Sentenced to death

I’m trying a new litmus test for deciding whether to take up and read, as God suggested to Saint Augustine, and given that God does not speak to me with any real precision beyond the occasional eructation: I examine the first and last sentence of a volume, be it fiction or nonfiction. If I find a piquant snappiness, an intrigue, a rhythm I could learn to live with, then I give the book a longer look.  (Some last sentences look forward rather than backward, but all first sentences look forward, I’ve noticed, regardless of their tense.) Since I am unable to walk by a bookstore–even the evil Barnes & Noble, much less an independent–without going in, this procedure simplifies my life and shortens my digressions…a little.  If I were a better person I would shorten the digressions in this paragraph too, except that besides rather enjoying them and I am emphatically not that person. I think of myself as mildly transgressive, though, not as contrarian.

I was inspired to this trompe le cerveau by Stanley Fish’s newish How to Write a Sentence. Mind you, I suspect he would be horrified, since he reads everything, and as far as I can tell all parts of everything; but all’s fair when you’re a lateral thinker like me.  As for his book, I have mixed feelings.

In what turns out to be a relatively short read overall, Fish spends a lot of pages warming up or clearing his throat. Maybe it’s his latter-day habit of writing for newspapers, but he presents as a bit arrogant.  His leisurely, even desultory introduction is, as he admits, tendentious, and even the later chapter devoted to debunking Strunk and White seems soft like those fake sumo wrestlers you see at triple-A baseball games–all padding.

However, you’re apt to spill your beer when you snap to attention all at once upon encountering this:  “Forms are generative not of specific meanings, but of the very possibility of meaning” (27) and “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free” (33).  Here is a guy I want to listen to for a long minute.  On he goes, “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality” [italics mine]. This is what I was trying to get my freshman composition students to enact in 1983 when I got in trouble with a fellow instructor for “teaching them that language deceives.”  Of course it deceives, but it also selects and amplifies and convinces and, in fact, invents. The words are only part of the meaning, often taking a back seat to rhythm, allusion, prosody, tempo, connotation above denotation.

In passing, Fish reminds us of Cicero’s three styles–the grand, middle, and low–which set this reader off on a tangential reflection about the scarcity or poverty of the vatic voice in contemporary writing.  I miss the exhortative, high style, now almost the sole province of political or religious demogogues. Maybe we should lay blame for this paucity at the door of the American distrust of the high-falutin’, but as for me, my ear still has room for declamation if only I could find a voice I trust.  Fish does take a side trip to Martin Luther King, Jr., to whose prose whole volumes have properly been devoted.

The author’s most interesting chapters dissect two of the many possible and common sentence styles, the subordinating or hypotaxic and the additive or parataxic. Among the masters of subordination he lists

  • Jane Austen
  • Henry James
  • Herman Melville
  • Walter Pater and
  • John Milton

and among those favoring additive style

  • Michel de Montaigne
  • J.D. Salinger
  • Laurence Sterne
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Paul Cezanne [sic]
  • Ernest Hemingway and
  • Virginia Woolf

Incidentally, my first paragraph above is a clumsy attempt at parataxis.

There’s also a chapter on satire, mostly citing Jonathan Swift, but his heart’s not in it.  Although I like my new litmus test for strange books, I’m sorry that Fish squanders a fair bit of ink on first and last sentences, which for him is like shooting fish in a barrel–he enjoys himself a little too much and doesn’t thereby particularly help me become a better writer or reader.

His last section on–may I call them meta-sentences? –sentences that are about themselves is also somewhat unconvincing, though a couple dozen more examples might help.  In fact, this little $20 hardback would have been worth $30 to me had he only bothered to work up another fifty pages on exactly that.

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