On The Men Who Use Lydia Davis To Ruin Women

What do they think they’re doing?

There are certain things we may know, already, about the men who recommend women read Infinite Jest, or suggest Žižek’s work — have you heard of him? — in earnest. A couple summers ago, I was at a bookstore in Boston when I saw a sign affixed to one of the fiction shelves: “Please Ask at the Desk for Works by Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.” I decided this must be a trap for that kind of man. I figured if someone ever did go to the desk, an alarm would sound, or a secret door might open up in the floor. Poof!

But what about the man who buys a woman The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis? I would like to know something about him.

It turns out there are at least a handful of men, just walking around the world, for whom this is the case. I met one of them a few years ago, when I started seeing a guy named Ben in the context of a summer fling that was mostly about books. Many authors had been involved, but the one who got top billing was Lydia Davis. He bought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis as a gift for my birthday that summer, when we came across the book at our local Barnes and Noble. After things fizzled out (as these things often do), it was the only surviving relic of the whole romantic encounter, and therefore became a symbol. Of what, I didn’t know. Whenever I walked into a bookstore it was, inevitably, the first book that jumped out at me, mostly thanks to its bright coral-and-white coloring. For a while there, it was pretty crummy. But after enough time passed, it became just another book to me — one I loved! — though I still attached it to this person and our time together, and the fizzling out.

I might have gone on gradually forgetting I’d ever associated the book with anyone had it not been for my friend Angelica, who told me a few weeks ago that she had been seeing someone recently who initiated their relationship by lending her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. She went on about how this man ended up disappointing her while some kind of very precise explosion happened in my brain.

What I’m saying is, I had to fucking wonder — was there a whole tribe of men out there who gave The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to women to prove some kind of point?  Maybe to prove they’re sensitive, feminist or otherwise exceptional men, unconcerned with the Very Important Male Author. The word “soft boy,” for all of its ridiculousness, came to mind. And maybe it said something about the women too, who saw a sign that said “Please Ask at the Desk for Works by Lydia Davis” and then got swallowed into a trap door in the floor.

One woman, Maggie, who reached out to me, was particularly interested in learning whether her failed relationship with a Lydia Davis-loving man had been a reflection of her own poor choices. Had she been gullible? Naive?  

Now that I knew there was a community of us, a support group, I reassured her, no. She told me this:

“It felt telling that it was the only book by a female writer gifted, like he was trying hard to prove ‘feminist’ credentials. Much was made of the size and color of the book. And, yeah, we’d discuss the stories and he’d read them to me.”

Read them to her! No one story in particular, she said. But, like Angelica, the book had been an early gift.

A second woman, Eliza, had suffered the great loss of having Davis’ work being ruined for her forever — like when you eat something that makes you sick and can never eat it again.

Eliza said the “uniquely confusing” gift of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis “tainted” her relationship with Davis because “ultimately things went badly with the gifter.”

Meanwhile, Rosemary, now 25, received the book from someone she thinks had been trying to initiate something romantic. It was inappropriate given the circumstances: The man had been her 34-year-old coworker at a publishing house; she’d been a 19-year-old intern.

“It’s weird talking about this,” she said. “He would go out of his way to surprise me with things — books, a small souvenir when he came back from vacation … Not things he would do for his other coworkers or for other interns. He used to give me a lot of books — some from our publishing house, some he got from colleagues at other companies for me. Anything he thought I would enjoy reading. Lydia Davis was one of them.”

Rosemary said the book, along with the others he gave her, had made her feel “singled out” and therefore special.

It’s understandable that The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis would have this effect. Davis is one of the sharpest flash fiction writers there is, arguably the inventor of the form itself. To appreciate her sense of humor, you must understand why a story about a woman fucking an oboe is not just funny but also moving. Receiving the book made me feel like someone thought I was as swift and cool as Davis.

The story I always returned to was “Break It Down,” the titular story from Davis’ 1986 collection. It made me think — what would it be like if someone thought my “skin [was] just the edge of something else”? It’d be cheap to call any of Davis’ stories “romantic,” but if you receive them in the context of romance it becomes easy to read some of them that simply, just as every song is about love when you’re in it.

Something about Davis’ work might be destined for this kind of tossing and turning over what the hell it means when a man gives a woman her collected stories. At least one critic thought so.

“Davis’s parables are most successful when they examine the problems of communication between men and women, and the strategies each uses to interpret the other’s words and actions,” Kassia Boddy wrote in the Columbia Companion to the 21st Century Short Story, which came out in 2000.

Ben, who gave The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to me, had his own theories.

“Personally, I find the act of reading itself is romantic,” he wrote to me when I told him I was writing this piece. “I think most avid readers do. Sharing a book with anybody is divulging a bit of yourself to them. Sharing a book with a partner is romance on romance, epistemic ménage à trois, a love triangle with paper cuts.”

Ben said he’d always thought The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis made for a good book to share because of the “scope and charm” of the works in it, as well as their brevity. Give someone a book like Anna Karenina, for example, and you risk figurative (and perhaps even literal) “unrequited love.”

At the end of it, though, I was the one who was left with the unrequited feelings. And all I have to show for it, still, is a small but hefty pink book.

So, as Davis should have written in “Break It Down,” I’m just thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.