These pieces exalt clear language and the complicated work of looking and seeing ... Davis takes pure pleasure in the muscular act of looking, and invites us to look alongside her. She presents long passages of text for our inspection, like X-rays, teaching us to read Jane Bowles, for instance, clause by clause ... Davis returns to a series of virtues repeatedly: clarity, compression, frank emotion, oddness. She has a preference for overheard speech, 'tangled, yet correct, syntax,' and, very often, for writing that reinterprets a text or pokes fun at conventional, sentimental writing. The book itself embodies these qualities with its commentaries on writers and its puckish awareness of its own genre — those valedictory sermons on craft from the established writer, those moist and vague maunderings on the virtue of 'storytelling' ...'Read the best writers from all different periods,' she says. She’s right. Begin here.
The book’s raison d’etre is not to preserve these individual pieces—though some of what’s in here is quite worth saving—it’s to elevate Davis to the office of a Great American ... well, again, it’s hard to know what word to use. Let’s just agree that Davis, now 72, is an elder stateswoman of American letters ... when you read [Davis] at length—these essays run to more than 500 pages—you realize just how chewy and complicated she is ... It’s a pleasant surprise that Lydia Davis is so engaging on the subject of Lydia Davis. Few writers have anything useful to add to contextualize their art. Then again, few writers make the kind of work that really needs some explication...It’s refreshing to hear her explain herself...Or, most of the time anyway ... Anyone weighing going into debt for an MFA should know that they can instead buy this book ... She’s so deeply cerebral it’s perhaps counterintuitive that Davis is a companionable presence. She’s erudite, with catholic interests, and earnest but not humorless. This is the kind of book you could read alone in a restaurant and feel you’re lost in a stimulating conversation ... As a critic, she is perceptive, yes, but also truly engaged ... we can’t all be Lydia Davis, but thank god we have her.
As an essayist she is still admirably lucid, but she is simple in transparent sub-clauses; she is brief over 500 carefully honed pages. In this study of the craft of writing, Davis draws generously on her own experience as a writer and translator. When she is following a line of thought we feel, as she remarks about Stendhal’s experimental autobiography The Life of Henry Brulard, that 'we are privileged to watch what is really a very dramatic moment, enacted again and again,' of 'the unformed being formed, the internal becoming external, the private become public.' Though Davis herself resists the term 'experimental' as it implies a degree of intentionality alien to her, at their best these pieces always contain elements of experiment in their willingness to reach for what is not yet known ... Despite their stress on taxonomies, on knowing it all, Davis’s essays are continually pulled towards the incomplete and mysterious ... Davis grasps...that since any highly articulated picture is an illusion, 'a picture that seems less complete may seem less of an illusion,' and therefore more realistic. Essays One is full of such insights ... it achieves its form and its authority not through design, but through patient accumulation.