Friday, August 26, 2011

Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, 2011.

Fish’s book is a paean to good writing. He believes that all good writing starts with writing good sentences, and that we don’t do a good job of teaching our students how to write such sentences; we get bogged down in confusing grammatical points or offer vague descriptions instead of offering good ways into good writing. Fish proposes that “(1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships” (16). The essential problem with his book is revealed in this definition: the book will be appreciated and enjoyed by those people who already like sentences, and have a handle on how they work, while those who do not will neither profit much from the book nor enjoy it.

Throughout, he offers studies of good sentences and describes why they work. Fish is engaging and readable, and even entertaining at time. Where the argument wobbles is in the presentation of exercises to help the prospective writer (his audience) learn to write sentences as good as the superlative examples being studied: Fish’s own sample responses to his prompts aren’t in the same league as the originals, and feel both woefully imitative and wan in comparison. He points this fact out himself, too frequently, and both weaknesses distract from the argument. Yet his examples! And his close-readings that so wonderfully explicate why his examples are as good as they are! Fish produces an unexpected study of excerpts of some of the best writing I have ever encountered, and this book is worth reading for these choices alone.

When he moves in the final four chapters from form to content, Fish offers a few brilliant and constructive ways to think about writing. Perhaps most significant of these is his way of describing how first sentences should work. Instead of thinking about “topic sentences,” writers should remember that “First sentences know all about the sentences that will follow them” and thus “First sentences have what I call an ‘angle of lean’; the lean forward, inclining in the direction of the elaborations they anticipate" (99). This idea is still one for people who already grasp the concept, but it is as elegant a way of thinking about how to begin a piece of writing than any I have encountered.

It is a book to read if one loves both reading and writing, and I’d advise the prospective reader to anticipate both felicities and disappointments in their time with How to Write a Sentence.

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