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4 October 2023

Lydia Davis’s war on Amazon

The short-story writer on why the tech giant’s profit-seeking is corrupting culture.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Lydia Davis has been fighting against Amazon for a long time. In her personal life, she has boycotted the online retailer for at least 15 years. The ubiquity and convenience of the “everything store” – which has hastened the demise of many high-street businesses – makes avoiding it difficult. That is itself a warning, Davis said. “If you can’t get it anywhere else, there’s something a little wrong with that, whether it’s a washing machine or a book.”

The 76-year-old author of short stories and essays first took against Amazon when she learned of the damage its cut-price offerings had done to independent bookshops. “Then gradually my eyes were opened to their terribly harmful working environments,” she said. “Amazon is too willing to work the workers to an extreme. It doesn’t treat them like human beings.” Over the last 12 months Amazon workers in the UK have gone on strike over pay, conditions and union rights. Meanwhile, the company maintains it operates a “safe, modern, work environment”. In September the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued Amazon, accusing it of illegally monopolising the online marketplace. (Amazon contests this.) The anti-trust case was brought by the FTC chair Lina Khan, who is intent on challenging the dominance of Big Tech firms. Amazon’s aggressive “pursuit of profit” alone is, Davis said, “very corrupting for our culture”.

In autumn 2021, Davis asked herself this: why, when she boycotted Amazon as a consumer, was she still selling her books on the platform? Her collection Essays Two was out in December, but the publishing process was too far advanced to change the sales agreements. “I determined that my next book would not be sold through Amazon, even if it meant I had to publish it myself with a little Xerox machine,” she said, laughing. “That was a good, firm decision, very clear.”

Davis wore a patterned blouse with a mandarin collar when she spoke via video call from her home in New York State. Behind her, a cat wandered along a wooden bench. The house she shares with her husband, the artist Alan Cote, is in a village between the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires. “It’s generally small hills and very wooded, with lots of streams. Of course, you think climate-wise, at least I always do, so climate-wise this is a relatively safe place to live, but everything can change.”

Davis is the pre-eminent practitioner of flash fiction. Her stories often run to just a few lines long, sometimes only one. Her sharp observations of even mundane human interactions are presented so vividly and economically that they feel like contemporary fables. Sometimes a final sentence acts as a punchline, turning the story into an artisanal joke. In others she pays attention to line placement, creating something closer to a poem. “Mature Woman Toward the End of a Discussion About Raincoats over Lunch with Another Mature Woman” reads, in full:

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She says, in a reasonable tone,

“It doesn’t have to be a Burberry!”

The dialogue is exactly as Davis overheard it, writing it down in her notebook as she waited in a New York restaurant. “I wouldn’t make it any bigger than it was,” Davis said, explaining that it was the title she spent time fine-tuning. “The seriousness of her answer struck me as very funny… It’s just a moment in time. I like catching glimpses of people in the midst of their lives.”

[See also: How Amazon became an everything company]

Born in Massachusetts in 1947, Davis studied at Barnard College, where she met the novelist Paul Auster – the pair were married between 1974 and 1978. She first worked as a translator from French. Her debut work of fiction, The Thirteenth Woman and Other Stories, was published by a small press in 1976. Her fourth book, Break It Down, was her first to be published by the major literary imprint Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) and with it she became a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Prize. In the years since, Davis has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. 

“What I love about Lydia’s work is its compressed, ‘ornery’ intelligence,” said the author George Saunders, who also writes short stories. “There’s so much wisdom in her work that results from what feels, from the reader’s side of things, like an act of loving distillation. Everything in the world, and everything available to us by way of literature, is right there in her stories.”

Our Strangers, Davis’s latest collection, is her first book in 37 years not to be published by FSG (now an imprint of Macmillan). Davis had a “very happy” relationship with the publisher, and with Hamish Hamilton, the Penguin Random House imprint that has published her in the UK since 2014. “But neither of them could sell without going through Amazon. FSG is contracted to sell through Amazon and could not make an exception for one book. And that’s a sign of how powerful Amazon is.” (A representative from Hamish Hamilton declined to comment on the details of its contract with Amazon. FSG did not respond to a request for comment.) Our Strangers will instead be published in the UK by the independent house Canongate, and in the US by Bookshop Editions, a new publisher set up by Bookshop.org, the retailer that launched in 2020 to rival Amazon. The collection will be sold only at physical bookshops, independent online retailers and Bookshop.org.

Davis is the first author to take such a stand. She was inspired by Dave Eggers, who refused to sell the hardback edition of his 2021 novel The Every through Amazon in the US. “He didn’t go as far as I wanted to go, but he led the way.” She spoke to Eggers’ publisher, who estimated that her decision to avoid Amazon might result in a 50 per cent loss of sales. She was unfazed. “I’m not going to backtrack and say, ‘Oh dear, no! I don’t want to lose all of those sales, I guess I better go with Amazon!’ Because then I would be putting money first.”

Davis no longer flies, because of the aviation industry’s role in the climate crisis – a decision that also has an impact on her income, because of the number of speaking engagements she turns down. “But in both cases I simply couldn’t bear it any more, couldn’t bear doing something so harmful.” Davis believes that the financial value of creative work should be spoken about openly. “We’re living in a culture that’s beginning to devalue the humanities. Culturally, it’s not a good time, with the emphasis on profit over ethical and human values.”

The majority of Davis’s time is now dedicated to her village’s “climate smart” committee, where she takes part in ecological landscaping, planting gardens that support native pollinators, which are in decline. Davis’s principles dictate her approach to life – but play a very different role in her fiction. This is “Men”, from the 2014 collection Can’t and Won’t:

“There are also men in the world. Sometimes we forget, and think there are only women – endless hills and plains of unresisting women. We make little jokes and comfort each other and our lives pass quickly. But every now and then, it is true, a man rises unexpectedly in our midst like a pine tree, and looks savagely at us, and sends us hobbling away in great floods to hide in the caves and gullies until he is gone.”

Its concision and humour makes it an archetypal Davis story. But its feminist position is rare for the author. “I don’t know where that comes from. I’ve not been terribly oppressed by males. I was not much of a feminist when I was young, not meaning I didn’t believe in the values, but I wasn’t an activist.” If she is asked today to list five influential writers, she has to be careful not to choose five men. “Many of my first writing heroes were men, not because they were men but because they were Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett. I didn’t like Virginia Woolf because of her snobbism.”

In her work, Davis refuses to moralise. She is more focused on observation. There are 144 stories in Our Strangers, and each is an exercise in restraint. While her short sentences and everyday vocabulary make her prose accessible, she often withholds information from the reader. In “Trying to Get in Touch with Her”, the narrator admits to not having spoken to “her” in more than ten years. It’s only once the reader nears the end of the 11 lines that Davis reveals the character is dead, her ashes kept in a “pretty jar” on a shelf. Davis is interested in delaying revelation so that “the information unfolds just the way I want it to”. Her style relies on linguistic and moral control.

Davis is far more alarmed about the climate crisis than other issues that dominate conversations in creative circles, such as the prospect of artificial intelligence (AI) rivalling humans: in the US several authors recently launched legal action against the firm OpenAI for feeding their works into its software. It has crossed her mind that “an AI entity” might be able to produce a story in her style. “But if your writing is very eccentric and individual… I know AI can make a story kind of like mine. I know it can. But it would probably just miss the mark slightly.”

For Lydia Davis, everything leads back to Amazon. Recently, the company, which has just invested $4bn in the AI start-up Anthropic, reportedly sold AI-generated guides to foraging, advising on which mushrooms are edible. But the guides weren’t accurate, and experts warned they might have deadly consequences. “I can add that to the list of Amazon’s crimes,” she said.

[See also: How I learned to ditch Amazon and fall in love with books again]

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power