How to write—and read—a sentence

BOOK REVIEW — How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish explores the how’s and why’s of fictional writing that makes an impact. Throughout the book we are treated to examples that Professor Fish posts as representative of different writing styles or, more specifically, different styles of sentences. He then challenges us to try our hand at replicating these styles after he explains the various relationships that the quoted authors used to make their sentences work and attract his attention. Fish’s attention is on relationships. It is not on sentence diagramming or dissecting the structure to the atomic or molecular level. Instead, he helps us to view the author’s approach to combine relationships of parts of sentences to create a particular effect.

The book is not just on how sentences work—Fish challenges us to work. In the end he promises to give the reader, “both sentence pleasure and sentence craft, the ability to appreciate a good sentence and the ability to fashion one.”

Fish uses phrases to excite the reader in the process, such as the ability to “take your readers by storm,” something any writer would love to do well, at least once. “People,” writes Fish, “write or speak sentences in order to produce an effect, and the success of a sentence is measured by the degree to which the desired effect has been achieved.”

So Fish, ever the professor (this coming fall he will be an Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School, and is a weekly online columnist for the New York Times), asks his readers to participate as members of his class in sentence reading, writing, and appreciation. Pull out the pen and paper and, yes, get to work. Fish is apparently an egalitarian; he will not assign without first having tried the assignment himself and he shares the results of his efforts. In the chapter, “It’s not the thought that counts,” he employs the use of sentences as “vehicles of instruction” and asks that we “pay attention to the structural relationships that make content—any content—possible.”

As a connoisseur and practitioner, Fish’s approach is both accessible and daunting. He asks us to look at sentences as if the writers were principals in a chess match with Bobby Fisher or Boris Spassky. Our goal is to first describe their respective offense and defense, and then substitute our own moves to echo theirs. The sentence examined.

Fish, an engaging writer, demonstrates by contributing his own sentences based upon the examples he provides of each style by the masters. Fish’s results are, by his standards, merely “passable.” The answer to all this? Study and practice. Okay, professor.

“You shall tie yourself to forms, and the forms shall set you free,” the biblical Fish exhorts. Fish calls it “The Karate Kid” method of learning. Through this muscle memory one learns “. . . how to make sentences forever and . . . when what you are writing doesn’t make the grade because it has degenerated into a mere pile of discrete items.”

Well, that’s quite a choice. Learn to follow in the path forged by giants or dwell in the junkyard.

Fish introduces us to several styles. One, the subordinating style, structures its components in terms of relationships—causality, temporality, and precedence. Near the end of the chapter, Fish calls upon Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail (1963) and John Milton’s An Apology Against A Pamphlet (1642) to illustrate how the relationships work within the sentence structure and how they provide rhetorical impact.

Other styles that Fish describes are the additive style and, finally, in what he calls “The return to content,” the familiar satiric style.

For those of us who previously to reading Fish gave only passing attention, if that, it is a pleasure to slow down and be led in the company of Fish. His ideas are inspiring and insightful. When Fish writes, “Milton’s sentence celebrates an inner virtue that resists and masters the apparent flux of temporal life,” you, as reader, pay attention. One would be like a passenger on a speeding commuter train, transported past the architectural gems of the city without once raising your head from the newspaper (or whatever it is we read) to look at the cityscape and appreciate its beauty against the pastels of the morning sky, if you didn’t go back to read and reread the passages he presents, imploring us to question why they reappear again and again, 350 years after original publication.

But, ahh. Ahh. Is the writing life such? Study the masters and imitate? Is that creative writing? This is where I may depart from Fish, although what would be unfair is to reject the approach without having completed—or at least attempted—the assignments. In the analysis of how to replicate the subordinating style employed in a sentence by Henry James, Fish begins with the disarming claim:

You can learn to write sentences like James. You start with a kernel assertion, say, “the door opened.” And then you back up in time to a prior action or event, presented in what is called a dependent clause: “As he reached the crest of the hill and saw the house with its imposing spires.”

And so Fish continues until he completes the imitation, clause by clause, relationship by relationship. Fish encourages the reader at the end, “Once you’ve done it a few times, you can produce sentences like this forever. The skill is no different from the skill involved in turning three-word sentences into one hundred-word monster.”

On one level, this approach to teaching writing sentence by sentence, example by example, makes sense. It seems to hammer home the point that everything original has already been written, so it’s your turn. Use this learning device to identify pattern and form, anticipate, and recognize them, and use them in the service of your own writing.

Well, this review has gone on long enough, well past my original intent, to not try my hand at putting Fish’s method into practice. I will work on the same sentence type to which Fish applied himself, and base it upon a recent trip one morning for a rehearsal of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Fish instructs, “Begin with the kernel assertion.” Mine is this: “The percussionist hit the tympani lightly with two mallets.” Well, honestly, it’s a bit more of a complex assertion than Fish’s “The door opened.” I am heeding Fish, though, who takes on Strunk & White’s scalpel-heavy stylebook that I’ve toted with me these many years, and will stand by my attempt at assertion. That’s what he did. Hit them lightly. So, let’s proceed.

The next phrase is one where Henry James “Back[s] up in time to a prior event or action presented in what is called a dependent clause.” Let’s look first at Fish’s choice of sentence. He writes, “As he reached the crest of the hill and saw the house with its imposing spires.” Hmm. How about this, my try: “Tchaikovsky’s fondness for the Russian march enters a musical passage no matter how pastoral the scene.”

Before we pen our concluding assertion, as does James, we must first insert a “parenthetical meta-reflection.” Fish first. “They looked like spears ready to impale him.” I will try to be a bit more poetic in parenthetic. “The sound resonated beneath the melody like a dark memory.” “Then,” Fish writes, “slow down the concluding assertion.” My concluding assertion: “The musician beat on, like he was commissioned by the tsar himself.”

There it is. Hey, that’s me, positioned in between Henry James and Stanley Fish! “The percussionist hit the tympani lightly with two mallets; Tchaikovsky’s fondness for the Russian march enters a musical passage no matter how pastoral the scene, the sound resonating beneath the melody like a dark memory as the musician beat on, like he was commissioned by the tsar himself.”

Well, if it were a work in progress, it would not be a bad start, albeit, that I don’t write that way. Could I? Perhaps. It was vicarious fun to momentarily be connected to Henry James. So, maybe Fish is onto something as a vehicle to understand, appreciate, and participate in the service of writing better sentences. It is learning from the masters by first applying one’s own critical deconstruction, and then borrowing from the blueprint with one’s own new construction.

Fish continues in this way with the next chapter on the additive style, a style defined not by planning and order, but by spontaneity and chance. He cites the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, and notes the origin of the term “essay” which means “to test out, to probe.” Fish continues with his lesson, explaining that a style that purports to be carefree and exploratory is a style all the same and capable of imitation. We explore others with Fish, from de Montaigne to James Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher-in-the-Rye, and include a visit with equally enjoyable passages by Gertrude Stein, 17th century poet George Herbert, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Ford Maddox Ford, and thriller writer Tana French. Fish, all the while telling us that before we look at whether or not to follow rules (or as he calls it, “a flouting of the decorums of hypotactic prose”), we must first become a master in the form you wish to depart from.

Even as Fish goes into the form of satire, what on the surface may not seem to be susceptible to such a formulaic approach, the sentence is broken down to relationships yet again. In the instance of satire, Fish warns, “No one escapes the sentence unscathed.”

In the end, Fish invites to his readers and followers to participate and communicate with him on the prospect of future editions of this book. Online, others have already responded to this call, see for example this contest run in January 2011 by Slate magazine. Of course, the professor is not merely challenging us to locate our favorite sentences (and for this I suppose the starting place must be our favorite authors, say, P.G. Wodehouse, Marcel Proust, and, during this past year, Harper Lee) but really to look at these sentences anew. How are they constructed, what are the relationships that define their form; and always to learn from them by trying our hand at the sincerest form of flattery.

Through this approach to relational structure and writing with impact, Fish strikes dual blows—to my fourth-grade English grammar teacher, Mrs. Litman, who was the first to teach us to diagram a sentence; and to relinquish my tight grip on Strunk & White whom, despite decades of devotion, always conflicted with my love of Proust that did not seem to comply with the admonition, “A sentence should have no unnecessary words, just as a machine should have no unnecessary parts.” Long I’ve balanced that fear of the unnecessary with the celebration of the structural redundancy, like that of my still-standing 18th century home whose many posts were found to have been whittled down by carpenter ants.

What choices I would confront, were I to have been presented the original manuscripts to Remembrance of Things Past either as an editor or, if I returned in another life as a teacher, in a writing seminar? No one (not me anyway) would care to be remembered like the Decca Records producer who rejected the Beatles in their 1961 New Year’s Day audition, with the infamous remark, “Guitar groups are on the way out,” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.” What might his counterpart have said of Proust? I have always loved Proust, since first sitting by his side waiting for his mother’s goodnight kiss, yet was troubled by the prospect, should some Hemmingway/Strunk & White–trained editor been employed to take their red pen to his hand-wrought manuscript and suggest that he eliminate as “unnecessary parts” those sentences that functioned on a level of brilliance, tracing relationships of people, places, memories, and emotions. Fish does a great job. He relieves us of Strunk & White anxiety and provides a constructive path forward. The mere presence of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One on your bookshelf will remind you to take a second look, then, a third even more insightful detour when a sentence delivers pleasure.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: Harper, 2011.

Posted by Frank J. Mendelson | Business, Business Communications, Communications | Comments 0 |
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