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The Problem of Other Minds

Maggie Doherty, interviewed by Merve Emre

Maggie Doherty

Maggie Doherty

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

Maggie Doherty and I have known each other for thirteen years, which I know because I met her at the same party where I met my husband. For the past thirteen years, she’s been the person that I speak to daily about reading, writing, and teaching. Maggie is even-keeled, generous, and, above all, supremely responsible, which is a quality that I sometimes find lacking in the criticism that I read. She’s also the most catholic critic that I know. She knows how to gain pleasure from different kinds of objects, how to judge fairly and graciously, how to check her antagonisms (and mine), and for that I count myself lucky. Her approach to whatever she writes about is profoundly humane and convivial. Reading her is like listening to her have a conversation with the author she’s writing about. She tends to write about both the past and present of feminism and about the communities in which feminist ideas can become realities.

Doherty has a Ph.D. from Harvard, where she teaches in the English department. She’s the author of The Equivalents, a history of some of the extraordinary women who went to Radcliffe’s Institute for Independent Study, that was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. For The New Yorker, she’s written on Adrienne Rich, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Tillie Olsen, Delmore Schwartz, and Carson McCullers, and her byline has also appeared in The Yale Review, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, n+1, Parapraxis, and The New Republic.

Merve Emre: You have listened to the podcast, and you’ve read enough of the interviews to know what my first question is going to be. Many of the people in our audience are college students. Tell us the story of how you got from where they are to where you are today.

Maggie Doherty: It was not a very straight or deliberate path, but I hope that makes it more illuminating for all of you. I was a big reader, as many lonely misfit children are, but reading for me felt like a private experience. It was something I did if things were tricky at home, if things were tricky at school. There was an escapist element to it. I could take a book and go elsewhere. It felt like there was a screen or a silo around me, taking me out of whatever situation I was in. But I didn’t share that with anyone. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know that you could talk to other people about books. I didn’t know anyone who wanted to talk about books.

College was the first place where I felt like this private experience could be shared. Some of that was happening in the classroom, with faculty and classmates around the seminar table, but a lot of it was happening with a group of friends that I fell in with in my early twenties. These were people from many different political and ideological positions, but they all agreed that art and ideas were important, and this was truly a revelation to me. I hadn’t met anyone who thought that. I hadn’t been in that kind of community before. We all lived together. It’s going to sound very precious, but we would read poems before dinner. Someone would make dinner, someone would pick a poem. We would listen to music together. We would run into each other’s rooms bursting to share what we were reading.

There was a lot of enthusiasm, but also analysis. That was cool to me, that you could like something and share it with someone and not just say, “You have to listen to this,” but, “You have to listen to this because there’s something interesting about it,” or “there’s something that I don’t understand about it.” Or “Come see this play with me so we can talk about it.” The other thing that was cool was that this was not a professionally preparatory mode of talking about art and books. These people did not go on to become writers. One is a farmer. One is a doctor. We weren’t associated with the student newspaper or the literary magazine—not that those are bad things to be associated with, but it felt as though our conversations were separated from questions of productivity and deadlines and structures. They were free-flowing.

That was my first experience of criticism.  I didn’t know it was criticism at the time. I didn’t know that criticism existed. I wrote my academic papers, but I was not a very worldly college student; I was a little bit naive. I didn’t come from a place where people read The New Yorker or Harper’s or had Ph.D.s. I had a job at the library. I would always try to get a shift in the periodicals reading room. I discovered old issues of The New York Review of Books and thought, Wow, this is cool. But I didn’t realize that this was still happening, that you could go get a fact-checking position or an internship there. Or I vaguely knew, but I thought, That’s for kids who went to private school. I just didn’t see it as something I could participate in.

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You have, at this point, referenced class in two ways. One, the kinds of jobs available at a magazine like TheNew Yorker or TheNew York Review of Books are for kids who went to private school. Two, you didn’t grow up in a place where people were reading and talking about books as part of the day-to-day texture of their lives. Can you reflect a little bit on class consciousness in literary education?

I don’t want to misrepresent my own life story. I grew up in a town outside of Boston. My parents were both upwardly mobile Irish Americans. Their families had been working class, and their parents didn’t go to college. My parents both went to college. This was something that happened to a lot of their milieu in the sixties and early seventies: education became accessible. My parents had college educations, and they read. I don’t want to suggest that I was coming from a place where no one valued these things at all. The town I grew up in, where my family didn’t quite fit in—I certainly didn’t fit in—was a very status-conscious town. I was aware of my status early, but I didn’t know that it had a class marker or signifier. I just knew that there was something wrong or odd about me and my family, and I didn’t really know what that meant. I don’t think I had the language to think about this until much later in life. I wouldn’t say it’s given me a different way of thinking about my own life so much as it’s given me a way of thinking about why certain ideas or texts or concerns have appealed to me.

Back to college: You have this wonderful group of friends to which I do not yet belong. You’re all talking about books and art and music, and then out of college you decide to go to graduate school.

I did that naively and kind of blithely. I had always wanted to be a high school English teacher. This was the job that my parents encouraged me to do, and this was what I was planning to do. I had a professor who said, “You could be a college-level English teacher.” I thought, “That sounds great. Why not?” I applied to graduate school, got into a program, and showed up, and was so intimidated. I was surrounded by brilliant people. A lot of them had done master’s degrees, a lot of them were much older. In addition to being a little bit intimidated, one thing I noticed was the way that they thought and talked about books seemed very different from the kinds of conversations that I’d been having, both as an undergraduate and among my friends. It felt like they had these ideas and arguments, and then they found books that they could use to illustrate those ideas and arguments, which was not intuitive for me.

The best comparison I can make is to when I took calculus in high school as someone who has no head for numbers. I had a friend who helped me every day after school to figure out how to do calculus, and I realized at one point that this actually made sense to him. He understood what the formulas were, whereas I was just memorizing the formulas. I could recognize the problem, I could apply the formula, I could do the calculation, but it didn’t make sense. I didn’t have an intuitive grasp of it. That’s how I felt about academic literary study at the postgraduate level. I could figure out the moves, I could imitate them, I could deploy them, but on some basic level, it just didn’t make sense to me.

What didn’t make sense to you? What does make sense to you when you approach a novel or a poem?

It’s a good question, and one that always throws me back on myself a little bit. As a reader I’m going on intuition a lot, a gut sense of what I’m taking away from a text or a story. If I’m researching a piece, I often have a sense of what the story is. What’s the conflict? What’s the tension? But I can’t form it in language initially. I remember the first piece I wrote for a magazine; I was sitting with someone and they said, “What is it that you really want to say about this writer?” I started weeping, because I couldn’t put it in words yet. That’s not my process. I have to take a long walk and wait for sentences to come into my head. Before that, I might think, This is about pain, this is about loss, this is an inner conflict about childhood. I know that’s what I want to say, but I don’t yet know what angle I’m going to take or how I’m going to say it. That was how I came to postgraduate study. I often found I was in that inarticulate place of instinct and intuition, but school was a space where I felt like I needed to have language very early.

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Were you unhappy in graduate school?

Yes and no. In some ways it was a wonderful education. I’m not someone who seeks out texts because I think I should read them. I read what I feel drawn to. Being in graduate school, where someone said, “You should read Beowulf; you should read Marx; you should read Hegel; you should read Heidegger…”—I would not have done that on my own. I know many people who would. It’s a little bit like the fox and the hedgehog. I’m more of a hedgehog. I’m like, “Give me an author. I’m going to read everything they wrote.” I envy my fox friends who say, “I want to read a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I want a big breadth of knowledge.” Having had to read history and political theory, I got a much more robust sense of the world, of ideas, of arguments. And the people I was in grad school with were amazing. They were so smart, and so generous, and it was not a competitive environment in the way you might expect. I learned how to write a dissertation from my classmates. I learned how to write a conference paper. Going through that gauntlet together was wonderful.

But then—I think I sent this to you over text recently—I found an old Google Chat with someone I was in graduate school with. I was twenty-five. I had just gone through my second set of oral exams, about my dissertation project. I was saying again and again, “I don’t think this is right for me. I don’t think this is a good fit for me.” He was saying, “Everyone feels that way. It’s the beginning of a dissertation. You’ll figure it out.” Going back to this idea of a gut instinct, I had the sense it wasn’t right for me.

There’s maybe a longer history here about the cross-pollination of magazines and graduate school, but a bunch of people arrived in graduate school who had worked for magazines in New York, who were themselves freelance writers and editors. I started hanging out with them and talking about books. We’d talk about Marilynne Robinson, about Lydia Davis, about whatever we were reading. There were a few of these people in my social circle, and they said, “You should write this up for us.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘Write this up?’ I’m not a writer.” I wrote academic papers, of course, but I didn’t think of myself as someone who could write for magazines. It was so interesting to hear them say that it was natural to go from having an excited conversation to writing something. That didn’t seem weird to them. Here you are, you’re talking in this incredibly intense and passionate way about what you’re reading. Why not just write about it? So I did.

Do you remember the first piece that you wrote?

There were a few early pieces. One was that one that you commissioned from me for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I forgot about that. What was that on?

It was on Marisha Pessl’s novel Night Film. You and I were talking a lot about books. It seemed there was a version of our conversation that could be written for the magazine you were editing. That happened a couple of different times to me. I remember talking to an editor at n+1 about Lydia Davis, who I was really into at the time. He said, “Try writing this up for us.”

It was very hard at first. When I talk about intuition, I don’t mean something that feels right is going to come easily, or just fall out of you. That was not my experience. I had to learn how to write in a different mode, for a different audience. I sent my first draft to my editor at n+1, and he wrote me this long memo that said, “Maybe something’s gone wrong here, and I’m so sorry if it has.” He took it to the rest of the editors, and they said, “We can’t run this,” and I had to take it back. I had to go back to the drawing board and write a second full draft. It was hard, but the way that criticism came out of conversations felt exciting and natural, like something I had to pursue. I kept at it, but it was a craft that I really had to learn.

Toward the end of graduate school you and I were, memorably, finalists for the same job that neither of us got. Then we lived together for a year up in Cambridge when I was there for a fellowship, which was the happiest year of my life. I was pregnant, and my husband was in New York, and I would come live with you for four days during the week, and then go home to New York for three days. I thought it was the greatest life anyone could imagine. I remember you working on these pieces while we were living together, and I remember the question of whether you would become a full-time writer or become an academic was still an open one for you. Do you feel like you resolved it one way or another?

I was speaking to someone at a university press recently for a piece I’m working on, and he reminded me that universities have capacious missions. There’s a lot that happens in a university. It’s not just teaching and scholarship. It’s also not just tenure-track writing.

Part of my life right now takes place in universities. I teach creative writing classes. I teach creative nonfiction classes. I teach many different things at many different places. Sometimes I’m teaching journalism. Sometimes I’m teaching criticism. Teaching still feels like being part of academic life. It’s not necessarily the kind of academic life that I was trained to inhabit, or that was initially presented to me in my Ph.D. program. It’s the kind of academic life that more and more people have these days, and that I think universities are more interested in. This event is an example of that. It’s true that I did not pursue tenure-track, research-oriented positions, but I’m around students and classrooms and researchers all the time, so I feel very much part of the academic community.

I framed that question badly because of my own feelings about the writer-academic binary. I shy away from both descriptors, which makes me inclined to binarize them. You did decide to write a nonfiction book, a book that is partly a work of literary scholarship, but also a broad cultural and social history of the Radcliffe Institute and the women in it. Why do that instead of turning your dissertation into a monograph?

I’ve never been super strategic or good at planning for the future. I tend to be improvisational: What can I do right now? The Equivalents was an opportunity that presented itself. I’d written a book review, and then I was contacted by an agent who asked, “Do you have any ideas for a book?” I had a stray idea that had been part of my dissertation on the National Endowment for the Arts. I had read about the writer Tillie Olsen, whom I really admire. She’s a compass for me for how to marry political activism to writing to family and community organizing. I’d learned that she’d spent some time at this Radcliffe Institute, which I didn’t know that much about. I tried to shoehorn it into my dissertation, but it didn’t work. When I met with the agent, he said that it sounded promising. I ran with it because it seemed like the right idea at the time for me. I had no idea what I was doing. That’s a theme here.

I think there is something useful about situations in which you need to figure out how to do things. To think, “I need to learn how to do this. This is going to be hard. I’m going to be learning on the job here.” That’s what writing that book was. Now I knew how to write trade nonfiction. Now I knew how to write biographical criticism. That was something I could then go out and do. I don’t know that I would have had that idea prior to writing that book. It was in doing it that I figured it out.

The other thing that you’ve learned how to do is to organize people, to organize communities, for a particular political purpose. I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between your organizing work and your writing.

I once thought that I would write about this, but then realized that it was resistant to the kind of narrative writing I like to do. Organizing is always hard to write about. If any of you have been in activist circles, organizing involves a lot of meetings, a lot of delegating, a lot of getting people out to vote for the union.

There are two opposite directions of influence there. On the one hand, I think that organizing work involves going out, talking to people, getting to know them, getting to know what they care about, getting to know what their problems are, getting to know what their ideas for fixing those problems are. It’s a very intimate form of interaction. I remember when someone who was training me to be an organizer told me that people will be suspicious of you because they will think that you’re feigning interest, but the trick of organizing is to be interested. If that’s genuine, it’s a great organizing tool. But it’s also a great way to fuse political work and human commonality or human intimacy. I write a lot about people, about psychological depth, about inner conflicts, about political movements. Those stories have probably benefited from the organizing work that I’ve done.

At the same time, it takes a lot of time to organize. For a while, I had a job at a union, and I found that was the kind of job that was really hard to make work with a writing life, because you had to go out and be away from your desk all the time, and you had to be talking to people all the time, and you would come home tired, and you would have things that came up again and again.

Every time you said “organizing,” I wanted to replace it with “teaching.” I’m wondering if you experience teaching in a similar way: it is fundamentally about creating an interest that you then absorb and project to the people that you are teaching. Are teaching, organizing, and writing related or distinct intellectual projects for you?

That’s a great analogy. The analogy I would be more tempted to make is between criticism and teaching, because in both cases I’m trying to get out of the way. That’s true in a good organizing conversation as well. They say in a good organizing conversation you’re listening 70 percent of the time, but there’s still a sense that I’m interrupting this person’s daily life and trying to draw them out. Whereas with the critical work I do, I’m always trying to tell a story about a person.

That person could be real, historical, or fictional. But that’s how I think of it, as a kind of storytelling. I want my interpretations, my prose style, all of it, to be as transparent as possible. I want people to feel that they are accessing that person and that story. I do feel that that is my teaching persona; I try to make a classroom setting where students feel excited, invested. They’re having a conversation, and I am shaping and directing it as delicately and invisibly as possible. There’s a kind of self-erasure that I try to perform in both spaces.

One thing that occurs to me is the balance you strike between the story of an individual and the way that story has a shape that is historically generalizable. I’m thinking of a piece that you wrote for TheYale Review on abortion stories. How do you think about telling the story of an individual, who is singular in his or her psychology, but also generic or typical? How do you use the individual’s story to excavate a larger set of historical, political, and social concerns?  

I’m so glad you introduced the language of type, which is one of your interests as well. I know that you and I think a bit differently about the uses of type, because I am a typological thinker. I love a system, I love a taxonomy, I love a personality quiz.

You’re right to say that people are both irreducibly themselves, entirely original, and illustrative or emblematic of historical moments. And we can recognize someone as embodying a certain kind of experience that is familiar to us while realizing that we are not that person. That’s my whole approach to criticism. I write a lot about dead people. I tend to not write that much about contemporary stuff. I tend to get assignments about writers, who are mostly well known, who have been part of the canon or literary conversation for a while. I read a lot about their life. I read interviews with them in addition to their work. I often find myself saying, “I know this person.” I have been friends with this type of person, my mom is like this person, I’ve dated this person. When I catch myself doing it, I have to do two things. I have to recognize that I don’t know this person, that this is a fantasy of intimacy and recognition, because this person is actually mysterious to me in a very deep way. Any other person is mysterious to us in a very deep way. That’s one of the main “problem of other minds” that we have.

At the same time I feel like those moments of recognition can be useful to me in writing if I recognize a familiar type of conflict someone has, or a familiar dilemma, or a familiar kind of experience. I wrote a piece about Edna St. Vincent Millay in which I said, “This is the story of someone who came from a hardscrabble life and went to Vassar and found herself famous.” That is a type of story we tell, an upward mobility story, and my own recognition is going to inform the way I write about Millay, even though it’s not the whole story of Millay. Not everyone who comes from a hardscrabble existence and goes to Vassar or Wesleyan is the same person. That dance is what I often feel like I’m doing in my writing.

 Sometimes you’re in the middle of an experience. You don’t really understand this experience, it’s intense, it’s really overwhelming. One option is to write about it autobiographically, or in autobiographical fiction. There’s a character like you, they’re having the same experiences, you can alter the narrative, and that’s one way to work through it. I think, had my life gone a little bit differently, that’s what I would be doing. I would be writing autobiographically, or I’d be writing fiction. But because my life took the twists and turns that it did, I write criticism and biography, but I’m doing the same thing quite often. I’m thinking, “Okay, I need to work through this experience. I’m going to pick a subject—I’m going to pick a book or a writer or historical figure—who has experienced the same thing.” I’m going to write about it as a way of working through what I’m experiencing myself.

Then the restraint, the constraint, is not to impose my own experience on the thing I’m writing about. That’s, I think, the sort of different challenge: “I think this is a crisis. I’m writing about someone for whom it wasn’t a crisis. Is there a way in which my experience is not a crisis, actually?” Does this cause me to reflect and better understand what I’m going through? Was my initial instinct not the full story? I do that all the time. The book that I wrote was in part a way to reckon with the story of our house, our living arrangement, where we lived among women and friends and fellow writers, and then it went away. I wanted to understand what that experience was so I wrote a book about another group of women who were writers and artists and were friends and lived together, and that was part of my autobiographical writing, even though I’m not present in the text. 

Speaking of emblematic forms that have singularities inside of them, I will ask you all to please open your eggs. Maggie, do you want the pink egg or the blue egg?

I’ll take the blue egg.

I think the way to begin, Maggie, is for you to simply read what has emerged from your egg.

And I’m assuming everyone has the same egg.

Yes, everybody has the same egg.

We’re all the same, ultimately.

This is a short narrative piece. It is three paragraphs, and I will read them. The title is “Egg.”

The word for egg in Dutch is ei. In German it is Ei, in Yiddish ey, in Old English ey. The word for egg in Norwegian is egg, in Icelandic it is egg, in Faroese egg, in Swedish ägg, in Danish aeg. In Old Norse the word is egg, in Middle English egge. (In French it is œuf.) (In Scots Gaelic it is ugh.)

Two American babies, long ago, are learning to speak—they are learning English, they have no choice. They are close to eighteen months old, one is a week older than the other. Sometimes they fight over a toy, at other times they play quietly by themselves in the same room.

On the living room floor, today, one baby sees a round white thing on the rug. He gets to his feet, with some difficulty, and toddles over to it. He says, “Eck?” At this, the other one looks up, interested, gets to his feet, also with some difficulty, toddles over to see, and says, “Ack!” They’re learning the word, they’ve almost got it. It does not matter that the round white object is not an egg but a ping-pong ball. In time, they will learn this, too.

Do you recognize it?

I recognize its style, so I can make an educated guess. One question I always ask when I have a text in front of me is, What type of text is this? I would say this is a short story, but a very short story. Not a four-page short story, and not a Hemingway “baby shoes” short story. It’s written by someone with a capacious intelligence who is very interested in language, and is interested in multiple meanings, multiple definitions, and multiple versions of the same word. The stylistic signature that most gives it away to me, though, is the repetition in the third paragraph of “also with some difficulty.” “He gets his feet, with some difficulty, and toddles over to it… The other one looks up, interested, gets his feet, also with some difficulty, and toddles over to it.” That is a Lydia Davis trademark repetition. I don’t know the story, but I think I do know the author.

Let’s bracket the identity of the author for a moment.

A difficult thing for a biographical critic to do.

We can come back to it, but bracketing it for a mere moment, how do you think about this as you are reading it? What interests you? Where does your eye go? Walk us through your thoughts.

With short fiction like this, I ask some of the same questions I ask of lyric poetry, which I learned from the great Helen Vendler. Two questions she always asked were, Who is the speaker, and, What is the situation? It situates us in the space and time that have provoked the lyric speaker into utterance. We don’t really have a lyric speaker here, but I am thinking, what is the situation for this? Someone is observing two young children playing, recognizing an object, or trying to recognize that object, and trying to narrate that recognition. This prompts in the speaker a meditation on the word “egg.” I would read it as a nonlinear narration of that experience. The experience of watching the babies comes first, and the meditation on the many words for egg came afterward for the speaker, but is placed at the beginning of the narrative.

Another situation would be that we have a taxonomic thinker about language, who is interested in this word and its variations or evolution across languages, and they need a situation to model the way that the word travels. What makes you opt for the nonlinear reading as opposed to the linear one?

I have no firm evidence for it. I can’t say I see this happening in the text itself. This is going back to methodology or the way we think about texts. Because I think of texts as the product of an author, I tend to think of texts as narrated by a person. It’s very hard for me to detach people from texts. I struggle with fiction that centers the non-human for that reason.

“This is narrated by the clouds.”

That’s hard for me to engage with. It’s the kind of stuff that I can admire, but it’s not going to lend itself to my particular interpretive moves. Even if I’m bracketing Davis, I can’t not see the text as the meditation or thought process of a person in the world. That’s always my starting point. I don’t know that that excludes or makes impossible the reading you outlined, but I think it’s why I gravitate to the nonlinear version first.

You have come out as a humanist.

I’m an unredeemed, unrepentant humanist.

Why two American babies, why “long ago,” and why the qualification that “they are learning English, they have no choice?” Do any of those phrases leap out to you when you’re doing the nonlinear reading?

“They have no choice” is the obvious phrase that leaps out. I’m curious to see if that leapt out to other people, because it suggests a kind of constraint, which is an interesting way to think about the sense of possibility that these children are feeling. They’re feeling the world become legible and intelligible to them. This narrator or speaker, depending, is saying, No, this is actually an experience of limitation. This is an experience of not having access to the multiple possibilities that exist in the world. I think that might back up your interpretation, that this is someone who’s already thinking of how many ways there are to say “egg,” and now is remembering. The “long ago” also clues us in temporally, that maybe this is someone who is meditating on the word egg and remembering in this experience. Both parts of the sentence demand to be read or interpreted because they are unusual.

The words for egg are different, but they’re not that different. To what extent is all language, whatever the specific language may be, a limitation that we encounter in our attempts to convert our ideas into communicable entities that we can share with other people?

There’s a commonality, going back to the universal and singular. We could think about the experience of babies learning to walk or speak as a kind of universal experience, no matter who you are. You might not be an American baby learning English, but you are a baby learning to name and recognize the world.

This is the same sort of dilemma or doubleness that you see in something like psychoanalysis, another shared interest of ours. On the one hand, you can be diagnosed with something that indicates a way of being in the world. But also, you may need seven years of talking about your family and childhood four days a week to understand yourself. This text is also playing with that. Childhood and coming into knowledge, coming into language is similar, but it has these very specific limitations depending on who the child is in the world.

What do you think of these babies?

They’re wrong. They’re making the wrong critical interpretation. They’re using the wrong words.

What do you think about these babies as critics? You’re joking, but I think there’s something to that joke.

In a way, it’s echoing what’s happening in the first paragraph, where the narrator is throwing a bunch of words at the object and saying, It’s this, it’s that, it’s all these things. The babies are doing the same thing. They’re saying, it’s “eck,” it’s “ack.” They’re wrong, because it’s a Ping Pong ball. The adult figure who is narrating the text is not that dissimilar from the babies who are trying to narrate the world as they see it.

I’ll out myself as a fan of earlier Davis rather than later Davis, because I don’t find the word meditations or the language play as compelling. The pathos for me is at the end of the story. They’re learning the word. They’ve almost got it. It doesn’t matter that the round white object is not an egg but a Ping-Pong ball; in time, they will learn this, too. I like where the story ends much better than where it begins, because it ends with an experience of misrecognition or misunderstanding that to me is more poignant than using a word that’s not the right word in your language or using a different word to mean the same thing. It’s an egg. It’s the source of life. If you have children—I have a step-child—you see a child look at an egg, and they’re so excited because they think that it’s going to be a chick. That it’s going to be cute, that it’s going to be beautiful.

Oh, really? Mine are like, “That’s going to be lunch.”

Mine’s a vegetarian who’s never eaten chicken, so that’s the difference. But to say, no, it’s not that, it’s a plastic ball, they’re going to learn that the thing they see is hollow —that’s my favorite Davis move. Going back to this idea of constraint or limitation—“They have no choice”—introduces the idea that there’s something limited about the scene. The end drives that home. This beautiful, magical thing they thought they saw, they didn’t see. They saw something plastic. It’s something stray and uninteresting that’s not going to change. It’s not going to crack open. It’s not going to become something else. It is what it is. The children are imagining the object as being like them, something that’s going to grow and transform. But it’s not.

I spoke to her about this story, and one of the things that she told me was that she’d written the first part and then realized she needed something else. To go back to your judgment that the pathos comes at the end, do you think we need this cerebral, taxonomic beginning for the pathos of the end to hit the way that it does? Or would this story work without the first paragraph? If we lopped the first paragraph off this and it started, “Two American babies, long ago, are learning to speak,” would the end deliver the feeling that you’re describing?

I think we do need it. When I read stuff like this, I find myself saying, Yeah, yeah, yeah, move it along. I race through it. What I would like, because I’m addicted to longform narrative and explication, is connective tissue. I am an anti-fragmentary narrative person. There’s that space on the page. I want to see some way of connecting these things.

You want a yolk.

I do.

All egg white and no yolk is never satisfying.

That’s a limitation in me. If we go back to the idea of generative possibility, having it be two fragments is much more interesting. There’s much more possibility. You’re able to look into the white space and ask, What does this mean? What’s the difference? Are these the same people? It’s my penchant for certainty and definition that wants a character to say, “I was thinking about this,” or “I was writing this, and then I remember this.”

Let us unbracket the biographical, then. How do you think about biography as it relates to a story like “Egg”?

Doing biographical readings is always more challenging when the author is living and a biography and an archive doesn’t exist for them—again, why I tend to write about dead people. But I know that Lydia Davis works as a translator. I know that this is work for her as much as it is pleasure, that there’s some kind of duty in thinking about language this way, but also something pleasurable. It’s a path chosen. Translating is hard and not very remunerative. Obviously, someone who has decided to go into the business of translating is doing it in part out of love. Again, we have love and work and constraint and possibility coming together. I know that she is older. I know that she has had children. So, I’m thinking about what it would mean to look back—“long ago”—on that experience, and to think about what children once learned to do, and maybe they don’t learn to do in the same way anymore. Or maybe they are the universal.

I’m reluctant to be too biographical with this. When I write about contemporary writers, unless they are memoirists and writing about their own lives, I bracket the biography in part because I just don’t know it. Doing biographical work involves a lot of research into a life that you simply can’t do when someone hasn’t made that life available, as people do when they donate their papers or something like that.

Your reading of the end of this is making me think about narrating the life of fantasy. What we seem to have here in part is a very compressed story of what happens to reality and fantasy in everybody’s lives. The egg, as you said, is full of endless possibility. One can dream about what the egg will generate. A Ping-Pong ball is hollow. It makes terrible sounds. It’s made of cheap, artificial material. It is mass-produced and replaceable. I wonder if growing up is about realizing that an individual life is more of a Ping-Pong ball than an egg.

Now I’m going to do the thing that you both love and hate, and say maybe there’s a different way to think about it. What a shame that it’s a Ping-Pong ball, I’m thinking, a Ping-Pong ball is for play. It’s for something fun. It’s leisure. Maybe it isn’t a shame that we’re living in worlds full of playthings. I completely agree that there is something about misrecognizing, having a fantasy, having a beautiful vision that is then shattered. This is the experience of adulthood for some people. It was not my experience. It’s an interesting thing, to think about emerging from childhood as fundamentally disillusioning. Some people do. Maybe that lends itself to the more pathetic reading that I thought about earlier. But if you think about it, it’s not an egg, it’s a different object that we get to play with. Of course, language is an object that we get to play with. We see that at the beginning of the story as well. So maybe this spirit of learning doesn’t go away.

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