UAlbany’s Lydia Davis earns Man Booker prize

Author Lydia Davis, a writing fellow with the New York State Writers Institute and associate profess

Author Lydia Davis, a writing fellow with the New York State Writers Institute and associate professor and writer-in-residence at the University at Albany, was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in the world of literature, on Thursday.

“Lydia is really on a roll,” said Don Faulkner, director of the Writers Institute. “We felt like she was well-positioned to win this award. She is very highly acclaimed as a translator, and one critic started out a review of her work with, ‘Not since Samuel Beckett,’ so that gives you a sense of how well she’s respected. She’s become more progressively skilled as a translator, and she’s also found her own very unique voice.”

Davis, a native of Northampton, Mass., who lives in southern Rensselaer County, was at the Hay Festival of Literature and Art in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales, on Thursday and was not available for comment.

The Man Booker award is given every two years to authors of any nationality in recognition of an outstanding body of work in English or available in English translation. Sir Christopher Ricks, chairman of the judges’ panel, said Davis’ “writings fling their lithe arms wide to embrace many a kind.”

Davis is primarily a short-story writer, and Ricks said in a news release her stories “could equally be miniatures, anecdotes, essays, jokes, parables, fables, texts, aphorisms or even apophthegms, prayers or simply observations. … There is a vigilance to her stories, and great imaginative attention.”

While the award was for Davis’ career as a translator and writer, much of her own original work was in her 2009 book, “The Collected Stories.” That book was a compilation of stories from four previously published volumes: “Varieties of Disturbance” (2007), “Samuel Johnson is Indignant” (2001), “Almost No Memory” (1997) and “Break it Down” (1986).

“She had done some small-press books that had kind of moved in and out of print, but to put all that work together between two covers was a great idea,” said Faulkner. “People had the opportunity, for the first time, to see her work together, and she was suddenly being reviewed by a lot of people and very much in the intellectual public eye. It made a very big impact.”

Davis, who won the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Award in 2003, will receive $91,000 as a recipient of the Man Booker award. Previous winners include Philip Roth (2011), Alice Munro (2009), Chinua Achebe (2007) and Ismail Kadare (2005).

“People say that Lydia has reinvented the notion of the short story,” said Faulkner. “Some of her stories are a paragraph long, and none of them are particularly long. What they are are slices of insight into the human character. Sometimes they’re dreamlike, some are surreal and some are very funny. I should say they’re also very profound and meaningful. But at no time would you call them a traditional short story.”

A Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, Davis first gained notoriety for her work translating great French literary fiction into English. Proust, Flaubert, Foucault, Michel Leiris and Pierre Jean Jouve are among the French authors Davis has translated, as well as Dutch writer A.L. Snijders.

In the fall 2013 semester at UAlbany, Davis will teach a free Community Writers Workshop. The workshop, over the course of several weeks, is open to the public on a competitive basis and sponsored by the Writers Institute. For information or to apply, visit

Davis has taught Community Writers Workshops for the institute on five previous occasions. She first came to UAlbany in 2000 as part of the institute’s Visiting Writers Series and joined the faculty and became an Institute Writing Fellow in 2002.

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