Not carved in stone

In his new polemic ­Stanley Fish attempts to lay down a set of laws for great ­sentence construction. The wonders of ­language, however, ­cannot be reduced to simple ­formulae.

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How to Write a Sentence:
And How To Read One
Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish considers himself a connoisseur. "Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences." (Note that it takes him two sentences to say so, perhaps out of fear that he should seem too self-appreciative.) As an academic, New York Times columnist and author of a number of books on Renaissance poetry and US law, Fish is unusually well equipped to appreciate a well-turned period. In this slim book, a cross between a self-help pamphlet and literary essay, he aims to instruct us on how to write and read good ones.

Fish is right that a good writer must also be a good reader, but the connoisseur can all too easily come off as a smug elitist, coddling obscure knowledge for the sake of it. The problem with connoisseurship is that it's more interested in itself than the thing it cares about: the connoisseur's passion thrives on the imagined admiration of others.

Still, any serious reader will understand what Fish means by sentence appreciation - there are some sentences that insist on their own beauty. I have my own cache of favourites and could give little lectures on each of their finer points. Consider, for example, the sad, funny commas, the gradually deflating pomposity that give this observation by Donald Barthelme the sting of truth: "Self-actualization is not to be achieved in terms of another person, but you don't know that, when you begin." As Fish says of a bon mot by a Supreme Court judge, "I carry that sentence around with me as others might carry a precious gem or a fine Swiss watch." He doesn't pause to unpick the implications of comparing sentences to expensive status symbols, as if the whole of literature could be ground up into its constituent propositions and sold off as a national asset.

Fish is that other kind of national asset, a public intellectual, and as such it is his professional duty to court mild controversy. Duly, the book offers the scandalous idea that composition should be taught without content. Rather than teach students to use language by finding out what they want to say, they should first find out how to write and afterwards decide what they want to write about: "It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing." Again, it's impossible to entirely agree or disagree. Many writers at some stage of their lives spend hours writing pages of introspection or mundane observation, which is essentially "writing about nothing", though it probably doesn't feel like a mere formal exercise at the time.

Besides, every old curmudgeon believes in the virtues of a proper grounding in grammar. At least Fish doesn't fall into the misty-eyes-and-jackboots trap of insisting that children sit in rows memorising grammatical terms. Such is his faith in the mechanisms of the English language that he believes it will call upon our instincts and elicit perfectly formed sentences by the sheer force of its inner structure. He may be right: neuroscientists have found evidence that some aspects of grammar come naturally to us.

Yet Fish's substitutions for existing grammatical terms are just as unwieldy. A student intimidated by talk of nouns and sub-clauses probably won't be reassured to hear that "if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about: the error of being illogical". Fish's advice presupposes a pretty high degree of linguistic competence. It might suit a first-year undergraduate daunted by essays, for whom this book could be an encouraging but dull present.

Fish takes seriously the ambition of the book's title, How To Write A Sentence. He recommends copying the form of admirable sentences to produce our own from scratch, just as a chef's memorised recipes help her improvise in the kitchen. Again, there's something in this - inventive plagiarism is a good way of learning technique. But Fish's approach is too formulaic. Apeing Updike's observation of a baseball home run - "It was in the books while it was still in the sky" - he comes up with a few alternatives, including: "It was in my stomach while it was still on the shelf." He acknowledges that his sentences don't match the original, but claims "a somewhat similar effect". I'm not sure that about that - it's certainly very far from the distinctive strangeness of Updike's original.

Fish claims that writers love sentences in the same way that painters love paint. This seems to exclude those - hacks, maybe, but writers nevertheless - who churn out action thrillers or supernatural mysteries where the pleasures are all in the plot. It also leaves out authors such as Franz Kafka and Julio Cortazar, to name two, whose interest in the mechanics of narrative and fiction goes beyond the atomic level of the sentence. Of course it is clear what Fish means: without at least a passing interest in the materiality of language, you'd probably do better in another profession. But to claim love of sentences as the main distinguishing feature of the writer impoverishes the practice of writing. Samuel Beckett was a great writer of sentences - "All I know is what the words know, and dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning and a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead" - but his relationship to the sentence is far more ambivalent than that of a craftsman to his well-made wares. Real writing aims at more than beauty or precision.

Fish does acknowledge this difficulty in isolating the sentence: "Why are these imitations so lame, aside from the fact that I, not Swift, wrote them? It is because nothing is at stake; their subject matter is trivial; there is nothing behind them, they are little more than a trick." Yet a few pages later we are told that an understanding of the plot of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is only incidental to our appreciation of its last sentence ("He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance"). Fish can't make up his mind where he stands. "I concentrated on language's forms, but matters of substance kept seeping in; […] I surrendered to content, but my analyses always wanted to return to form." It's the meaningless distinction between form and content that is at fault here, and as long as Fish pursues it he comes up against the same problem. Pure form no more exists than pure content transmitted straight from mind to mind. Fish does know this - he even points it out himself - but he keeps getting stuck between the tracks of the opposition that he has created.

Language is a strange medium to work in because there is nothing to "go through". A mason might discover resistance in the stone, just as a filmmaker is up against the technological limits of her chosen form, but writing can feel like conjuring from thin air. This overwhelming freedom is frightening, and it's tempting to do as Fish does and look for simple rules. He approvingly quotes Wordsworth on "the weight of too much liberty", concluding, "If… there are an infinite number of moves to perform, the significance of any one of them may be difficult to discern." But it may be that, however hard we try to find limits for writing, the moves we can perform really do remain infinite, and significance difficult to discern. That's what makes the practice of writing so beguilingly difficult, and what makes beautiful sentences, when they appear, feel like miracles.

Hannah Forbes Black is a writer and artist who lives in London. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and Intelligence Squared.