I have not read a lot of Lydia Davis's work. I came to this latest book mostly via her reputation and the beginning of an earlier novel I had tried to read but could not. I had put down that other novel because her work demanded that I think, dynamically, while reading it and I was trying to read in 20 minute snatches while breastfeeding my daughter. Lydia Davis just wouldn't take. This year, however, I picked up Can't and Won't through affection for its title. I, too, am a contrary, difficult woman. Which, it turns out, might be the worst kind of woman––
I had the chance to discuss this book, its innovative style, its humour and its pathos, with a group of writers and was surprised how many were turned off because of the apparent "game" of her stories. The stories seamed arbitrary. How dare she include "dreams" as stories? If only the subject of this terse style was more weighty. If only she was as important as Hemingway. If only the entire book was letters by Flaubert. I heard them call out Lydia Davis's celebrity and accuse her of being lazy when she included very short shorts. They referenced her previous marriage to a more mainstream, less daring author because gossiping is fun.
Many of these criticisms only arose because of Davis's gender. It made them read her terseness as shrill, her subjects (everyday, at times domestic) as light and her experimental short shorts as lazy. Criticisms that would most likely not be levied at a male author. I called them on it and the room (full of women writers, I'll add) largely agreed they had fallen through the rabbit hole of society's latent misogyny.
I took a long time to read this book (I wasn't in a hurry this time around) and I read it in order (not skipping around) the way I read poetry collections. The book is very funny. Its craft is exciting. Davis demonstrates the minimal limit of narrative. At times she seems to be purposefully mundane, for pages, as part of her strategy. She proposes a book of stories that reads like prose poems and like short stories and asks to be read all together.
The stubbornness in many of the voices in this book, for example in the title story that recounts others accusing her of laziness (!), I see in myself. It's a reluctance to be told how to write, what a story is, what a good attitude is, how to behave.