Short Fiction Week 1: Lydia Davis

I mentioned last time that I’m teaching a course on short fiction each semester this year. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it and I’m quite looking forward to it. I love novels, but it’s a relief to have a course without any. Short Fiction falls under my department’s Introduction to Literary Studies category, and is intended for Freshmen and Sophomores. These courses satisfy two of the general education requirements all students at my institution need to fulfill: Literary Studies and Writing Level 1 (W1). Thus although I hope to entice some of these students into at least thinking about majoring in English, the reality is that this is the only English course most of them will take.

It’s not easy teaching students how to develop their interpretive skills by reading attentively. But it’s even more challenging when I’ve also got to combine that task with teaching them how to write. Reading and writing go together, of course, but turning students into proficient writers takes a lot of time, both in class and in individual conferences with me. All of the assignments are structured into stages emphasizes revision. The dual aims—complementary but each daunting in its own right—make these classes hard to teach. (Fortunately, we were recently able to limit these classes to 18 students (it used to be 25) which helps quite a bit.) But I usually enjoy my introductory level courses a lot, especially in the fall semester. There’s nothing quite like the excitement—however undisciplined—of a first semester college student.

It doesn’t take long for the semester to get to the point where day-to-day survival is the only thing that matters. One of the first things to go by the wayside, at least for me, is my own writing, including here at the blog. I want to change that, and so this year I’ve decided to write each week about one of the stories we’re studying in class. I hope my dozens of loyal readers will keep me accountable. I welcome all gestures of support!

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Class met for the first time today, and I reserved the tedious business of going over class procedures & the syllabus for the last ten minutes and spent the rest of the time on a short piece by the contemporary American writer Lydia Davis. I’ve often taught her absolutely wonderful story “A Mown Lawn,” but this year I decided to go with something different, the first story in her most recent collection, Can’t and Won’t (2014). Davis is known for writing very short, very smart, often very funny stories, and this one is no exception. It’s called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” and here it is in its entirety:

A Story of Stolen Salamis

My son’s Italian landlord in Brooklyn kept a shed out back in which he cured and smoked salamis. One night, in the midst of a wave of petty vandalism and theft, the shed was broken into and the salamis were taken. My son talked to his landlord about it the next day, commiserating over the vanished sausages. The landlord was resigned and philosophical, but corrected him: “They were not sausages. They were salamis.” Then the incident was written up in one of the city’s more prominent magazines as an amusing and colorful urban incident. In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods “sausages.” My son showed the article to his landlord, who hadn’t known about it. The landlord was interested and pleased that the magazine had seen fit to report the incident, but he added: “They weren’t sausages. They were salamis.”

I started by asking the class what wasn’t in the story. Answers came pretty quickly: defined characters, description of the setting or much of anything else, and most importantly, details about the crime and its upshot. As one student cleverly put it—and this was by far way my favourite observation today—the story “leaves out the meat.” (That kid’s going far.)

Students were readily able to recognize the story’s obliquity, though it was a bit harder for them to see how much of that effect comes from Davis’s decision to tell the story in first person but without telling us very much about that person. We know only that she is the parent of a son who lives in Brooklyn and the possessor of both a good vocabulary and a wry, detached way of looking at the world, in short, that she is someone rather like Davis herself, which is why I use “she” here though there’s no indication of the narrator’s gender in the text itself, and it really doesn’t matter whether she’s like Davis at all. The narrator’s presence in the text is so minimal that it’s as if the story is taking the piss out of the convention that first person narrators are the heroes of their own stories. But that indirect, mediated quality is central to understanding the story.

I asked the class why the story was called “A Story of Stolen Salamis” rather than, say, “Stolen Salamis.” Isn’t the introductory phrase redundant, implied by the very existence of the text? And why “a” and not “the”? One student observed that “the” would mean there was only one story. But in this case there are at least two. There’s the story as a whole, and there’s the story within the story, the one reported in “one of the city’s more prominent magazines.” I reminded students that we use “story” to refer both to fiction and to fact. What links these uses are narrative and rhetorical conventions of the kind we’ll be studying in class. Certainly fiction seems to trump fact here, since the reporter—echoing the son (though it’s unclear how directly—the passive construction “the incident was written up” doesn’t tell us how the reporter found out about it—from the crime blotter, maybe?)—wrongly calls the stolen objects “sausages.” And although we didn’t actually talk about it, the quotation marks matter a lot. “Sausages” isn’t in quotation marks the first time the word appears in the story. Here the narrator is aligning herself—in her words, commiserating—with her son, as if to suggest that she too would have made that mistake. But the later reference to sausages—“In the article, the reporter called the stolen goods ‘sausages’”—is clearly not the narrator’s. Yet the sentence would have worked just fine without the quotation marks. We’d still know it was the reporter who had used the offending word. But in setting “sausages” off like that, the narrator distances herself from the glib and patronizing magazine.

She respects the landlord, who, thanks to his perhaps absurd but ultimately noble insistence on distinguishing salamis from sausages, is definitely the hero of the story. Preparing for class (how did anyone do that before the internet?) I looked up the difference between these terms, and everything I found said a salami is a kind of sausage, just one that is cured longer and is therefore drier. The difference, then, is subtle, but subtle differences matter a lot, especially when we’re reading literary texts. The main reason I wanted to start the course with this text—besides the fact that I like it so damn much—is that it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting. This precision can have other ends than linguistic ones, too, as one student noted by saying, when I asked them why the guy cares so much about the distinction anyway, that he might be asserting his Italian or Italian-American identity.

A fair point, but the identity the story really cares about isn’t ethnic or nationalistic but rather linguistic. Returning to the title, we can see that the most important word in it is not, as we might have expected, “stolen” (in other words, the drama of its narrative events, however absurd—the alliteration of the “stolen salamis” is like something from a Post headline:   “Stolen Salamis!”) but rather “salamis” (in other words, language itself, the importance of naming). In the end, I can’t quite figure what eh story wants to say about linguistic precision—after all, insisting that they were salamis doesn’t keep them from being stolen. Maybe, then, the joke is on the landlord? But I think the story presents him as a man of integrity rather than a pedant. And certainly not clichéd or casual like the reporter, a tone the story itself always seems to be skirting in its use of ready-made phrases like “a wave of petty vandalism and theft” or “an amusing and colorful urban incident.” For these phrases reduce the specificity of what exists in a way that completely opposes the landlord’s insistence on his salamis.

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There’s even more to be said about this story, I’m sure. But we said a lot in a short time—we got to most of these points, and I was pleased about that. I was less happy about how uneven the participation was—some students seemed much more engaged than others. But it’s too early to come to any conclusions as to what this group will be like. I’ll report back next week about how we’re getting on as we tackle stories by Balzac, Kipling, and Chekov. Stick around—that is, if you can stand to see how the sausages are made.

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9 thoughts on “Short Fiction Week 1: Lydia Davis

  1. “it’s such an elegant parable of interpretation, of how words matter, how we must always respect the specificity of whatever it is we’re interpreting” — honestly, I don’t think I would ever have arrived at this insight without your guidance! But you make it sound convincing, not strained. I am not a terribly good reader of short fiction because I often feel stymied precisely by how little they include. But I have learned to enjoy the exercise of figuring them out as best I can. I hope you will keep posting about this: I’ll learn a lot!

    18 students? What luxury. My intro class is at 66 so far, capped at 90. I’ll have TAs to help run the weekly tutorials but there is so much we can’t do even in groups of 30. I fondly remember the options I had with writing assignments in Cornell’s similarly tiny writing seminars.

    • Thanks, Rohan. I’ll always love novels best but I do like short fiction, precisely because of how little they include! Maybe that’s the difference between Victorianists and Modernists… When I teach novels, as I often/mostly do, I sometimes have a hard time keeping a grasp on the big picture. With short fiction I can really relish the details, which is what I like doing most of all.
      I’ve never taught more than about 30 students in one class, and I can’t imagine 66, let alone 90. It’s true we don’t have any TAs, and I assign a lot of writing (they’re turning in stuff pretty much weekly). But I’d be so daunted with that many students, especially since I’m not much of a lecturer.

  2. I agree that the story says a lot about language and specificity. It reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash called “The Purist”:

    I give you now Professor Twist,
    A conscientious scientist.
    Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
    And sent him off to distant jungles.
    Camped on a tropic riverside,
    One day he missed his loving bride.
    She had, the guide informed him later,
    Been eaten by an alligator.
    Professor Twist could not but smile.
    “You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

    In both cases, the joke’s on the guy who’s much less bothered by crime and violence that befall him than by somebody’s use of a wrong word. Or, as you say, maybe the joke’s on us, because we rely on glib newspapers who are equally likely to misstate things that we never even notice…

    Man, I wish I could take your class!

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