Review: Lydia Davis’ ‘Can’t and Won’t’

Can’t and Won’t is the most revolutionary collection of short stories by an American in twenty-five years”. Such is the raving review of John Freeman of Boston Globe, as a passing comment on Lydia Davis’ most recent collection of short stories. I appreciate well-written and carefully crafted short stories, like those of Alice Munro or Katherine Mansfield, so I was inclined to pick up this collection. I was utterly disappointed.

After I finished reading this underwhelming collection, I stumbled across several reviews. All of the positive ones echoed one single praise: that Davis challenges the notion of what qualifies as a story. Of course, this is interesting in essence, as the contestation of ideas is a central element of quality literature. Alas, Davis has taken this a step too far, writing stories like ‘Housekeeping Observation’, that reads:

Under all this dirt

 the floor is really very clean.

This story can barely be labelled as such. It is what it is titled: a mere housekeeping observation. Lives are not altered, people are not faced with a revelation. Is it intended to be humorous? Perhaps, though if this is the case, it is poorly executed. We cannot draw conclusions about the narrator or the situation in which they live from ten words carelessly strung together. If we were to, it would be a lame and incoherent conclusion drawn more from what the reader imposes than what is actually written. 

This is not to say that Davis does not have some merit. Indeed, ‘The Seals’ was a spectacular narration of dealing with grief, death and loss. It was heartfelt and sincere, although more of a traditional short story. As the narrator processed the details of the situation, the reader was brought along slowly but effectively through the narrator’s grief. It was a thoroughly enjoyable short story, remaining in my head, popping up out of nowhere and allowing for an instance of reflection on how that story fits into my life and will shape it henceforth (as all good stories should).

I appreciate those who can ignite a thought or reflection on the world around us, consistently. Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ does a fabulous job of criticising the hypocrisy of differing treatments of men and women, particularly in regards to sex. Virginia Woolf brings to light the taboo of feeling lonely or other and illuminates the complexity of the human thought process in ‘The Waves’. These texts encourage deep reflection. It is almost impossible not to question the elements of society we so naively accepted in the past upon reading these works, and many like them. Lydia Davis’ collection does none of the sort. Aside from ‘The Seals’, there was not one other story in which I was astounded by her craft in storytelling. 

The namesake for this collection was a short story ‘Can’t and Won’t’, detailing the denial of a writing prize to (presumably) Davis, on the basis that she was lazy as she used “can’t and won’t” instead of their full words. Although I believe that reasoning to be slightly exaggerated, there is surely an element of laziness to Davis’ work that extends beyond the use of “can’t and won’t”. 

Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t cannot be described as any more than a collection of words put together and labelled as stories because she can. If you are interested in reading words for the sake of reading them, Can’t and Won’t should suffice. Otherwise, I would suggest looking to another author for literary enjoyment.

Note: this is my opinion based on my interpretation and does not have to apply to every person. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective and if Lydia Davis is their cup of tea, let them have it. 

-Kate Grossenbacher

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