As I read Laura Snyder's recent book, Eye of the Beholder, today, I saw what I am always on the lookout for: a lucid prose style that doesn't call attention to itself but indicates not only careful thought and word choice but the kind of revision I admire. The language is precisely chosen and the sentence patterns varied.
Her non-fiction book, a study of Vermeer, the painter, and van Leewenhoek, his scientific friend in Delft who invented the microscope, explains, from the very first page, details of 17th century life in Holland clearly, with a mastery of information that is presented without pretension.
Even if the subject had not interested me, I would have read on and perhaps purchased the book--except that our house has too many books. Snyder is one of those historians who can explain complex issues in an interesting way, dropping little tidbits of information along with way, such as the origin of the word lens (it comes, she says, from the shape of the lentil!).
On the way home from the bookstore, I thought of several non-fiction writers who have the gift she shares with David McCullough and others: I think of the lesser known Peter Brown, historian of late antiquity, and R. W. Southern, who wrote about the Middle Ages with elegance.
My wife, Lynn, mentioned several writers of the recent past she loves who are overlooked today but are masters of style. One is James Herriott, the Yorkshire veterinarian who wrote several books on animals; another of her favorites is the detective writer Dorothy L. Sayers, who created Lord Peter Wimsey. The list could go on. Neither writer is fashionable these days.
In fiction, I admire (among the Brits) David Lodge's often comic style, Pat Barker and the late Anthony Burgess, not because of A Clockwork Orange, which is inventive, but his lesser known fictions. Among U.S. writers, there is Tobias Wolff, who, along with Mary Gordon, Julia Cameron, and Tim Parks, is always worth reading.
Why? Is preferring a certain prose style a matter of taste? Perhaps. Any writer who follows the advice of Harold Ross, founding editor of the New Yorker, can't go wrong: "If you can't be amusing, be interesting." For me, this means being aware of the reader at all times and making what is complex or arcane clear--as good teachers do. And it helps to entertain a bit, too, to write with a light, or at least human, touch.