Gnomon is a term first attributed to Joyce's Dubliners where there is some level of avoidance, some absence that in its lacking generates tension and meaning for a story; Hemingway, arguably, carried on with this tradition with the 'Iceberg Model' of say 'Hills Like White Elephants'. To some extent Lydia Davis' work equally employs the contrast between content and emptiness, as evidenced in the layout and presentation of her work. The large, wide spaces on the page seem to be both refreshing but equally alienating. How much of Davis' aestheticism involves this idea of absence, both physically but also in their content? Do some of the 'stories' take this minimalism - is it even minimalism? - too far? If a writer takes into account the 'aesthetics of the page', in the same way that poetry takes into account the 'aesthetics of the line', does then the work become more a piece of art, and less a piece of writing?

4. Within the writing there is the unmistakable nature of self-consciousness abound: that is, the work is a conscious piece, aware of its own fictionality and language. In what academics term 'literary reflexivity', the texts denaturalise themselves and thus the ways we think about social, cultural experience and how it is repressed. Though reflexivity hinders comprehension, it equally rebuilds levels of understanding at the next level, through meta-narratival conclusions. Some critics have labelled Davis' work as merely destructive, that it tears down the conventionalities of reading without offering an alternative; grammar and maths are debunked and shown to be fallacious, but is the end result disturbing? To what relation dose the self, narrator, author intersect in these pieces, and how are these figures 'disturbed'?

5. Are there any similarities between Davis' work and the flash-fiction writers throughout history? Is her innovativeness then, do you think, due to not having experienced much of flash-fiction in the past, or do you think she is truly innovative?

REFERENCES & LINKS

[will update, haha, ]
  
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Old 03-09-2014, 09:40 PM View Post #2 (Link)
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Just playing with ideas; I wonder how incoherent I can be?
1. In her win of the Man Booker International Prize, the Chairmen of the judges claimed her writings fell under the many taxonomies of, 'miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorism or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations.' Is there truth to any of those qualifications? Think about the ways we classify fiction and literature in general, about how we separate the idea of 'story' from, say, 'fable' or 'jokes.' Do we need these boundaries, and is it important to view Davis' work as transcending these boundaries? In what ways do her stories both subscribe and flaunt prosaic tendencies and attributes?
Wiki says that fables are "anthropomorphic stories with a moral" sometimes stated explicitly. "Two Types" seems to be the antitheses of that-- Instead of anthropomorphizing things or animals, she makes objects out of humans. I think many of her people feel the way that her Hand does: off to the side, slightly out of focus, dehumanized. Cognitively human but a step removed. Like her writing looks out from deep inside her head -- the problem of other minds?

Boundaries like those don't exist in thoughts, and as these stories seem to be so deep inside her/my head I don't see boundaries. One big black boundary. Between myself (or the author-- interesting how these blur with her, as they didn't with Munro) and the world/the observed people.

"Idea for a Short Documentary Film" is sort of disconcerting. I don't like the piece, really, but I might like the imbalance. The disconcertion. I've heard frustrated people wish that designers had to open their packaging (or children's authors read their books etc etc). I've heard jokes about it, too, and I can imagine someone saying Davis's piece. But written up as a "story" it takes itself more seriously. Out there at the top of a white page.
On one hand it annoys me because it's a throwaway thought, something I'd glance over and laugh at and forget-- if it weren't preening on the page. On the other hand it's laughing at itself. It's laughing at its position. Should we be truly upset about packaging? How seriously do we take everything that looks lit? The "story" is talking to itself, like a thought that sets off chains of others, and I could get trapped in that conversation.

If a writer takes into account the 'aesthetics of the page', in the same way that poetry takes into account the 'aesthetics of the line', does then the work become more a piece of art, and less a piece of writing?
I dearly want someone to answer this. In grade school we made "concrete poetry". It was prosaic, with none of the interesting demands of usual poetry (even 2nd grade poetry), but if the margins were fixed into a shape it was a poem. I don't dislike concrete poetry-- sometimes I love it-- but ours were lazy. The words existed only for the shape, there wasn't an interplay between them. Which interplay is, I think, what makes concrete poetry worthwhile.

Davis's space is definitely important. The white page lets her stories echo. "Documentary Film" wouldn't be as disconcerting without it, and "Collaboration with a Fly" would be too forgettable. "Hand" would feel like a thought rattled off. The more I look the more important this presentation is-- if I rushed through so many of these in a row, on one page, without that great blank to scroll through, I wouldn't care at all about them. These are thoughts, important because they're drawn out of the "ruckus in her head"-- if they were still caught in a ruckus who would care? But are they a visual art, if changing the visuals ruins them?
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Old 03-10-2014, 09:26 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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You are wonderfully coherent. <3

I like the analysis of 'Two Types' and would definitely agree. Even within that story there's an imbalance: the story comes from those long line of jokes of 'there are two types of people' etc. but equally there's some discordance between Excitable and Phlegmatic people. The morality aspect is interesting as her stories have been said to have a 'moral, semantic precision.' But here, I think the morals are artificial, or blurred - we're supposed to judge the 'excitable' person and think greatly of the 'phlegmatic' person, because they are compared, but in reality there's no rationality behind the moralising of these two people.

I actually really like 'Idea for a Short Documentary Film'. Well perhaps, 'like' is the wrong word. I get it. Part of its power comes from comprehension. For me, it occupies by far the 'joke' category. Are jokes fiction? Probably. But somehow it feels odd to lump jokes into the same camp as short stories, novels. Again it comes back to self-definition of genre: because it is in a collection of short stories, because it occupies the page does that make it 'story'? In the same way that once a toilet is placed in an art gallery, it becomes 'art'?

But it's not just a joke. Because it's a Question and Answer story, it is involved with the paper, the prosaic nature of the white page in that the idea is meant to be scribbled down like, as you said, a throwaway thought. Which is why it's different to say if it was: why did a chicken cross the road?
I dearly want someone to answer this. In grade school we made "concrete poetry". It was prosaic, with none of the interesting demands of usual poetry (even 2nd grade poetry), but if the margins were fixed into a shape it was a poem. I don't dislike concrete poetry-- sometimes I love it-- but ours were lazy. The words existed only for the shape, there wasn't an interplay between them. Which interplay is, I think, what makes concrete poetry worthwhile.
To be honest I do not think there is a straight answer. 'Collaboration with Fly' seems to be a poem to me: it has line-breaks, it is short. But then I wouldn't classify 'Nietszche' as a poem. What makes not a poem?

Here I think there is a definite, if broader, interplay between the form and the content. Especially in the two-parter stories, where each section mirrors (but then both highlights the differences of) the other. But perhaps for concrete poetry, the form is essential to its poetry, whereas here if you took away the white space and formatting, the essences of the story would still be the same? Maybe.

I am also interested in titles, in whether people think titles are essential. For some of the stories they seem to be a larger - if possible, larger - part of the story, something that cements them into a state of understanding, particularly 'Mother's Reaction to my Travel Plans' and, my absolute favourite one from the stories, 'Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room.'
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Old 03-13-2014, 12:35 AM View Post #4 (Link)
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I love these, and I wouldn't question the choice to call any of these a poem if someone thought to. Asking for the differences between the two genres is sometimes, for me, the trickiest question. A fiction professor once told me that poetry is compressed fiction. He mentioned flash fiction as a parallel to poetry. I both agreed and disagreed.

Lately, I have been playing around with "the shape" of the poem; the amount of white space, the aesthetic of it and how that plays with content. For me, a manipulation of the shape of poetry does a similar thing as a linebreak: provides pause, whether that means it's providing a moment necessary to collect yourself, or to prepare yourself for what could perhaps be a journey into a new spatial and temporal area.

The white space in poetry (drop lines, short lines, stanza breaks, double spacing, etc) break up the narrative. That is how I try to use them. What could be a simple, linear, phrase is shattered into pieces. Even if its content is still narrative, still linear, the pauses suggest something else. They ask the reader to suspend some of the narrative, some of the grounding, and interpret/pause.

So I guess that is what's different for me here. The white space, when it calls for that kind of pause, that kind of suspension of narrative, adds a poetic quality (I also think of "Collaboration with a Fly", but here I might also include "Getting to Know Your Body", "Neitszche", and even some of the pieces with numbered sections; I think they suggest a spatial and/or temporal movement, and are in conversation with one another [like SP mentioned]). However, when the narrative is full, robust and in a block-format, the visual component signals to me that time and space aren't going to shift as much, or as noticeably. It suggests that the piece may be lingering in a single moment, even if that moment is moving linearly in time. (I do this, then this. Later, this happens, etc).

All of that, of course, is thinking about shape/structure and white space. It ignores other aspects like characterisation, for one, but also dialogue, meditation, paragraph and so on--all things that may be included in both genres, though we see it expressed in prose more often.

4. Within the writing there is the unmistakable nature of self-consciousness abound: that is, the work is a conscious piece, aware of its own fictionality and language. In what academics term 'literary reflexivity', the texts denaturalise themselves and thus the ways we think about social, cultural experience and how it is repressed. Though reflexivity hinders comprehension, it equally rebuilds levels of understanding at the next level, through meta-narratival conclusions. Some critics have labelled Davis' work as merely destructive, that it tears down the conventionalities of reading without offering an alternative; grammar and maths are debunked and shown to be fallacious, but is the end result disturbing? To what relation dose the self, narrator, author intersect in these pieces, and how are these figures 'disturbed'?
I want to tackle this question. It's really interesting; I've never heard the official term "literary reflexivity" before. I think, though, poems often are self-conscious. They are aware of their construction, and that awareness can become a rhetorical device. I think it's interesting to look at in prose: a genre that works at fabricating a world for a story--a world that is somewhat undermined by self-consciousness. I would guess. I don't write enough (or read enough unfortunately!) prose to really have a solid interpretation. And that is probably why authors of poetry are very, very, very often conflated with their speakers. The world can be fabricated, is fabricated, but that is strangely ignored at times. If the author is conflated with the speaker, it makes more sense that the speaker might address the construction/existence of the poem itself.

So in short prose, when a world cannot be characterised fully, when the people within the works cannot be characterised to such an extent, I can understand why conflation occurs. Similarly like it does in poetry. I wonder at the word "disturbed" here. I think meta-narratives can be interesting, but also a little dangerous. They disturb the narrative, the fabrication, maybe even the creation (creation disturbed by acknowledging creation! weird). However, I think literature that experiments by bleeding out into the real world can add rumination; layering. It can be a device. (like stated in the question itself).

"Denaturalised" makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it converses with the undermining I mentioned before. I wonder if the constant denaturlisation in a longer work would make it hard to settle into a text, but in a shorter piece, the nod toward construction itself contextualises in a way. Semantics can be exhausting when we agonize over them, but if they're being tossed around under actual inquiry, if they're explored, kind of like in "Grammar Questions", the sentences are actually being reformed, reevaluated and redefined. The story is born from that redefinition; when it appears, what it means when it appears.
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Old 03-14-2014, 06:28 AM View Post #5 (Link)
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I think question 1 and question 3 from your first post focus most on the small pieces, and so I'll start with those. Davis' writing makes me think about the connection to writing that we consider "official" like a short story or a poem and writing that we consider incidental and day-to-day like anecdotes or jokes or aphorisms.

Collaboration with Fly is sort of a joke, but it's also sort of a poem. I think that the white space is important for that piece because it emphasizes the page (rather than the words on the page). I don't see it as more of a piece of art and less of writing because even though space is important, it uses words to make us imagine something: in this case it makes us imagine the fly on the page. It doesn't visually represent the fly on the page: there is no apostrophe. The work is about a collaboration and maybe the idea comes from the collaboration. But the collaboration isn't literally there on the page; we're told about it.

Originally Posted by Spacepirate
I actually really like 'Idea for a Short Documentary Film'. Well perhaps, 'like' is the wrong word. I get it. Part of its power comes from comprehension. For me, it occupies by far the 'joke' category. Are jokes fiction? Probably. But somehow it feels odd to lump jokes into the same camp as short stories, novels. Again it comes back to self-definition of genre: because it is in a collection of short stories, because it occupies the page does that make it 'story'? In the same way that once a toilet is placed in an art gallery, it becomes 'art'?
Oh man, I need to open up my undergrad art history notes for this! ART 213: I knew you'd be useful one day! (Actually I'm messing it was fantastically useful - I have a way easier time discussing modern and contemporary art now that I've studied the stuff made from post-impressionism through the beginning of WWII).

The discussion around a work matters as much as its placement. I'm not sure that's part of the exploration happening in Davis' work. But that was definitely the case for Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain". The whole deal with "Fountain" is that it was submitted for an art show put on by the Society of Independent Artists and initially declined, then hidden during the exhibition, when all entries by fee-paying members were supposed to be shown. A number of artists published essays about this event in an art newsletter/magazine. It's thought that the whole point wasn't just to show the work in the gallery, but to discuss it a public forum (well, a public forum for artists and those in the art world) and so to stimulate thought and discussion. I think Duchamp had a hand in all the press about his piece, a piece that nobody, originally, saw in person! He got his friend Alfred Steiglitz to take and publish a photo and other artist friends to publish essays getting at his ideas. "Fountain" had a life after Duchamps experiment of submitting it to the Society for exhibition because it was used as the focus for a conversation about what art is, about the meaning of making and choice, work and object, art and artist. I'm not sure a urinal submitted to a gallery becomes art, especially when it never gets shown in the gallery, but I think it can when it sparks a larger conversation - or is used as the pretext for a larger conversation.

I think that Davis' work falls into the broader conversation about what art and genre are, about the division between "everyday" or pedestrian versions of something and artistic versions of something. And that conversation was blown open by Duchamp. But I don't think it's directly participating in the original conversation, or even the modern version of it that still flares up in visual/conceptual art now and then.

Originally Posted by Spacepirate
I am also interested in titles, in whether people think titles are essential. For some of the stories they seem to be a larger - if possible, larger - part of the story, something that cements them into a state of understanding, particularly 'Mother's Reaction to my Travel Plans' and, my absolute favourite one from the stories, 'Example of the Continuing Past Tense in a Hotel Room.'
The thing you mentioned about the importance of titles also reminds me of jokes. For the short piece, the title is just part of the piece and is essential to understanding it: just like the title of a poem is often important (like "In a station of the metro") or like the setup of a joke is important. Without the title there would be no point, or at least it would be a drastically different piece. It would just be a thought. The title creates context and it creates tension, because there's a space between reading/seeing the title and reading the rest of the piece. We expect something based on the title. And that's not always borne out in the piece - it's usually twisted in some way.

Collaboration with Fly makes me think Emily Dickinson - maybe that's the most expected connection and second half, actually. But "Idea for a Short Documentary Film" and "Mother's Reactions to My Travel Plans" definitely set up certain expectations that are twisted and thwarted in the one-two lines of the piece. I think that's similar to the tension between title and poem, or between set-up and punch line in a joke. The space between title and piece is like the beat before the set-up and punchline (and kind of like the *crucial* beat panels in this comic). Anyway, I think that without the titles there would be no tension in the piece and not as much to think about: that tension is what makes me think, at least.

Raconteur, I like your observation about the "suspension of narrative" - I think that's what happens in those pieces where the title is an equal player in the piece, and where it is essential for creating tension and story.


2. 'Grammar Questions' was a story published in an anthology of writing about people's reaction to 9/11, compiled by Ulrick Baer, in '110 Stories'. Of course, without knowing that piece of extratextual information the short story is read considerably differently, seemingly having throughout another underlying 'meaning'. What is the story trying to achieve through its long-winded meditation on grammar? How does the story stylistically adopt and reflect the central concerns of its theme? Do you think, in light of the above information, that the piece shifts its focus - is it a key shift in terms of understanding?
I wasn't familiar with 110 stories before you mentioned it. I like the cover - I'm glad it's Art Spiegelman's work (he's most known for the comic Maus). But it turns out I've read something from the collection before: Searchers, by D. Nurske. This is a more literal and factual approach to the subject matter, but I think the end of the poem captures a similar ideas a "Grammar Questions". Obviously, it does this in a very different way. Grammar Questions is more challenging, less direct, more dramatic, more cutting maybe. But re-reading Searchers and then Grammar Questions - the pieces definitely have the same concern, which is: What can be said, what can be known in the face of destruction? There is no one or nothing to guide us through: no masters to take care of us. Not even language can protect us or make sense of things when we need it.

Knowing the context in which "Grammar Questions" was published, even thinking about it in relation to other works from the same context, doesn't change my fundamental reading of the piece. I think "Grammar Questions" is "about" the same thing it seems to be about when I first read it: the death of the speaker's father and the inadequacy of language, of grammar, during times of loss or trauma. I don't think that there's a story underneath the story, that the father is an obvious symbol for anything in particular.

Ultimately this meditation on loss can be applied to a lot of things, and I think that's the point of making it a series of grammar questions rather than simply a story about the family, or about an individual loss. I think the sort of disconnected, academic way the piece is written does two things, at least for me. It makes the story more generalizable, not because it is obviously symbolic, but because the process of asking is what's important. The process tells the story of the father's death, but the process also is the story. We're not only reading about someone's death, but about how death is processed. And I think it characterizes one way that people deal with loss, which is distancing themselves. There's actually a lot of feeling implied by that distance, even if piece might immediately "feel" academic and cold. But the questions are so cutting, so difficult, and their relentless sequence makes me feel like the speaker basically can only ask questions, and that she's questioning what we'd take for granted (language, grammar) because it feels like nothing is steady and nothing can be taken for granted when a loss is that huge.

So to me, this feels applicable to 110 Stories, even though the subject matter isn't literally about New York or buildings or attacks. I think it captures the feeling of the known shaking and settling all wrong, something I saw in the adults around me at the time (I was 11).


I really like "Grammar Questions". I think it's my favorite of this selection of pieces you've put up for discussion. I also really like "Suddenly Afraid", and I can't articulate why. Maybe it captures some of the same fear and loss as "Grammar Questions", using a similar approach -- the new strangeness and disobedience of language. But I think it does so in a more immediate way. It takes a read or two to "get" and to start to feel what's happening in "Grammar Questions". But "Suddenly Afraid" is an apt title. It hits where it hurts.
  
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Old 03-22-2014, 12:31 AM View Post #6 (Link)
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Raconteur: I think you hit on a interesting concept with ideas of time and shape - I wish I knew more about ideas of aesthetics, or of reading to say something substantial. But I think you are right, there is a different quality in poems that, say, have a lot of indentations - that there is a fracture in the natural act of reading. Therefore then you think then that deviations with regards to space, line-breaks, indents, drives things away from prose? As in, prose, i.e. a block, is the standard and poetry is reacting against that; I could see that being true if it weren't for history showing that poetry came first, and prose later. But then I wonder what kind of para-linguistic-literary thinking went into the negation of the line-breaks to form 'prose' - when did that transition occur?

For me I think prose, moreso than poetry, is self-reflexive. For me I think there are two categories: reflexive and automatic writing. Poetry can often be automatic, it's a snapshot, a line, the psychoanalytical subconscious coming to the surface. Whereas prose is building a world - it is an obvious deception: (prose)-fiction writers must create a world that they know is false, but must write it as if it were truth, hence why readers are obsessed with the truth-value of writing that they know, under it all, as false. Do poets, en masse, feel like they are telling more of a lie than fiction-writers? Why is the word 'fiction' more applied to prose than poetry? Most writing cannot help but be reflexive; poetry eventually so perhaps in the editing sections when you must think of how the poem is portrayed. Again, I think if you add all the paratextual stuff - the line-breaks, indents, white space - then you become self-reflexive, you acknowledge the poem as a poem.

(If you want, I've linked to the article entitled 'Reflexive incomprehension: on Lydia Davis'. You should be able to access it because you're a student - it's not public accessible unfortunately, but alas, most knowledge isn't.)

Isis: I think what is great about Collaboration with Fly is it's deceptive: there's is no apostrophe, but there is that misleading comma. Once I realised that that was the joke, it clicked for me. The story is a kind of a clever deception - that's what I find makes it great. Not the words themselves (because everything about them is a little banal), but oddly the 'everything' about the story: the set-up, the space, the punchline.

I must say I didn't hear about 110 Stories before either. 'Grammar Questions' is undoubtedly great. I think part of it opens up a part of ourselves that is rarely talked about - the inarticulateness of death, and it's an issue that resonates with me through my reading. It's a haunting story really. Almost light-hearted at first, but then, like in 'Suddenly Afraid' there is a very ominous quality about it. A lot of her work is tragic-comic like that, seemingly casual but descending into domestic/linguistic terror. (Of course 'Suddenly Afraid' itself takes upon a whole pantheon of literature with regards to sexuality and women; once you realise that, it is suddenly much more sinister and political.) The narrator of the story, like you said, seems to be almost painfully trapped in a stage of constant question asking, relentless, torturous but at the same time still absurd enough to make the story seem disconnected and odd.

The more I reflect on the story, which I reread again today, the more I really love it.

Everyone: The magazine Quarterly Conversation just did a big issue and symposium on Lydia Davis with many, many articles and reviews of her writing. I haven't made my way through it all yet but from what I have, it's great to see so much buzz around her.
  
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Old 03-22-2014, 01:43 AM View Post #7 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Spacepirate View Post
For me I think prose, moreso than poetry, is self-reflexive. For me I think there are two categories: reflexive and automatic writing. Poetry can often be automatic, it's a snapshot, a line, the psychoanalytical subconscious coming to the surface. Whereas prose is building a world - it is an obvious deception: (prose)-fiction writers must create a world that they know is false, but must write it as if it were truth, hence why readers are obsessed with the truth-value of writing that they know, under it all, as false. Do poets, en masse, feel like they are telling more of a lie than fiction-writers? Why is the word 'fiction' more applied to prose than poetry? Most writing cannot help but be reflexive; poetry eventually so perhaps in the editing sections when you must think of how the poem is portrayed. Again, I think if you add all the paratextual stuff - the line-breaks, indents, white space - then you become self-reflexive, you acknowledge the poem as a poem.
I think this conversation is interesting so I'm going to butt in. Since I'm not super familiar with the terms for self-reflexive/reflexive vs. automatic writing, and since I don't think I'm totally following the definition of "literary reflexivity" in discussion 4, here's what I think you're saying:

Reflexive writing: this is writing that thinks of itself as writing, where the author is conscious of how the writing fits into its art form or genre. Based on your description, it sounds like any writing that plays on expectation can be thought of as reflexive writing. So reflexive writing would include writing that plays with or challenges what we would expect from a poem or a story, or what we would expect from the apparent 'genre' or mode of the piece, or what we would expect from language. Maybe that's an over-simplified way to spell it out. But I wanted to make sure I sort of understood the categories before moving on. Can reflexive writing be anything that draws attention to technique or form? Or is that too broad a definition?

Automatic writing: this sounds to me like writing that we can take at "face value", whether its fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere in between. Automatic writing is trying to tell us something about the world (whether that thing is real or imagined), and anything it tells us about the act of reading/writing itself is incidental.

I want to talk more about the prose vs. poetry questions but don't want to get everyone (including myself) hopelessly confused by getting key terms wrong. Can somebody nudge me in the right direction or break down the definitions a little more if I haven't got them about right?

A lot of her work is tragic-comic like that, seemingly casual but descending into domestic/linguistic terror. (Of course 'Suddenly Afraid' itself takes upon a whole pantheon of literature with regards to sexuality and women; once you realise that, it is suddenly much more sinister and political.)
I think "sinister and political" is a great way to describe Suddenly Afraid, which gets at the heart of it better than I could, I think. Going back to it: I wonder about the word "write" in the piece: She couldn't write what she was, not say, or know, or some other word. It's not that the word is coming out of her mouth all wrong but that it's going onto the page all wrong. It makes me wonder: is the page fighting her? Or is it an unconscious/subconscious refusal, to put herself onto the page where so few women are represented accurately or humanely?
  
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Old 03-22-2014, 02:19 AM View Post #8 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Isis View Post
I think this conversation is interesting so I'm going to butt in. Since I'm not super familiar with the terms for self-reflexive/reflexive vs. automatic writing, and since I don't think I'm totally following the definition of "literary reflexivity" in discussion 4, here's what I think you're saying:

Reflexive writing: this is writing that thinks of itself as writing, where the author is conscious of how the writing fits into its art form or genre. Based on your description, it sounds like any writing that plays on expectation can be thought of as reflexive writing. So reflexive writing would include writing that plays with or challenges what we would expect from a poem or a story, or what we would expect from the apparent 'genre' or mode of the piece, or what we would expect from language. Maybe that's an over-simplified way to spell it out. But I wanted to make sure I sort of understood the categories before moving on. Can reflexive writing be anything that draws attention to technique or form? Or is that too broad a definition?

Automatic writing: this sounds to me like writing that we can take at "face value", whether its fiction, non-fiction, or somewhere in between. Automatic writing is trying to tell us something about the world (whether that thing is real or imagined), and anything it tells us about the act of reading/writing itself is incidental.

I want to talk more about the prose vs. poetry questions but don't want to get everyone (including myself) hopelessly confused by getting key terms wrong. Can somebody nudge me in the right direction or break down the definitions a little more if I haven't got them about right?
I think we are theorising a bit here, so none of this is set in stone! Not even the definitions! But these are my thoughts - please bring me up if you disagree.

Reflexive writing, I think you hit the nail on the head. Writing that is conscious that it is a piece or type of writing. It's a reflex to various types of literary stimuli - what is produced depends on the type of stimulus, I guess.

(I am not too sure the boundaries between meta-narrative and reflexive writing … But I would argue meta-narratives are reflexive in terms of the actual plot, whereas you can have reflexive writing in terms of the broader aesthetic; in the same way that postmodern art can be postmodern in relation to other definitions of art, contextually, reflexive writing can be defined in relation to what the author defines it as?)

If you are consciously creating a piece of writing, then that makes it reflexive by definition - because to create a 'novel', you must know what a novel is, what constitutes one: that is, fictionality etc.

Automatic writing has had a number of meanings in the past. Primarily in pseudo-science, it's also called psychography, the ability to create written words without actually writing. In literary terms the idea of 'pure automatism' was used to influence Surrealism, whereby you would just start to write words - steam of consciousness style - onto the paper. Actually, I did some research on this ages ago for a medical humanities course: automatic writing has had a medical background before its artistic one, used by psychoanalysts to help patients through spontaneous writing without censoring of thoughts.

In relation to our talk, I guess automatic writing is a 'truer' kind of writing - one that is subconscious (?) One that is not filtered through definitions?

I think "sinister and political" is a great way to describe Suddenly Afraid, which gets at the heart of it better than I could, I think. Going back to it: I wonder about the word "write" in the piece: She couldn't write what she was, not say, or know, or some other word. It's not that the word is coming out of her mouth all wrong but that it's going onto the page all wrong. It makes me wonder: is the page fighting her? Or is it an unconscious/subconscious refusal, to put herself onto the page where so few women are represented accurately or humanely?
For any curious people the story in question:
Suddenly Afraid

because she couldn't write the name of what she was: a wa wam own owamn womn.
Ah! I didn't think of it like that - another dimension to the 'story'. With such few words, they are begging for close analysis. So if she could not write, that means she wanted to write 'I was a woman' which means that she understands what she is, then the page is obstructing her perhaps? - is she trying to say something about feminism in literature, and the difficulties of being a female writer. (I mentioned a bit of '[I]écriture feminine[I]' in the first week, perhaps it could be related.) Does only through the medium of literature is she defined as a woman? Again it's that reflexivity we were talking about - the words from the author must go through something onto the page, it's not a clear journey from A to B. Only after she tries to write what she is, is she then 'suddenly afraid'. Here, there is tension. The idea of the paper fighting back is a wonderful 'image'.

I think there's something to be said that in the 'fracture'/'disturbances' of the word 'woman', the 'man' is never materialised. (Is she trying to create a word that defines her gender that isn't male-constructed, i.e. phallogocentric?) And then there's the 'own', perhaps being important about how literature has been previously 'owned' by man, and now she is trying to own her writing. Or perhaps gender definitions are beyond writing and 'linguistic definition'?

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Old 03-22-2014, 03:59 AM View Post #9 (Link)
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It seems like the way you're thinking about reflexive writing, anything that's been written with intent is reflexive: so that's pretty much anything, any story or poem or essay, where the author has thought about form, and use of language, and the point of the piece, and so on. That would leave the category of automatic writing to journal entries and psych exercises probably.

To get back to the earlier part of the discussion: is fiction more reflexive than poetry? I think that even though poetry often seems to be "automatic" and feels like the outpouring of somebody's mind, I feel most poetry is more aware than that. And some poetry definitely cultivates the sense of outpouring, of being automatic - even when that sense is constructed, and is all in how we read the poem and not in how it was written. I know that when I'm writing a poem, even if the ideas or images in the poem "come to me", I'm very aware of what I'm doing. I'm thinking about linebreaks, about sound, about how the images fit into previous parts of the poem or fit into tradition. Even when it's a journal entry sort of poem. I've been keeping a longhand writing notebook for over a month (not long for many but a big deal to me) and I definitely feel a difference between true journal entries that are just about my day or whatever and poetry-entries where I'm riffing on something and thinking about sound and image. Those entries are constructed, even if they are not as carefully constructed as poems I consider finished.

I actually think it's hard to write poetry without being aware of or interested in the act of making it. Maybe poetry written while experiencing altered mental states could be considered automatic? I can't speak to that from experience because I wouldn't classify drunk poetry as automatic. If I'm able to type or write, I'm aware enough of what I'm doing. Even if the poem is less inhibited. Even if the result isn't ... up to par.

I think your question about truth vs. lies in literature might be a separate one? Though I see how they're related. You can tell the absolute truth and still be very aware of how a piece is constructed, and what the piece says about language and writing. This is what I think is happening in "Grammar Questions". Maybe that says something about the writing and not the author's actual experience. But that piece strikes me as lived, as real. About the author's actual response to her father's death and not an imagined response. So I think it's very truthful writing in that it's interpreting an event from the author's life, even if I doubt that every thought and interaction happened as they are presented on the page.

On the other hand, I think it's possible for writing to be focused on "face value" stuff and still be fiction. Sure, it has to be aware of the basics of form, but it might just be interested in telling us a good story and getting us to laugh or be excited, rather than in telling us something new about writing. I'd guess most "pulp" novels do this. And of course it's possible for writing to take any intermediate approach between "Grammar Questions" and pulp.

I'm inclined to think of all writing as a mix of truth and lie, or fact and fiction. Maybe it's just that we hold these separate when thinking about prose and accept them as melded when thinking about poetry. We divide prose up into two categories, fiction and non. Even if "creative non-fiction" is a genre in which we can take more liberty with both language and facts (compared to, say, a magazine article) we're convinced that the writer is discussing something real, something lived, some fact about the world. In poetry, divisions are generally between approach (lyrical vs. narrative, which is like internal vs. external) or form. It can sometimes be hard in poetry to get away from the idea that all poems are a mix of fact and fiction. The speaker of a poem is usually assumed to be the writer. This is often the case, so a lot of the time it's a valid assumption. But it isn't always the case, and I think poets often have to stress when they're writing from someone else's point of view.

I actually feel like Davis' work is much like poetry in this way: I take much of it, detached as it seems, as written from her point of view.
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Old 03-31-2014, 08:17 PM View Post #10 (Link)
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My friends joke that I write post-post modern.

The shorter ones read like tweets.

I need to catch up on all of this.
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