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The Elements of Style

June 29, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Aside from Strunk and White's Elements of Style, I've never been much of a fan of books that say they can teach you to write. Elements, a modern classic, is, in reality, a superior and accessible book of grammar that can assist the already proficient to be that much better; but it could never on its own teach the untutored to write -- especially when by write most of these books (though not Elements) mean create short stories, essays and longer forms that will sell and make you a bona fide writer.

But because there are enough people in the world who long to be just that -- someone who's published something -- this genre continues to flourish and even manages to sell a few copies.

Despite my obvious prejudices against the form, when I heard that the eminent professor and critic Stanley Fish had published a work along these lines, titled How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, I was intrigued. Writing a sentence -- now that you might be able to teach someone. And as for the lost art of analyzing sentences -- well, that could do with some reviving.

Fish begins by paraphrasing the writer Annie Dillard. She had once asked a painter friend why he became an artist and he said because he liked the smell of paint. Applying this notion to her field, Dillard surmised that writers must choose their profession because they like sentences. The larger point behind all this, Fish argues, is that no one, writer or painter, begins "with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other."

Now, if you accept the analogy, then wouldn't the equivalent of paint be words, not sentences? Fish is way ahead of us. The answer is no; where you can brush or even drip paint onto a canvas and perhaps come up with something of interest, "just piling up words, one after the other, won't do much of anything." Without syntax, words are just "discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere." As Fish states, Flaubert's effort to find the "mot juste" was not a search "for words that glow alone, but for words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time."

All of this is commendable, even inspiring. But I had my first disagreement with Fish at just about the time all these stirring points were being made. Here is the assertion I find questionable: "If you can write a sentence in which actors, actions, and objects are related to one another in time, space, mood, desires, fears, causes, and effects, and if your specification of those relationships is delineated with a precision that communicates itself to your intended reader, you can, by extrapolation and expansion, write anything: a paragraph, an argument, an essay, a treatise, a novel."

Hoping Beyond Hope

The problem is, I don't believe that being able to write a good, clean sentence can lead to any of these things, though it might and even likely has in some cases (it's those few exceptions that keep people buying such guides and hoping beyond hope). Which is just another way of saying that Fish's book is no more able to teach you how to write than any of the others in this ever-burgeoning genre.

That doesn't mean, however, that How to Write a Sentence isn't worth your time. It is, very much so. In his 10 chapters, Fish analyzes all sorts of styles: the subordinating style, the additive style, the satiric style, as well as what makes an effective first sentence and a potent final one -- and in each of these instances he provides readers with resonant examples.

But if you turn to Fish's book, you must read it properly, not as a teaching guide with pragmatic applications (and thus observable results), but as high-end literary criticism. There are many passages that display Fish's wonderful ability to explicate prose and these may prove to be an inspiration to beginning and seasoned writers alike.

Take his analysis of a classic sentence by John Updike. In this instance, the late novelist was trying to describe seeing Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at bat in Boston's Fenway Park on Sept. 28, 1960. Updike wrote the following: "It was in the books while it was still in the sky."

So what makes this sentence so effective? Writes Fish: "The fulcrum of the sentence is 'while': on either side of it are two apparently very different kinds of observations. 'It was in the books' is metaphorical. Updike imagines, correctly, that this moment will be memorialized in stories and in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in his sentence the ball never does get out of the park. It is 'still in the sky,' a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game's highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface 'in the books' and 'in the sky' are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball's actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, this is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables."

Fish then asks, rhetorically, whether writing such a sentence is difficult. He admits in the end that you can learn to approximate its effect, though the sentences you construct in such exercises may never equal the status of the Updike gem. Still, once you get the hang of it, Fish writes -- "arranging clauses in somewhat the same way he does in order to achieve a somewhat similar, if decidedly minor, effect" -- then you can make this trick part of your repertoire.

Something Workable?

But Fish must know that creative types don't work in this way. They start with a subject, a character, a scene or an emotion, and let it guide them; and, if their luck holds out, the sentences flow. No writer would stop and say, "Now's the time for that Updike effect." (That might perhaps happen when someone's rewriting but again I doubt that real writers work that way.) They may recall something they've read -- an ending or an opening or a fine moment -- and wish to emulate or echo it; but writing something in any genre often stems more from passion and instinct than from the kind of deliberation Fish's exercises suggest.

Copying out stretches of prose by classic writers may help get a fledgling scribbler to understand the rhythms an artist employs, but, just as syntax is a necessary glue, a writer has to have something to say, and it has to be comprised of more than just stellar sentences. (Remember, Theodore Dreiser may not have been much of a stylist, but he could be a powerful writer.) What Fish seems to forget in writing about Updike is the "Flaubert insight" he shared earlier: What makes the sentence great is all that comes before that singular moment -- and all that comes after. It's not just the "mot juste" -- or, in Updike's case, 12 "mots justes" strung together. It's the ability to so precisely place words "that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time" -- and that means for the length of a story, an essay or a novel.

Piling up words won't do it, as Fish admits, but neither will piling up a string of well-researched sentences. Ideas, insight, passion, skill, a sense of proportion and balance -- these and many other attributes make for fine pieces of writing, and they are the things, alas, no one can teach you.

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