School of Fish

Stanley Fish's latest book is How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One, published by HarperCollins, and it is doing pretty well. As I write this, it is the 158th best-selling book on Amazon, and ranked number one in sales for reference books in both education and rhetoric. It is also in eighth place among books on political science. This is peculiar, for it seems perfectly innocent of political intention. The title is not playing any games. It is a tutorial on how to recognize and learn from good sentences, the better to be able to fashion one. It could be used in the classroom, though that does not seem its true remit. Fish has pedagogical designs going beyond the university. The “intended reader” (to adopt an expression Fish used during an earlier stage of his work) appears to be someone who received the usual instruction in composition, in secondary school or college, without gaining any confidence about writing, let alone a knack for apt expression. And that describes a lot of people.

His advice to them, if not in so many words, is that they learn to practice Fishian literary criticism. How to Write a Sentence offers a series of lessons in “affective stylistics,” as he called the approach he developed three or four decades ago. This is not an interpretive method but a form of close reading, focusing less on what a given line in a literary work means than on what it does: how it creates its effects in the reader's awareness. This requires taking a sentence slowly – and also taking it apart, to determine how its elements are arranged to place stress on particular words or phrases, or to play them off against one another. (One formulation of Fish's work in affective stylistics is found in this essay, in PDF.)

A fair bit of the book -- roughly half of each chapter, and sometimes more -- amounts to a a course in affective stylistics, though happily one conducted without resorting to jargon. Fish examines individual sentences from Edgar Allen Poe, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, and dozens of other authors to show how they work. Most are literary figures, though Martin Luther King, Jr. and Antonin Scalia also make the cut. Most of the rest of it consists of explanations of some basic stylistic modes and how they impose order on (or extract it from) the world. Fish suggests a few exercises intended to encourage readers to experiment with creating sentences that are tightly structured, or loose and rambling, or epigram-like. That is part of getting a feel for the flexibility of one's options in sentence-making, and of becoming comfortable with experimentation. The scrutiny of how a line from Hemingway or Donne functions is made in the service of demonstrating how much force can be generated by the right words in the right order. Imitating them isn't a matter of insufficient originality, but rather a way to absorb some of their power.

The result is a handbook that seems very different from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, with its list of prescriptions and prohibitions. I don't want to bash Elements; there has been too much of that lately. But Strunk and White's emphases on brevity, clarity, and vigor of diction and syntax, while still having value, tend to imply that good writing is largely a matter of following rules. Fish's book is more open-ended and pluralistic. He shows that there are numerous ways for a piece of writing to be effective -- that there are a various registers of expression that are worth learning. And his approach recognizes the element of playfulness and experimentation with language that a writer can cultivate, making it more likely that a precise though unexpected turn of phrase might come to mind. It is not that there are no rules, and you can learn some of them from Strunk and White. But the rules are not the game.

Having now recommended the book, let me quickly register a few concerns, lest this column seem like an unqualified endorsement of Fish™ brand textual goods and services.

How to Write a Sentence is not at all innovative. The guiding principle is an ancient one -- namely, that learning to write requires taking lessons from authors who have demonstrated great skill in their craft. Not in the sense of attending semester-long workshops with them, but through years of concentrating on their work, combined with frequent, shameless pilfering of their techniques. (You read what you can, and steal what you must.) The book can't be faulted for relying on an old, reliable approach, but there's something to say for acknowledging that it does.

Fish’s account of various modes of sentence-making shows how they express attitude or mood, as well as information. This makes the book a useful introduction to thinking about form. But readers who want to pursue this would do well to go on to Kenneth Burke’s succinct but systematic “Lexicon Rhetoricae,” in his first collection of essays, Counter-Statement (1931). It ought to be at the top of the list of recommended readings at the back of the book -- if How to Write a Sentence had one, which, unaccountably, it doesn’t.

This seems ungenerous, not least to Fish's readers. He may be a one-man institution, but there are limits to self-sufficiency.

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

Magnificent Obsessions

“As a rule, I dislike modern memoirs,” says Ernest, a suitably named character in Oscar Wilde’s dialogue "The Critic as Artist." Memoirs “are generally written by people who have entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering; which, however, is, no doubt, the true explanation for their popularity, as the English public always feels perfectly at ease when a mediocrity is talking to it.”

His friend Gilbert is more forgiving, or at least more easily amused. “I must confess that I like all memoirs,” he says. “I like them for their form, just as much as for their matter. In literature mere egotism is delightful…. When [people] talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting, and if one could shut them up, when they become wearisome, as easily as one can shut up a book of which one has grown wearied, they would be perfect absolutely.”

All things considered, it seems that Ernest has the better part of this exchange. After 120 years, egotism has become industrialized. Even a gentleman of leisure like Gilbert could never keep up with all of the memoirs being churned out. The effort would defeat his good humor, and perhaps his sanity.

But Terry Castle’s The Professor and Other Writings, published by Harper Collins, is one of the few works in the genre that Ernest might finish without succumbing to fatal ennui. Castle is a professor of the humanities at Stanford University and author of The Apparitional Lesbian (Columbia University Press, 1993), among other works. The Professor is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in the category of criticism. (The winners will be announced next week following a vote by the organization’s board of directors, of which I'm a member.)

That it is being considered as book of criticism, rather than as memoir, seems the luck of the draw. Some of the essays in it were originally published in the guise of book reviews, but they always jump the rails of literary journalism and go off on their own course -- assessing not just the text but its place in the constellation of her own interests and personal history, which are (respectively) various and knotty. Her prose is, by turns, introspective and satirical; her self-portrait is not always that flattering. As Wilde also wrote, "The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” I'm not entirely sure to which genre The Professor belongs, but it is one I expect to reread from time to time.

One of her themes here -- clearly defined in the opening and closing essays, and a thread running through the rest -- is the power of intellectual and erotic fascination. Either may turn obsessive. And what's more, they can fuse, sometimes in ways that become messy.

Not that the book is a work of Academic Gothic. Much of it is very funny, and Castle writes sentences it is tempting to read aloud. Her point is that obsession, whether cerebral or romantic, is likely to make you ridiculous to yourself and others, rather than dangerous. Writers and artists have always celebrated the intensity of passion, even when seeming to deplore it. Instead, Castle's essays address something else: the embarrassment that comes from seeing how one's ardor may look from a distance.

The first essay, "Courage, Mon Amie," recounts the author's consuming interest in World War I. It began when she learned, at the age of 6, that her grand-uncle, a rifleman in the British army, had been killed during the final German retreat of 1918. This flowered into what she calls “a forty year Craving for More” – an inexhaustible fascination with minutiae that is “acquisitive, pedantic, and obscurely guilt inducing.” In her twenties, she read the classic authors of the Great War, but it remained only one of her preoccupations, along with opera, the Titanic, and “trashy lesbian novels.” Her interest was still in check: “The world had not yet retracted to a gray, dugout-sized, lobe-gripping monomania.”

Monomania about a huge subject is not exactly impoverishing. One person’s morbid fascination is another’s scholarship. Along with chronicling her ever-expanding and ever-deepening obsession (the visits to battlefields and museums, the amateur expertise regarding Lewis guns and trench warfare), Castle makes astute points about the writing that came out of the war. But anyone who has ever developed an overwhelming, unnervingly intense interest in some topic that nobody else seems to find interesting will respond to the essay's acknowledgment of how bewildering a passionate interest can become.

“I guess an obsession is defined, crudely enough, by the fact that one doesn’t understand it," she writes. "Even as it besets, its determinants remain opaque. (The word ‘obsession,’ interestingly enough, is originally a military term: in Latin it signified a siege action, the tactical forerunner of trench warfare.) The obsessions of others embarrass and repel because they seem to dehumanize, to make the obsessed one robotic and alien and unavailable. It’s like watching an autistic child humming or scratching or banging on a plate for hours on end.”

"The Professor," the very long essay closing the book, concerns another sort of preoccupation: romantic passion. The title does not refer to the author, as you might expect, but rather to the woman with whom Castle she had her first requited love affair as a graduate student in the 1970s. It did not end happily. (Love, as the poet said, is a dog from hell.) The woman in question is now deceased. Castle only ever identifies her as "the Professor."

This is less a matter of preserving her privacy (someone with Google and a little diligence could probably figure out who she was, though I haven’t tried) than of suggesting how she loomed as an almost mythological figure in the author's emotional life for decades afterward. Perhaps 20 years older than Castle, she was a respected scholar in her field. That was part of the allure. She was deeply closeted, but also reckless -- and manipulative in ways that Castle, not long out of adolescence, could not then imagine, let alone understand. At least that is the picture that emerges. The memoir is clearly the product of long brooding. But revenge, while an obvious motive, is not its only agenda. (Nor is the essay very prurient, just to get that out of the way.)

Rather, it is a sustained and fairly merciless effort to confront the memories -- which can be deeply embarrassing in middle age -- of what one was like in those early years of adulthood. Castle quotes from her journals at the time, and recalls the tone of her initial flirtation with the Professor: "I was more confident than usual in part because the focus [of the conversation] was on 'scholarship' -- however dubious or half cocked. I could show off what I knew -- twaddle on and play the familiar role of World's Most Intriguing Student." The connection between them grew that much more intense when they began having sex (endorphins are a bonding agent) but it also manifested an affinity between the buried, unfinished, somewhat crazy sides of each other's personalities.

As if all of this were not mortifying enough to confront, Castle also evokes the lost world of mid- and late 1970s "alternative" culture, both the more or less universal aspects (rap sessions, casting I Ching hexagrams, stuff about cosmic energies) and the elements particular to the lesbian community (including Castle's life-transforming encounter with an album called Lavender Jane Loves Women, which she says belonged to the "warmed-over folkie" subgenre of "American lady singer with acoustic guitar and fake Scottish accent croons archaic-sounding pseudoballads"). In Terry Castle's hands, the autobiographical essay becomes both a kind of cultural history and a challenge to the reader: Here are my obsessions and the things I would forget if I could. Do you dare to confront your own?

Scott McLemee
Author's email: 

'Greatest Generation' Gen Ed

In the context of the news that day in February, the announcement was almost jarring in its banality. On a day when legislators at all levels and all over the country were in full panic mode about budget deficits, and at a time when public investments in education, particularly higher education and most particularly the liberal arts, were being offered as examples of excessive government spending, a new commission had been formed.

At the request of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences had gathered a group of distinguished citizens and asked them to recommend 10 actions "that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being." A bipartisan request to form a group to engage in long-range planning about the nation’s intellectual well-being by focusing on the liberal arts — such an announcement not only seemed out of place in the newspapers that day, it seemed almost to come from another generation.

Had these people not heard that, as House Speaker John Boehner put it, "We’re broke"? Didn’t they — these misguidedly bipartisan legislators and anachronistic advocates of the liberal arts — realize that we were in a crisis that precluded long-term planning and collective action? How could they fail to see that education today must focus on job training and economic competitiveness? And what were they thinking in focusing on liberal arts?

It has indeed been hard in recent months to hear anything other than the voices of doom. But the language spoken by these voices represents its own form of crisis, for it is almost entirely economic, as if all relevant factors in our current situation could be captured on a spreadsheet or a ledger. The reduction of complex social and political issues to economics signifies a failure of imagination; and "fiscal responsibility," while an excellent principle at all times, has come to serve as a proxy for our fears that we have lost our way in the world, that the future will not be as bright for our children as it was for us when we were young, that America is being outcompeted by countries that used to be "third world," that the future has somehow gotten away from us.

Fear, whose radical form is terror, has temporarily crippled our national imagination. Many young people today can barely recall a time when we were not subject to the shadowy horrors of terror and terrorists. Today, 10 years after 9-11, terror is a fact of life, and fear makes all the sense in the world. How else to explain the emergence of what are in effect survivalist and vigilante attitudes among so many of our political leaders?

At this time, it is useful for those with longer memories to recall that "other generation" that the current effort to support the liberal arts so strongly evokes. This would be the generation that, having fought their way out of the Great Depression, went out and won World War II. That generation, like ours, had things to fear, but they conquered their fears by taking action, including creating a commission charged with long-term planning for the nation’s educational system, focusing on liberal education.

This commission, created by President James Bryant Conant of Harvard, was formed in 1943, in the middle of the war, and completed virtually all of its work while the outcome of the war was still uncertain. Still, the vision its members announced was confident, spacious and radical. Their report, General Education in a Free Society — or the “Redbook,” as it was called — outlined a program of liberal education for both high school and college students, with required courses in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The intention was to extend to masses of people — including the hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who would be going to college on the new GI Bill — the kind of non-vocational education previously available only to a select few.

Such a program, the commission thought, would be profoundly American in that it would prepare people for citizenship in a democracy, giving them what they needed not just to find a job but to live rich and abundant lives, the kinds of lives that people in less fortunate societies could only dream about. Announcing the great mission of American education and the new shape of American society after the war, the Redbook was hailed as a powerful symbol of national renewal, and served as an announcement of America’s cultural maturity. Its main arguments were translated into national policy by the six-volume 1947 "Truman Report," called Higher Education for American Democracy.

The program bespoke confidence in democracy, and in the ability of people to decide the course of their lives for themselves. It suggested, too, a conviction that a democracy based on individual freedom required some principle of cohesion, which would, in the program they outlined, be provided by an understanding of history and culture, which they entrusted to the humanities.

Of course, not every institution of higher education has followed this extraordinarily ambitious and idealistic vision. Indeed, by one recent account, only 8 percent of all American institutions of higher education give their students a liberal education. But that 8 percent includes virtually every institution known to the general populace, including Cal Tech and MIT. With their unique dedication to liberal education, American universities are acknowledged to be the best in the world at two of the central tasks of higher education: educating citizens and conducting research.

Mass liberal education was advocated in the face of challenges every bit as great as those we face today. As a consequence of the war, the national debt had exploded, reaching unprecedented levels (121 percent of GDP in 1946, compared with 93 percent in 2010). And as the grim realities of the Cold War set in, including the prospect of nuclear annihilation and the widespread fear of enemies within, many people felt that the nation was vulnerable in ways it never had been. It would have been understandable if the nation had tried to hedge against an unpredictable future by cutting spending, turning inward, and retooling the educational system so that it would produce not well-rounded citizens but technocrats, managers, nuclear engineers, and scientists.

Instead, we created the Marshall Plan, built the interstate highway system, and increased access to higher education so dramatically that, by 1960, there were twice as many people in higher education as in 1945. And incidentally, the middle class was strong and growing, and the fight for civil rights acquired an irresistible momentum. Things were very far from perfect, but we unhesitatingly call the generation that accomplished all this "the greatest."

What really distinguished the American philosophy of higher education in the generation after WWII was its faith in the future. People educated under a system of liberal education were expected not to fill slots but to create their lives in a world that could not be predicted but did not need to be feared. The lesson for today is perfectly clear. Terrors will always be with us, but we can choose to confront them through collective action and a recommitment to the core principles of democracy, including access, for those who wish to have it and are able to profit from it, to a liberal education. "We’re broke" is a sorry substitute for the kind of imagination and boldness needed now, or at any time. We must take the long view, the global view, and the view that does the most credit to ourselves.

I would not presume to tell the new commission which steps to support the liberal arts they should endorse. But I would urge on them a general principle: that liberal education should not be considered a luxury that can be eliminated without cost, much less an expensive distraction from the urgent task of economic growth, but a service to the state and its citizens. It is an essential service because it reflects and strengthens our core commitments as a nation, without which we truly would be broke.

Geoffrey Harpham
Author's email: 

Geoffrey Harpham is president and director of the National Humanities Center. His new book is The Humanities and the Dream of America (University of Chicago Press).

Valentine's Day Help

Smart Title: 

We asked some of our favorite poetry professors -- many of them poets themselves -- for verses of love academics might want to recite for their Valentines. We hope some of their ideas may inspire.

'Faculty Towers'

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Elaine Showalter opens her new book on the academic novel by noting the theory that the novel generally took off because people wanted to read about people like themselves. So it's not surprising that Showalter, an emeritus professor of English at Princeton University, would consider the academic novel her favorite literary genre.

'The Phantom Professor'

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No one at Southern Methodist University knew -- for sure -- who The Phantom Professor was. The professor's blog, like those of many untenured academics, was anonymous and the university was never named.

Outsourced Grading

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Kentucky community colleges experiment with having outside company evaluate students' essays in freshman composition.

Rift in Disability Studies

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Supreme Court case on assisted suicide leaves professors debating when and how their scholarly society should weigh in on policy issues.

'Black Earth and Ivory Tower'

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"From lecturing on the French Revolution to hauling manure in the spring, my life is agricultural and academic, inseparable and intertwined," writes Jeffrey A. Kaufmann, a professor of history at Muscatine Community College who has lived since birth on a 270-acre farm.

Don't Know Much About History

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Many colleges in recent years have eliminated majors or departments in relatively obscure fields, citing the need to focus on areas with growing student interest. Few, however, have taken the step Post University plans: eliminating majors in English and history and upper-level courses in liberal arts generally.


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