Monday, May 13, 2013

"Scotland has so few trees"

The Trossachs, Scotland
The title story of Lydia Davis's 2002 short story collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant is, in full:

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:
that Scotland has so few trees.

What I love about this story—pruned back in the way that a certain kind of experimental short fiction writer prunes—is not that it plays with style or our sense of what a short story is or its brevity (already such tricks don't really shock anymore). I like the way it plays with genre.


Does this count as historical fiction? It takes a real-life historical figure and attributes a thought and an emotion to him. But what if that thought and emotion were also real—if they were documented somewhere, like in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson? Would that then make this a piece of non-fiction? How would these two lines differ from a two-line excerpt, taken at random, from Boswell's Life? To choose just one:
Johnson had a very sincere esteem for Mr. Thrale, as a man of excellent principles, a good scholar, well skilled in trade, of a sound understanding, and of manners such as presented the character of a plain independent English Squire.
How is this any less a "complete" narrative than Davis's story? And why is it that we don't consider this a piece of historical fiction—although, stripped of context and repurposed, it's potentially as much a new creation as "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:"? Where is the line between history and not, fiction and not?

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