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LYDIA DAVIS. Establishing memorable narrative voice. Laura Newcomer, November 2009. Author’s background. Published her first short story collection in 1986 to critical acclaim Has published one novel and multiple collections of short stories, as well as several works of translation

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lydia davis

Establishing memorable narrative voice

Laura Newcomer, November 2009

author s background
Author’s background
  • Published her first short story collection in 1986 to critical acclaim
  • Has published one novel and multiple collections of short stories, as well as several works of translation
    • Her work has also appeared in numerous collections (McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, etc)
  • Recipient of numerous awards
    • Among them: the Whiting Writer’s Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Literary Award, and final contention for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Fiction

Sources: and

author s background con t
Author’s background (con’T)
  • “Introspective and subversive, ironic and playful, obsessive and funny, Davis' stories reveal the ratcheting of the imagination and the ineffable movement of the mind over the varied textures of daily life.” (Salon interview)

in her own words
In her own words…
  • “I don’t write something unless I feel impelled to write it.”
  • “…So I may be taking one afternoon or one mood and saying, "I want to make something whole out of this. It's a very strong emotion. It's not the only one I have about this… life, but it's very strong just today, or just lately. And I want to make something whole out of it.”

…I want to make something. I guess "making" is behind a lot of this -- the love of making something.”

the work and the question
The work and the question
  • “Trying to Learn”
    • Very short story (essentially a piece of flash fiction)
      • Typical of Davis’ style
        • Captures many thoughts/feelings in a very small space, and magnifies them there
      • About learning to live with a partner and all of his different “selves”
  • How does this author establish a memorable narrative voice?
    • (this is the question at hand)
trying to learn
Trying to Learn

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. I have often wanted the playful man to be more serious, and the serious man to be less serious, and the patient man to be more playful. As for the angry man, he is a stranger to me and I do not feel it is wrong to hate him.


Now I am learning that if I say bitter words to the angry man as he leaves the house, I am at the same time wounding the others, the ones I do not want to wound, the playful man teasing, the serious man talking money, and the patient man offering advice. Yet I look at the patient man, for instance, whom I would want above all to protect from such bitter words as mine, and though I tell myself he is the same man as the others, I can only believe I said those words, not to him, but to another, my enemy, who deserved all my anger.

analysis establishing a memorable narrative voice
Analysis: Establishing a Memorable narrative voice
  • Length of the first sentence
    • Embroils us in the author’s internal dialogue
  • Repetition
    • Calculated, careful language
      • Investigative
  • “wonder-full”
    • Doesn’t know everything about the subject at hand
      • Fits with the claim that she is “trying to learn”
  • Humor
    • “I do not feel it is wrong to hate him”
answering the question why does it matter
Answering the question why does it matter?
  • The author uses repetition, careful language, and tone (humor, inquisitiveness) to establish a memorable narrative voice
    • These devices serve to establish consistency, to draw the reader into the author’s thoughts, and to establish empathetic connection between author and reader
      • These aims are further facilitated by the piece’s subject matter: most people can relate to the difficulties of intimacy (in whatever type of relationship)