Lydia Davis

Edited by Julie Tanner

An Introduction in One-Liners

Julie Tanner

Excerpts from Journal July 8 2003 — Dec 4 2005

Lydia Davis

Positioning Lydia Davis

Jonathan Evans

Minor, Marginal, Minimal, Miniature

Lola Boorman

Special Chairs

Julianne McCobin

The End of the Story?

Julie Tanner

Maternal Grammar

Helen Charman

Flâneuse of the Quotidian

Inés García

Three Poems

Hannah Louise Poston

Lydia Davis in France in the 1970s

Alice Blackhurst

Lydia Davis / Maurice Blanchot, invisible

Jacob McGuinn

A reworking of the Preface of Essays 2 and a response to “Twenty-One Pleasures of Translating (and a Silver Lining)” featured in Essays 2 by Lydia Davis

Jen Calleja

Pod45 Episode 6: Lydia Davis

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team


The second part of this page is intended as a guide for readers to navigate our cluster. But first, an introduction:   

Lydia Davis tends to slip from people's personal canons. Why? As a writer she is strikingly singular, but it is perhaps the plurality of genres and modalities she writes in that repels categories, movements, and, often, syllabi. Translator of the greats, author of miniatures; we're told often enough that her stories are short, yet the impression those stories leave is certainly not fleeting. A second generation postmodernist of sorts, her American concision is explained via her European sensibility and an affinity to late modernists, though not Modernism proper. If we speak in our best grant-writing, contribution-making voice and say that her body of work represents a culmination of twentieth-century literary achievement, can that in any way account for the profound, uncanny experience whereby reading Lydia Davis becomes seeing like Lydia Davis?

Though a writers' writer to some, she is a readers' writer for us all. Indeed, there is a discrepancy between the relatively small number of academics who study Lydia Davis and the genuinely enthusiastic responses we receive when we tell people at conferences and parties (and conference parties) that we work on her "Oh, I love Lydia Davis!" Considering her achievements across fiction, nonfiction, and translation, including the 2013 Man Booker International Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, heightened critical attention to Lydia Davis is sorely overdue. Introducing, then, the Lydia Davis cluster: a bumper cluster comprised of accessible critical conversation that traverses Davis's career, engaging with her short stories, translations, essays, and novel. Not the first word on Davis, of course, and certainly not the last, either, but, rather, a picture of Davis studies today, and of what that might look like if we nurture it. 

We are delighted (and still in shock) to publish a contribution from Davis herself: previously unseen journal excerpts from 2003-2005. The entries possess a range that affirms everything Davis's readers love about her writing, and read like a story collection in their own right. If you've read her most recent collection, Can't and Won't, the journal excerpts recall its blend of observation, rumination, found materials, and lucky us one-liners. Written in a similar period to the stories that comprise Varieties of Disturbance, the entries include possible precursors to then-future work such as Davis's chapbook The Cows (a fan favourite) and record nascent thoughts about writing and translation of the kind that have recently been collected in her two volumes of essays. Their themes accumulate and a rhythm emerges, the pieces at turns rendered odd and oddly funny through the selective use of context then an entry that stops readers in their tracks: a record of the death of Davis's mother, Hope Hale Davis. As ever, a series of short entries belies an abundance of life and thought, and we are very grateful to Lydia for sharing her journals with us. 

At the outset, my hope was for the cluster to gather writers who have published work about Davis before with writers who haven't until now; supporting the small but passionate Davis club, while also broadening and, to an extent, formalising it. The resulting cluster is bursting with fresh, contemporary interpretations of Davis's work. Taking our cues from Davis herself, we've written about her work in the forms that best articulate each idea: literary history, close reading, biography, autotheory, personal response, and poetry.

As a means to navigate the cluster, here are some one-liners from our pieces to pique your interest, in order of appearance: 

Two excerpts from "Excerpts from Journal July 8 2003 - Dec 24 2005" by Lydia Davis1

"She was like a wash cycle small, delicate, cold."

[At a MacArthur Foundation meeting]: "Yes - you're a writer - you probably have a lot to say - "

"Positioning Lydia Davis" by Jonathan Evans: 

" . . . One of the problems of talking about Davis, at least before the Collected Stories: she was often little known outside of a small group of readers, and so she had to be positioned in relation to other writers rather than her own work."

From key Davis story for this piece, "Trying to Learn"2:

“I am trying to learn that this playful man who teases me is the same as that serious man talking money to me so seriously he does not even see me anymore and that patient man offering me advice in times of trouble and that angry man slamming the door as he leaves the house."

"Minor, Marginal, Minimal, Miniature" by Lola Boorman: 

"Defining Davis's smallness (both formal and thematic) through miniaturism rather than minimalism offers an enticing way to read her relationship to the post-45 literary sphere because it places her in a relationship of active resistance to and revision of the dominant literary trends of the period."

From key Davis essay for this piece, "Fragmentary or Unfinished"3:

"If we catch only a little of our subject, or only badly, clumsily, incoherently, perhaps we have not destroyed it."

"Special Chairs" by Julianne McCobin: 

"In stories across her career, Davis reflects on her writing life and its institutional obligations with ambivalence, probing professional anxiety with her characteristic humor and analytical precision."

From key Davis story for this piece, "Special Chair"4:

"We who teach in the university system would like a special chair so that we would be paid more and not have to teach as much and not have to sit on so many committees we would sit instead on our special chair."

"The End of the Story?" by Julie Tanner: 

"The contingent canon of the one novel club and Davis's wavering membership reminds us of what we already know to be true about novels; namely, that they're tricky, fraught with their own processes in ways that are both visible and invisible or absented in the final publication."

From key Davis journal excerpt for this piece5:

"I see it all laid out before me, I see through to the end of it, and I don't know why I should do it, exactly . . . "

"Maternal Grammar" by Helen Charman:

"If you are, as I am, in the reductive mental habit of categorising things into mothers and fathers, Lydia Davis is a trap into which it is easy to fall: famous mother (real); a mother herself (real); translator of forefathers (literary)."

From key Davis story for this piece, "How Difficult"6:

"But I can't say this to her, because at the same time that I want to say it, I am also here on the phone coming between us, listening and prepared to defend myself."

"Flâneuse of the Quotidian" by Inés García:

"Davis's language revisits an alleged disconnection between the extraordinary and the mundane in a way that interrogates the creation of meaning."

From key Davis story for this piece, "Housekeeping Observation"7

"Under all this dirt
the floor is really very clean."

"Three Poems" by Hannah Louise Poston:  

"every morning, stemware winks
from the dish rack over serene leagues
of Formica, bleached pristine."

From key Davis journal excerpt for this piece8:

Mother: "Behind every successful woman there's a sink full of dirty dishes." 

"Lydia Davis in France in the 1970s" by Alice Blackhurst: 

"The reality of this French interlude in Davis's career was far richer than any fantasy-tableau she might have put together for her time in France."

From key Davis essay for this piece, "Living in Paris: Line by Line"9:

"In the spring of 1971, nearly a year after graduating from college, I packed what I thought was appropriate for my new life in Paris - including a set of old silverware and a dark-blue, backless velvet evening gown my mother had worn in the thirties - and went off to join my boyfriend, who had gone over ahead of me."

"Lydia Davis / Maurice Blanchot, Invisible" by Jacob McGuinn:

"Reading Davis, I want to suggest, means reading as if the stories functioned like translations, moving across that elegiac axis between appearance, disappearance, and the appearance of disappearance."

From key Davis story for this piece, "The Letter"10:

"Every time she stopped typing and picked up the dictionary his face floated up between her and the page and the pain settled into her again, and every time she put the dictionary down and went on typing his face and the pain went away."

A reworking of the Preface of Essays 2 and a Response to "Twenty-One Pleasures of Translating" featured in Essays 2 by Lydia Davis” by Jen Calleja:

"…an important experience behind my lifelong preoccupation with other languages must have been my exposure to German at the age of fourteen in a Year 8 classroom in Shoreham-By-Sea, West Sussex, where I had the choice but to stop learning the language after just two years, but didn't."

From key Davis essay for this piece, "Preface"11:

"[...] an important experience behind my lifelong preoccupation with other languages must have been my exposure to German at the age of seven in a first-grade classroom in Graz, Austria, where I had no choice but to learn the language." 

Sincere thanks to the British Association for American Studies (BAAS) for funding the Lydia Davis cluster.


  1. Entries from August and December 2003, "Excerpts from Journal July 8 2003 – Dec 24 2005." Davis's journal excerpts are available here[]
  2. Lydia Davis, Collected Stories (London: Penguin, 2010), 214.[]
  3. Lydia Davis, "Fragmentary or Unfinished: Barthes, Joubert, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Flaubert," Essays (London: Penguin, 2019), 204-225.[]
  4. Davis, Collected Stories, 323-324.[]
  5. Davis, Entry from December 2004.[]
  6. Davis, Collected Stories, 378.[]
  7. Lydia Davis, Can't and Won't (London: Penguin, 2013), 90.[]
  8. Davis, Entry from November 2003.[]
  9. Lydia Davis, "Living in Paris: Line by Line," Vogue (U.S.), December 2010, 148-150.[]
  10. Davis, Collected Stories, 40-46.[]
  11. "Preface," Essays Two, (London: Penguin, 2021), ix-xvi.[]

Past clusters