Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing Sentences without Stanley Fish

I bought the new book by Stanley Fish, "How to Write a Sentence..." in the hope that I might gain some new insights and examples to use in my upcoming workshop on prose style that starts July 7.

I was a bit disappointed by the opening chapters: they taught me little that was new, and I found the emphasis on mastering certain sentence patterns or forms, and then imitating them, to be restrictive. And I was not won over by Fish the stylist; his writing seemed full of abstractions, academic jargon, and cliches.

Thanks to the helpful webite Arts and Letters daily, I happened to see an article in The New Criterion by a master stylist, Joseph Epstein, who reinforced my unhappiness with Fish's book, calling its author an "undistinguished writer" who produces some ungainly sentences. I felt vindicated.

Not that I find the book worthless. I, too, am a collector of memorable sentences and believe in sharing them with students, though my tastes differ from those of Fish, who likes Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Wolff, and several other great writers whose style do not seem to provide good models for emerging writers.

This raises the question: for whom does Fish write? I assume, as a good teacher, he wants to help the less experienced reader learn how to write more skillfully. But he seems more concerned with displaying his own deconstructive skills, analyzing sentences with a certain jaunty confidence (Epstein's phrase). His advice--to ignore the rules (which ones?) and focus on the limited (?) number of relationships words, phrases, and clauses can enter into--seems odd since the the number is unlimited. Nor can he tell us what a good sentence is.

Fish's chief argument--that "without form, content cannot emerge"--is certainly arguable, as Epstein shows (content usually dictates the form of what we write, not the other way around). And the emphasis on imitation is questioned: if a form or type of sentence is imitable, it is (Epstein says) probably stale and best avoided; for him, good writers create their own forms.

I'm sure I have learned some lessons from this book about the way I will NOT conduct my writing workshop. And as for good examples of great sentences, I don't find many in Fish's short opus. I would say to would-be writers: save your money. Read good prose and write as much as you can. Avoid books of advice on writing and style, especially by writers who are not master stylists.

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