Lydia Davis, or Why All Metafiction is Annoying

(As an aside, do you know why metafiction is called metafiction? – I only found this out the other day, reading – as you do – some AJ Ayer. – Well, it’s an analogy to metaphysics of course (this isn’t pointed out by AJ Ayer, who says nothing of metafiction himself), and do you know why metaphysics is called metaphysics? – Even as a classical scholar myself who knows full well that the Greek word meta means either after or with, I’d always assumed that somehow it also meant concerning the inner nature of, or something of that sort. Anyhow, no: it’s because Aristotle wrote a book called Physics, and then he wrote another book – and since it ended up in his collection after the book called Physics, people called it After-Physics, or Metaphysics. Hence metafiction: meaning after or with fiction. It’s all explained on goddamn Wikipedia.)

So, to Lydia Davis. I bought this book () because I’d heard Lydia Davis was an interesting writer, and a bit experimental – in the way that Tom McCarthy is a highly experimental writer. There’s even a Guardian article linking them together in a congeries (sc. heap?) of experimentality which, a few years ago was threatening to overwhelming us, but which seemingly didn’t. On the basis of this book (The End of the Story), I’d go along with the Tom McCarthy analogy: put forward as experimental, but in fact exactly like all other contemporary literature.

Some advice to writers of metafiction:

  • I know you’re a novelist, you don’t have to tell me.
  • I know you’re writing a book.
  • I know that you’re actually engaged in writing a book while you’re writing it.
  • I know that I’m reading a book.
  • I know you’re making it up and you could write it differently.
  • I’m aware that fiction isn’t the same as life.
  • I’m unlikely to appreciate any assumption you might make about how I’m interpreting / appreciating the book.
  • I know that you’ve given thought on how to structure your book but (and this is where things get interesting) …
  • … if you’re still struggling with how to structure your book as you’re actually writing it, rather than telling me about it, why don’t you go back and re-structure it if you think it would be better
  • … if you think it would be better to start again or to tell it a different way, why don’t you do that and, if it’s any better, send that to your publishers instead and I’ll read the new version
  • … if you think you’re being too repetitious, why don’t you edit some of the repetition out, rather than just point it out to me (or pretend that repetition is a common facet of life you are endeavouring to portray)
  • … if you feel you can’t express what you’re wanting to say, perhaps don’t bother writing books after all.

Thanks. Obooki.

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11 thoughts on “Lydia Davis, or Why All Metafiction is Annoying

  1. Very good. Your bullets read like a review of every single book ever written by Paul Auster, who of course David was married to. Although in her favour she eventually dumped him.

    I bought her collected stories, but haven’t read any of them yet. I enjoyed her translation of Swann’s Way so much that I thought I’d give her own stuff a go: possibly not a solid basis for such a decision, and your yoking of her to McCarthy of course gives me serious concern about my choice. Maybe I should just get rid of the book immediately, unread, and save myself?

  2. Yes, I thought you might have read some Davis since you appear in some of those comments in the various Guardian articles on her. I’d actually be interested to know what the short stories are like.

    The End of the Story seems to be largely about Davis’ inability to get over Paul Auster leaving her (if indeed he did leave her, I am no expert on their relationship), complete perhaps with an inability to let go of his stylistic influence too.

  3. Is the song and the post in any way connected?
    I like that song a lot, no idea why I haven’t heard of him before… Speaks to my Nick Drake loving side. Thanks for sharing it.
    We read The Things They Carried in my readalong this year and that is such a great book and it is almost pure metafiction. But it can go terribly wrong. I agree with your bullet points (+they made me laugh).
    I haven’t read Davis but I do not like Auster, I find him very heavy-handed.
    I read Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden this summer and have still not reviewed it. It’s terrible. Especially repetition is used ad nauseam.

  4. No, there was no intended connection between song and post – though I imagine one can be found if one looks hard enough. I like Jason Molina too, I think I have pretty much everything he ever made (yep, have checked through Wikipedia, got pretty much all of it). His best albums, I think, are Axxess & Ace, The Lioness and Magnolia Electric Co. (In fact, I wanted to put up Farewell Transmission from the latter, but the drums were ruined by the low bit-rate).

    I might put up a song a week, I think, one every Sunday. (Annoy people with my musical taste). It won’t all be slow and depressing – just most of it.

    I’ve not read The Things They Carried. (I always mix up Tim O’Brien in my mind with Richard O’Brien).

    I enjoyed The New York Trilogy, but then the next book of Auster’s I read, it was exactly the same. I find him ok, less irritating than some metafictionalists (Adam Thirlwell, for instance). Metafiction can be fine: I think John Barth’s Chimera is probably the one I’ve most enjoyed, but then it’s very playful – and metafiction needs to be playful, comic, in my opinion. It doesn’t work when it’s po-faced.

    Do write your review of Josipovici. A bad review of Josipovici will amuse me no end. – I think I might have picked up that book in a bookshop, looked through it for a few minutes and then thought, I’m not reading this! I keep trying to read a book by Josipovici called Contre-Jour – it’s very short and not all that experimental (for him, because he can be quite experimental), but I can’t seem to get more than about 30 pages into it. – Another writer who’s highly praised (especially among certain booksblogs) and who’s absurdly repetitious is David Markson. It’s no wonder he had trouble getting published.

  5. I didn’t think this song was depressing but then again that’s me talking. What’s wrong with slow and depressing anyway? My only problem could be that I will have to buy too many CDs should there be a lot I don’t know and like. This one lets me already fear the worst.
    Yeah my bad Josipovici review, Emma was already looking forward to it. I have a feeling I will write it. In any case he will end up on the worst books of 2011 list…

  6. No, perhaps it isn’t depressing after all. I did happen to be thinking last night what was the most depressing song I had in my collection, and I decided it was this one.

    A worst books of the year list – what a good idea; so good, in fact, I think I might steal it. 😉

    Actually, my difficulty in compiling a worst books list is that I have this crazy rule whereby, if I’m not enjoying a book, I stop reading it. But I was thinking the other week that, maybe I should keep a register of all the books I give up, just to contrast it with those I finish. I haven’t given up on very many books this year – but that might be down to good choosing.

  7. The lyrics are a bit on the depressing side but I still think Nick Drake’s Day is Done is more depressing and there are others.
    You may borrow the worst of idea and don’t even need to give credit.
    I cannot read many books in parallel and tend to finish them. And the type of book that lands on my worst of – with the exception of the Josipovici – would possibly not even enter your apartment (last year it was one of many bloggers Top best – the horrible Snowman by Nesbø).
    It would be interesting which book you gave up for good.

  8. Playful metafiction: Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is a fine example of this, surely? One of my favourite pieces of 20th C fiction, meta or no meta.

    The Ohia song sounds rather like Mogwai to me, but with less mumbling. Jason Molina might just about know how to tie his shoelaces, which is something I’d hesitate to say of the esteemed Glaswegian noodlers.

  9. Actually, I generally have to have these “depressing” songs pointed out to me – it never occurs to me that they’re depressing.

    I don’t think it is the same Alex Chilton – or indeed that there was an Alex Chilton in The Orb – but that’s just looking at Wikipedia.

    I’ve not read the Calvino yet – although I’ve the Calvinos I’ve read (mostly), none of which has been metafictional.

    Mogwai I seem to remember vaguely, but never a band I’ve been “into”. I think I mix them up in my mind with Moloko.

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