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Is Lydia Davis a poet?

Is Lydia Davis a poet?

Lydia Davis, the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize, was recently in Paris, the city where she says she first learned to write. She did a turn at Shakespeare and Co, the legendary left bank bookshop that also hosted a panel discussion by the 2015 Man Booker International judges. Paris's littérateurs turned out in droves and a podcast of Davis's event can now be heard by those who weren't lucky enough to be there in person. Among the readings and questions, she did reveal a curious bit of information. Asked whether she calls her very short stories poems or prose she commented: “some of the short pieces I did write intending them to be poems. Others I intended them to be prose, but wanted the lines to be broken because I wanted you to stop at the end of those lines . . . I never considered myself a poet”. She went on to say that “There’s a certain ploddingness to prose that I like. It can be repetitious in an interesting way with language. But I wanted that sort of heaviness. 'Jane and cane.' I didn’t want it to be too lyrical.” Not many writers will confess to a wariness about lyricism and a fondness for the plodding.

Graham Swift, Booker winner in 1996 with Last Orders, has turned short story writer too: his latest book is England and Other Stories. In an interview coinciding with its publication he gave a nicely no-nonsense defence of what fiction writers do: “I begin with nothing, or next to nothing. Some kind of flicker or tingle. People don't always like this word but it's done by art. There's some kind of ability on top of sheer instinct. You have to gradually understand it but it's art, and art is something some people have and some people don't.” This may seem unarguable to most readers, but it is not what the legion of students who attend the nation's burgeoning creative writing courses will want to hear.

A few weeks ago, pictures emerged from the set of the forthcoming television adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. They showed Damian Lewis in costume as Henry VIII. Now some long-lens snaps have emerged showing the central figure, Thomas Cromwell as played by Mark Rylance (and, for good measure, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Wolsey). Taken on set at the Tithe Barn in Bradford on Avon, they show the actors being drenched in water in preparation for an early scene where Cromwell escorts the cardinal down the Thames on a rainy night. What will be cut from the final version are scenes of Rylance between takes munching his way through a bag of crisps. But then Cromwell's father was a Putney inn owner, so bar snacks are not that out of place.

Spare a thought for the Guardian journalist Sarah Hall. She has written about the difficulties of sharing a name with a more celebrated writer, in this case the Sarah Hall who was Man Booker shortlisted in 2004 (The Electric Michelanglo) and longlisted in 2009 (How to Paint a Dead Man). Journalist Hall now signs her letters “Sarah Hall (not the Man Booker-shortlisted one.)” A couple of Man Booker novelists have taken the opposite course and adopted pseudonyms: two previous winners for example, John Banville and Julian Barnes, both write crime novels under assumed names – Benjamin Black and Dan Kavanagh. Galling though for any writers whose name genuinely is Benjamin Black or Dan Kavanagh.

Lastly, the Evening Standard this week revealed some of the top names from the 2014 London Literature Festival, which takes place at the Southbank Centre from 30 September - 13 October. Highlights include Man Booker authors Hilary Mantel (who will read a new story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher) and Colm Tóibín, as well as Stephen Fry, Ranulph Fiennes and a celebration of the life of the late Maya Angelou. The festival will end on a high, however, as the 2014 shortlisted authors take to the stage on Monday 13 October with their annual Man Booker Prize readings – the night before the 2014 winner is announced at London’s Guildhall.

Lydia Davis with The Man Booker International Prize 2013