Plumbing the Surface

colonoscopy n. Examination of the inner surface of the colon by means of a colonoscope.

--American Heritage Stedman's Medical Dictionary

Lydia Davis--author of six books of short stories and a novel and numerous translations (including, recently, of Proust)--was not asked in an interview at Hugo House last Friday what her new book, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, is "about." She was not asked where her books "come from" or who her favorite authors are or whether she writes in the morning and for how long and with what. The interviewer, Matthew Stadler--a novelist and editor and, like Davis, a former Guggenheim fellow--asked about dashes and spaces, mostly.

The evening began with Hugo House's resident writer, Emily White, saying that on first reading Lydia Davis she had "never read such minimal work that meant so much. I'd read a lot of minimal work, but none of it had so much depth." Stadler redirected things. "Emily mentioned depth," he began. "I wonder what you think of that term, and the notion of depth as a virtue." This didn't appear to be something Davis had been asked before. "Oh, boy," she said. "Thanks, Matthew."

So this would be (oh, boy!) an interview actually about writing--interesting and esoteric, with "close readings" via overhead transparencies. In contrast to White's introduction--the conversation about minimalism and its depths has gotten to be, well, shallow--Stadler asked only about "the strength located on the surface" of Davis' fiction: diction, syntax, punctuation. At one point, he projected a paragraph from Davis' 1995 novel The End of the Story onto the screen. "My interest," he said regarding the excerpt, "is in the colon."

To many people's consternation, and to my amazement, Stadler never strayed from such topics: italics, palindromes, you name it. Punctuation is an elemental issue for a writer, and capable of conveying meaning, so it's refreshing to hear it talked about. (Explicating the aforementioned colon usage, Davis said, "Sometimes they're good to get your attention--to say, 'Hey, there's something coming.' I think the colon is an important piece of punctuation." Stadler said, "I agree.")

And yet the row in front of me was full of those who only want to hear what a book is "about" and whether the writer works in the morning and on Sundays; who think that punctuation falls into place by its own accord or by accident, but in either case is essentially meaningless. (They obviously haven't read Lydia Davis.) Afterward, one of them said snidely, "Can we go discuss dashes and colons over a beer?" I wanted to remove her spleen.

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Answers to last week's quiz: (a) 4; (b) 8; (c) 1; (d) 6; (e) 3; (f) 9; (g) 2; (h) 5; (i) 7; (j) 10.