Jenny Davidson is hooked on sentences

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davidsonJenny Davidson likes sentences.  More than that.  She says that “sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child…” She wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.  And she has. The Columbia University Press blog has an interview with her about her new book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences.

An excerpt:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

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Q: Chapter 2 is intriguingly titled “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing,” so what are some of these advantages?

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Many hats.

JD: The names in the title are drawn not directly from life but from one of my favorite novels, Helen DeWittThe Last Samurai, which among other things is a brilliant and profound examination of the relationship between morality and prose style. The kinds of bad writing DeWitt’s protagonist attributes to the characters she dubs “Lord Leighton” and “Liberace” are not redeemable. But other kinds of bad writing are, or at least that’s what I want to argue. George Eliot is a good bad writer, and so is Lionel Shriver: in the case of each of these authors, there is a kind of muscular intellectual force that bludgeons you and impresses itself on you at one and the same time. The sentences are often slightly cringe-worthy, but it is in aid of a greater good. Harry Stephen Keeler is another writer I single out for praise—the supposed “badness” of his writing really strikes me as a kind of imaginative strangeness that amounts at times to genius. If we always restrict ourselves to books written in the best possible taste, we risk losing a whole continuum of aesthetic and moral effects.

She also has a blog called Light Reading.  “For me, blogging has not been a form of personal revelation,” she said to Columbia News. “Light Reading mostly gives me a way to comment on what I’m reading, watching or otherwise thinking about in a mode that’s at once less formal and more flexible than a conventional book review or an academic article. The personal voice of the blogger is part of what draws us to a given blog, but I don’t find myself drawn—either as a reader or a writer—to very personal blogs.

 


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