Lydia Davis has won the Man Booker International Prize 2013. The American now earns her place amongst previous winners Phillip Roth, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe and Ismali Kadare. Her ‘carefully-crafted and hard to categorise works’ saw off formidable global challenge from the nine other contestants, mentioned further in our finalists post.
As supposedly the ‘best prose stylist in America’ (Rick Moody) and an ‘American virtuoso of the short story form’ (via Salon), Davis is largely ignored by the mainstream – though she is certainly not award-wise, nor does she lack any distinguished fans (Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace). Her innovative writing packs a lot of depth and consciousness for such short stories – much of her work use very few words, whilst her longest stretch to only a few pages. Some may label her as post-modern, but even so she goes beyond the idea of ‘flash fiction’. Perhaps post-post or meta- modernism would be more suitable to describe her stories, which capture both the current micro-generation and global macro-generation. Chairman of the judges, Sir Christopher Ricks, throws out a number of, if a little questionable, taxonomies to pen her as a writer of “miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apopthegms, prayers or simply observations.” Nevertheless, Davis herself classifies her work under ‘stories’. Judge for yourself:
Idea for a Short Documentary Film, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009)
Representatives of different food product manufacturers try to open their own packaging.
A Double Negative, Samuel Johnson is Indignant (2001)
At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.
The Fish, Break it Down (1986)
She stands over a fish, thinking about certain irrevocable mistakes she has made today. Now the fish has been cooked, and she is alone with it. The fish is for her–there is no one else in the house. But she has had a troubling day. How can she eat this fish, cooling on a slab of marble? And yet the fish, too, motionless as it is, and dismantled from its bones, and fleeced of its silver skin, has never been so completely alone as it is now: violated in a final manner and regarded with a weary eye by this woman who has made the latest mistake of her day and done this to it.
What is interesting to note is the trend that is beginning to rear its head within the Man Booker International. Unfortunately one cannot help but notice the Anglocentrism with regards to the past winners, and many critics will no doubt roll their eyes at ‘another American’ taking the title from the cultural melting-pot that constituted the finalists. (Indeed it is for this exact reason – of limited vision – that judge Carmen Callili withdrew from the panel in 2011, over the decision to award Phillip Roth the prize.) And though both Munro and Achebe are not American, they do write in English. Perhaps the initial excitement of the ‘internationality’ of the prize needs to be rechecked.
On the other hand without reading the entire oeuvre of each nomination we cannot, as readers, dispute the claim that Lydia Davis’ works were of the highest merit. Indeed, there is a case to be made for trying to avoid negative discrimination in this case. Even the judges themselves questioned the oddness of the prize going so rarely to a translated author, but decided that overall ‘that there was a creativity and an unusualness’ in her work. Again the idea of innovation resounds here; her ‘new and fresh’ techniques putting her safely in the position of an avant-garde writer. But by challenging preconceptions against her own genre, whatever name it may be given, surely it places the judges in a difficult position in terms of comparing it against other conventional novelists and short story writers on the shortlist. At the end of the day, does it come down to a comparison between oranges and apples?
Or does the issue lie with the problem of translations? I think it is important to bear in mind that only one of the judges, Yiyun Li, came from a non-English background in terms of language. It is not hard to imagine that the judging panel might be a little skewed, based on the difficulties of moulding together different cultures and linguistic backgrounds. Nevertheless the diverse range of finalists, compared to previous years, does show an increased awareness in international writers – something which must be a sign of good things to come.
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