Susan Orlean and Lydia Davis, masters of the unexpected

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Two masters of the unexpected gave writing fans a treat at Harvard talks Wednesday.

Susan Orlean’s takes on everything from Queens supermarkets to show dogs recall the protean talents of fellow New Yorker stars Joseph Mitchell, Calvin Trillin, and A.J. Liebling. Her technique: stay in the background and sop up knowledge.

Mordant minimalist Lydia Davis’s essay/story/poetic mélanges hit with maximum impact. She lets her work take it where it will.


In Bulgaria, some tennis balls are like dumplings.

All languages are welcome on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, including Drunkard.

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.

As one fan put it Wednesday, those Susan Orlean leads dare you not to keep reading. Aware that her stories about chickens, orchids, or homing pigeons aren’t exactly breaking news, she says she always fights the question “Why would anyone care about this?”

“I have to make the reader share some sense of curiosity,” she said. “It’s like a strip tease, a come-hither look,” making the reader keep reading because they don’t quite understand it. I try to be engaging, not bewildering.”

Orlean honed her talent and productivity (including nine books, from which two hit films – Blue Crush and Adaptation emerged) in the 1980s at the Boston Phoenix, which she’s credited for teaching her to be enterprising and to search for unusual story ideas.

Orlean has since written nine books, from which two hit films emerged—Blue Crush and Adaptation. She’s now finishing a book about libraries, which tries to solve the 30-year-old mystery of who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library.

She’ll often sit around quietly—at a trailer park or gospel tour—soaking up information.

Unlike most reporters, she profiles people who haven’t been interviewed and have nothing to gain by talking to her. She said that her profiles aren’t “neat,” like the “trend” stories she dislikes because they start with an editor’s conclusion of what’s “true” and plug in examples to support that.

“Often stories change, and it’s not good if the story doesn’t change while you’re reporting it,” she says.

And being there alters the situation, Orlean freely notes. She tries to replicate the oral tradition, acknowledging that all reporting is just her take on events. “It’s not possible to be objective, comprehensive. It’s more important to be honest.”

She’ll pull herself in for comic relief, as in her Esquire profile of a 10-year-old who deftly shot kibbles at her. “I don’t overprepare,” she says. “I immerse myself in the world and let events unfold.”


Davis uses a similar technique, explaining, “If I plan too much I lose momentum.”

Long or short? Letter of complaint or personal essay? First, second, or third person? These only emerge as she keeps writing, says Davis. “I let the material be in control. If I plan too much I lose momentum. One question will occur to me, and I’ll let it go from there.”

She started by writing very traditional short stories but realized she didn’t have to do that—she could do something else.

Davis, who discusses her method in-depth in a long Q&A with the Paris Review, says she had a “great feeling of liberation” when she abandoned the traditional “well-made” stories.

She revises intensely, aware that her one and two sentence stories can fail if a single word is wrong—or even a punctuation mark. In the last line of what turned out to be a poem, she called the comma crucial:

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will
go, someday.
Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Once called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” she’s won the renowned Man Booker International Prize but admits that some people don’t see the point of what she writes. They may be bewildered by stunts like turning a complaint about the packaging of frozen peas into an essay/short short story/whatever.

But she keeps on keeping on, deploring what she calls today’s “bottom line” literary atmosphere and relying on fellow writers, not agents or publishers, for support.

She worries that young authors have to deal with agents saying they have to produce “a novel that sells.” She advises them to continue to write what they want and make money somewhere else.

“I never expected to earn my living from writing,” she says.

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

One thought on “Susan Orlean and Lydia Davis, masters of the unexpected

  1. Chester C Copeland

    In my opinion a review like this that doesn’t mention if there’s an audio/video option is subpar.

    My search says no…so far.

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