By Ana Nicolaci da Costa
LONDON (Reuters) - American short story writer Lydia Davis won the fifth Man Booker International Prize for fiction on Wednesday for a body of work that includes some of the briefest tales ever published.
Davis, a professor of creative writing at the University of Albany, is best known for work that Observer critic William Skidelsky once said "redefines the meaning of brevity".
She is also an accomplished translator whose English versions of Marcel Proust's "Du Cote de Chez Swann" (Swann's Way) and Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" helped earn her a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.
Davis said it was Proust's monumental work and famously long sentences that helped inspire her succinct writing style.
"Actually, when I was translating Proust was when I thought 'how short could a short story be?'" she told Reuters after receiving the 60,000 pound ($90,800) award in London. "I thought 'how little could you say and still have it work?'"
Some of Davis's longer stories may run to two, three, as many as nine pages, while others can be as brief as a paragraph or even just a sentence.
"Idea for a Short Documentary Film" in the 2009 "Collected Stories of Lydia Davis" reads:
"Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging."
Davis - who has only written one novel - beat out a shortlist of 10 contenders for the prize that included two authors banned in their home countries, the youngest ever nominee and one shortlisted for the second time.
Booker International panel chairman Christopher Ricks said 65-year-old Davis's stories embraced so many literary structures that it was hard to narrow them down to a single label.
"Should we simply concur with the official title and dub them stories?" Ricks said in a statement announcing the prize.
"Or perhaps miniatures? Anecdotes? Essays? Jokes? Parables? Fables? Texts? Aphorisms, or even apophthegms? Prayers, or perhaps wisdom literature? Or might we settle for observations?"
Davis' one novel is entitled "The End of the Story" and she has written seven story collections including "Break It Down", "Almost No Memory", "Samuel Johnson Is Indignant" and "Varieties of Disturbance".
A new collection, "Can't and Won't", is due to be published in the United States in 2014.
Davis is considered hugely influential by a generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, who once wrote that she "blows the roof off of so many of our assumptions about what constitutes short fiction."
The Man Booker International Prize is presented once every two years to a living author for a body of work published either originally in English or available in translation in the English language.
Previous winners include U.S. novelist Philip Roth in 2011, Canadian novelist Alice Munro in 2009, the late Nigerian poet and novelist Chinua Achebe in 2007 and Albanian writer Ismail Kadare in 2005.
(Reporting by Paul Casciato and Ana Nicolaci da Costa; editing by Mike Collett-White)