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Diane Williams, a Master of the Very Short Story, Has a Very Big New Book

By October 4, 2018No Comments

Source : The New York Times


Size doesn’t matter, but at 784 pages, “The Collected Stories of Diane Williams,” new this month, outweighs the collected short fiction of Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, Gabriel García Márquez and almost any other writer one can name.

That size doesn’t matter is central to Ms. Williams’s work. This new book includes more than 300 stories published over the last 29 years; their average length is about two and a half pages. Within the very narrow confines of a Diane Williams story, the author might toy with metafictional device or offer something that hints at a plot, she might create character or capture a scene, she might show or simply imply something sexual, something violent or something merely unpredictable.

Ms. Williams is 72. She lives in the sort of Manhattan apartment realtors describe as “well-appointed,” with copious sun and art on display everywhere. She speaks candidly about her work and its relationship to her own life. In person, as on the page, Ms. Williams is funny and frank, as well as elusive. Her stories might be short but that is sleight of hand; they demand focus. “I don’t like to have it all wrapped up,” she said. “Hardly anything that matters in life is that easy.”

“I’ve heard lots of criticism of what I’m doing,” she said. “I’ve been told these aren’t stories.” Ms. Williams speaks deliberately, with a calm that is not dispassion but certainty. She sometimes closes her eyes, presumably to formulate her thoughts, then opens them when she’s ready to speak. “It enrages me.”

That criticism aside, Ms. Williams has been doggedly doing what she does for almost three decades, and remains at the vanguard of avant-garde American writing. She is influential, if under the radar. Her work appears in the most recent Paris Review (the first issue under its newly appointed editor Emily Nemens), and from a small room off her kitchen, Ms. Williams runs NOON, a literary magazine published annually, with a sensibility that is recognizably her own: erudite, elegant and stubbornly experimental.

For any writer, an omnibus collection is a triumph. To see years of Ms. Williams’ confounding fictions collected in so hefty a volume is like seeing snowflakes accrue into an avalanche.

Across seven books (and one earlier collection, “Excitability”), Ms. Williams has returned again and again to the same fictional territory. Her stories are not screeds nor are they hysterical, but it makes sense to hear the author speak of being enraged — rage (and many other feelings) bleeds out from behind her taut sentences. “There was a time I literally screamed in my own dining room, about something that didn’t warrant such a scream,” she recalled, describing a long-ago fight with her ex- husband. “It was so — to use a word I use a lot in my first book — inappropriate. There were some things, some anger or passion that was beyond my understanding and had been tamped down for too long.”

The pieces in Ms. Williams’s first collection of stories were written in the period when she and her husband were separating; that book was published in 1990. This kind of biographical insight is illuminating only because her stories resist traditional reading.

“I have always found Diane’s work to be intriguing and provocative in its departures from the societal norm or the expected,” Lydia Davis said via email. Ms. Davis is perhaps this country’s best-known writer of innovative short fiction, and has published in NOON several times. “It is often bizarre and funny, sometimes disturbing.”

Indeed, an individual story often manages to be both. Characters have witty names or speak in strange non sequiturs; the reader’s impulse is to laugh but then the details accrue and the laugh is much less comfortable.

A story like “The Real Diane Williams Has Captured the Whole of Freud,” which first appeared in Ms. Williams’s second book, exemplifies this. The author uses herself as a protagonist, as the title tells us; there’s dialogue from a child, which offers some levity. In the story, a mother takes her son, Eric, along on an errand. “I undressed for the tailor and for Eric, too, so they could both see me naked. I could not figure out why. It wasn’t required.” This moment changes the register, and makes the title into a very different sort of joke — the reader lingers on Freud instead of on Diane Williams.

Sitting in an armchair in her cluttered office, Ms. Williams reflects on the period in the late 1980s when she took private classes with the writer and editor Gordon Lish. It’s a subject on which she seems reticent (by contrast, she’s comfortable addressing the frank depictions of sex in her work). However, she said, “I haven’t reassessed the value of his contribution to American Literature. I still believe that it was very important, and important to me.”

Mr. Lish is known for a heavy hand, sometimes more collaborator than a conventional editor, and is a larger than life figure. It was in one of his classes that Ms. Williams met the writer Christine Schutt, with whom she would launch NOON in 2000, so called because it spells ‘no’ backward and forward. “That idea of no both ways is a part of the magazine’s aesthetic as we both understood it,” Ms. Schutt said. “NOON would strive to publish fiction that from sentence to sentence displayed a writer’s no to business-as-usual prose.”

In an email, the writer Roxane Gay, who has been published in NOON, said of her experience working with Ms. Williams: “She really stripped away everything unnecessary, and that is something she does expertly without being gratuitous or disrespectful to the work she is editing.” Ms. Williams is not Mr. Lish — she’s cool rather than bombastic, and doesn’t make sweeping pronouncements. If she is a link to the school of brute minimalism with which he’s closely associated, Ms. Williams should be understood as an artist doing something new and all her own.

Ms. Williams has been investigating how to create a story with attention to the surface of the page and some of her literary descendants are creating texts while thinking about the constraints of the screen — Instagram’s borders, Twitter’s character count. In a sense she presaged if not this technology then our short cultural attention span.

In her sunny office, Ms. Williams gestured toward several folders thick with papers, each a draft of a story in progress. If the stories are short, they are no easier to write than they are to read. She works much of the day, and is a rigorous self editor. Despite appearances, Diane Williams is not making miniatures.

Maybe because the stories are so distilled, so concentrated, every choice within feels deliberate. And Ms. Williams is able to talk about many of these choices, recalling details inside work she wrote decades ago. Jewelry is a recurring totem across her work, with characters fondling rings, bracelets, necklaces.

“Our father would take us to the five and dime store, and we could buy whatever we wanted,” she said, gesturing at the bracelet she was wearing. “I went right to the case that had the little glass stone rings. I have quite a vivid memory of the delight in choosing them. It would be the talisman that would save me.”

Ms. Williams is forthright about almost everything, but insistent that the work she’s done doesn’t require further explanation. Asked why (and from what) she needed saving, she paused: “It’s really all in my writing. If I were to speak of it, it would make a mockery of my life’s work.”

Ms. Williams was born in Illinois, and studied writing at the University of Pennsylvania (Philip Roth was one of her teachers). “The dean told us that Penn graduates made good wives and mothers because they were so well-organized,” she said.

After completing her education in 1968, Ms. Williams worked for a time as an editor in children’s publishing. “I wasn’t ambitious because I didn’t see the point,” she said. “It was all going to end soon.” She married and had two sons.

The trappings of domesticity (marriage, motherhood, pet ownership, chores) are recurring motifs in Ms. Williams’s oeuvre. “I had a great deal invested in being a good mother and a good wife,” Ms. Williams said. “And my marriage fell apart. I had to question all of my assumptions up to that point, and they all seemed weak and unhelpful and misleading.”

When her younger son read her first book at the age of 8, he was upset by the foul language. “I’ll never have any respect for you again,” she recalled him telling her. She was heartbroken by his agitation, and throughout our conversation was almost apologetic about being the writer she is, one who didn’t have the respect of her son, who didn’t adhere to convention. Nevertheless as both editor and writer, Ms. Williams has committed herself to exploring the particular territory that is her own.

“There are writers — Iris Murdoch, or Anita Brookner, or John Cheever — who just give me hours of comfort,” she said. “I wish that I could be a writer like that.”

“I’m not willfully trying to be obscure or difficult,” Ms. Williams said. “Maybe I also am. At the moment I said it, I thought, ‘Is that a lie?’ So there’s something to think about,” she added, contradicting herself precisely as a character in a Diane Williams story might.

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