Davidson (English and Comparative Literature/Columbia Univ.; The Magic Circle, 2013, etc.) encourages readers to hone their critical skills and develop “a deeper comprehension of how to know which objects reward such scrutiny.”
Taking issue with the idea that literature teaches about life, the author maintains that the “main reward of reading a novel” is not “becoming a slightly better person.” Instead, Davidson reads for the pleasure of style: the sparkle of a well-chosen word, the topography of a well-crafted sentence and the “acoustical elegance of aphorism.” She considers distinct stylistic elements, exemplified by extensive passages from the many works that Davidson admires, some predictably canonical: Jane Austen’s Emma, whose prose “is remarkable in being at the same time supremely stylized, crafted, controlled and also exceptionally productive of identification and empathy”; Moby-Dick (“electrifyingly strange, mesmerizing, lovely”; Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, whose sentences “display a virtually unprecedented subtlety and complexity.” Some contemporary writers also merit praise, such as Jonathan Lethem, whose The Fortress of Solitude Davidson found “immensely satisfying in the exact placement of the words”; Yiyun Li, for her short stories but not her first novel; Alan Hollinghurst, for The Line of Beauty; crime writer Harry Stephen Keeler, whose “use of simile and comparison is strikingly imaginative”; and Lydia Davis for the “chewy” quality of her compressed stories. Others fail to meet Davidson’s exacting standards: She cites Alice Munro, Alice McDermott and William Trevor as writers whose emotional landscapes are “woefully narrow” and exemplary of “the sort of self-absorption” pervasive in North American literary short stories. The author of four novels, Davidson confesses her own frustration with what she sees as the artificiality of made-up characters and plots.
Davidson prefers the intellectual challenge of analyzing “a problem or a situation” such as the problem she astutely considers here: how writers create the splendid prose that readers cherish.