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>How to Write a Sentence

January 25, 2011

>Harper Collins sent me a copy of Stanley Fish’s little book entitled How To Write a Sentence and How To Read One and I’m wondering who, exactly, it’s written for. It’s not for me and my over-educated ilk; we play with sentences the way he describes all the time. It’s not for people who don’t read; he assumes familiarity with the works of 17th-century poets like John Milton and George Herbert. The chapters remind me of nothing so much as the blog posts of Amateur Reader, little musings on the style and sense of a previous era in which how you said something was nearly as important as what you were trying to say.

Fish tries to appeal to a broader audience than usual by sketching out the inclusiveness of his project:

“Some people are bird watchers, others are celebrity watchers; still others are flora and fauna watchers. I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers. Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences….some of my fellow sentence appreciators have websites: Best Sentences Ever, Sentences We Love, Best First Sentences, Best Last Sentences. Invariably the sentences that turn up on these sites are not chosen for the substantive political or social or philosophical points they make. They are chosen because they are performances of a certain skill at the highest level. The closest analogy, I think, is to sports highlights.”
(Note: some of these websites don’t exist by anything like the name he gives them, and for others I can only guess he might mean a site like 100 best first lines from novels.)

So is he trying to appeal to sports fans? It seems heavy-handed and awkward to me, like an elderly, bespectacled professor assuming that the football players in his class can only appreciate ideas in terms of sports analogies, and that bird watchers will appreciate being singled out from the other “fauna watchers.”

The distance between Fish’s privileged position as an academic and his floundering attempts to connect with the “common man” results in sentences like these:
“This, then, is my theology: You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free. I call this the Karate Kid method of learning how to write.”

This imagined common man will, I predict, get tired of the more lectur-y parts of the book, like where Fish feels compelled to define “essay” and use the correct rhetorical term for a coordinate construction; Fish himself evidently feels this, as he inserts a parenthetical remark:
“(Don’t worry about the term; you don’t have to learn it, but it might be useful at a cocktail party.)”
Yes, Stanley, when we travel back in time to the 1950’s and the Dean invites us over for drinks.

The writing is better later in the book, when Fish lets himself get more carried away by the raptures of George Eliot and Philip Sidney–although he slips back into his fake, jocular “appeal to the common man” when he describes the speed of an effect as “almost like fuel injection.” When Fish allows himself a full academic expanse of utterance, he can illuminate his subject like no one else. Discussing a section from Milton’s Apology, he says:
“This sentence, a mini-essay on the relation between ethics and aesthetics, enacts what it describes. It argues implicitly against the commonsense assumption that the craft of writing is one thing, the moral worth of the writer another. Milton insists that the two are one, and that without the latter, the former is impossible.”

Perhaps because he’s in full-blown academic discourse mode by the end of the book, Fish ends up twisting some of his own sentences into tortured grammatical form:
“…a novel nearly every sentence of which merits a place in this book.”
Such an awkward phrase distracts me from the sense of what he’s saying, and makes me aware of that elderly, bespectacled speaker again.

But then he regains his place in his lecture notes and all is well again. The reader can be carried away by a quotation from John Donne to the conclusion that “The same imperfection and finitude require from us the writing of sentences (as opposed to the instantaneous knowledge of everything), and some of those sentences, like this one…reflect self-consciously on the conditions of their performance.”

The oddity of publishing these kinds of thoughts in book form at this point in the twenty-first century is highlighted by the epilogue, in which Fish invites “those readers who can’t believe I failed to include their all-time favorite sentence to send it to me” without specifying a mechanism by which this might be possible. He needs to have a graduate assistant set up a website for him. If he did, would you send him your favorite sentence?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 1:55 pm

    >Ha ha ha! No, I would not. I had a few professors like this who would stare down over their reading spectacles at me and and I could tell they barely saw me, a little girl attempting to grasp the profoundness of what they were attempting to impart. My girl brain was just too small. The pity in their face was palpable.

  2. January 25, 2011 2:14 pm

    >Or maybe he needs to figure out how to set up the website himself. That's one thing I always found repugnant about academia–the infantile helplessness so many displayed (present company definitely excluded).

  3. January 25, 2011 4:11 pm

    >I agree that it's really unclear who the audience for this book is supposed to be. And even if I HAD a favorite sentence, I don't think I'd send it.

  4. January 25, 2011 6:37 pm

    >This is hilarious. Now I sort of want to read it. I have a soft spot for those elderly bespectacled professors — lord knows why.

  5. January 25, 2011 7:08 pm

    >On an otherwise dismal day, I must thank you for the multiple laughs your post provided me. My favorite may be the following:"Yes, Stanley, when we travel back in time to the 1950's and the Dean invites us over for drinks."

  6. January 25, 2011 8:11 pm

    >Thanks for a pity review! I don't have a favorite sentence, just favorite phrases–which goes to show what Stanley Fish would think of me. It's pleasant to hear what's in a book I'll never read. I've given literary how-to's a wide berth ever since I was bludgeoned by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren with How To Read A Book, and had to wipe the author's fervid spittle-spray off my face after reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

  7. January 25, 2011 8:12 pm

    >Pithy review. Cause you got at the pith. You don't seem to have pitied it much.

  8. January 25, 2011 8:52 pm

    >I love that list of 100 best first lines from novels. It's funny how many you recognize immediately.

  9. January 25, 2011 8:56 pm

    >What a fine compliment. I am surprised, a bit. Thanks.In fairness to Fishy, I'm not always sure who I'm writing for, either. But whatever my excuses might be, I don't think they are his. I am guessing you are detecting some of the "committee thinking" behind the book, an attempt to turn Fish's place on the New York Times editorial page into book sales.

  10. January 25, 2011 10:46 pm

    >Once, a grad school friend of mine dreamed he was playing "Horse" with Stanley Fish — you know, where you compete throwing baskets with another player, and if you miss, you get a letter of the word HORSE? Last person to spell the word wins. Anyway, in the dream, my friend won, and Stanley had to tell him The Secret. Which was: you're doing fine just as you are. What a great dream!For literary how-tos, I recommend Stephen King. No spittle, just craft and humor.

  11. January 25, 2011 11:41 pm

    >Ha, sounds like a goofy book. It's a bummer when academics try to write books for common people and end up messing it up.

  12. January 26, 2011 1:18 am

    >I have to say, I very much enjoyed your review!!! This book sounds … um… a bit awful and somewhat useless. And a book about sentences should at least be written with some good ones!!!Also, it strikes me that good sentences might just be known as "quotes."

  13. January 26, 2011 3:14 am

    >I mean, I love a sentence as much as the next girl, but this review makes me feel so awkward for Stanley Fish I'm not sure I can face this book!

  14. January 26, 2011 2:12 pm

    >FreshHell, I object to that kind of professing the way I object to people thinking that grading is the same as reading. No one is going to read much of what you tell them to or write anything worth reading if they feel like you're sitting in judgment all the time.Elizabeth, but professors are so busy and important! And what are grad students FOR?Florinda, sentence withholding–that'll teach him.ReadersGuide, see, we really do need to change houses and jobs. You could have your fill of that type around here.Lori, glad you were amused. I couldn't resist.Trapunto, you're so right; I characteristically don't have much pity for authors. And yeah, fervid spittle-spray is a good way to describe the tone of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves! I did like the part about taking a pen to incorrect signs, but in real life you often can't get at the sign–it's behind glass, or not written in anything pen can correct.Avid Reader–yes. Which just goes to show that what I say about the over-educated playing with sentences is kind of snobby. Everyone who reads much does it.Amateur Reader, if I'm going to read about how something is said, I'd much rather read about it on your blog, where it can be part of a conversation and get even more thoughtful than your posts start out. A book seems too static for this kind of pronouncement, anymore.Jenny, the act of writing a literary how-to can so easily lead to a pompous tone. Genre writers, like King, have less of that because they're more interested in communicating than in posing.I didn't mean to say that it's a book no one will like, though. I do think he's a fine writer when he lets himself go at the academic discourse level.Kim, I think some academics, especially older ones, have little idea what interests "common people."Jenners, you could be right. And a pedant would cut off that conversation by informing you that the noun form of that word is "quotations." But that won't get you very far looking it up on the internets, will it?!

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