School of Fish

A prominent literary theorist has advice on learning to compose sentences. Scott McLemee drops a line.

February 23, 2011

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.


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