“If you know sentences, you know everything,” Stanley Fish writes in his latest book, How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One).
“Good sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world,” Fish continues.
I admit to making a rude noise when I read that last one. It sounds a little too much like something out of the Boy Scout Handbook. (The world doesn’t care one whit about our organizational plans. People who try to organize the world go insane. I see it happen all the time, especially during the holiday season.)
To be fair, Professor Fish moves on quickly from this pronouncement and delivers a sturdy little volume of close readings of his favorite sentences.
Fish, whose academic career can only be measured in megatons, spices up the narrative with pop-culture references and a playful sense of duty. I was hooked after only a few pages by this wonderful shout-out to the movies:
At one point in The Magnificent Seven (1960), the bandit leader, played by Eli Wallach, explains why he isn’t bothered much by the hardships suffered by the peasant-farmers whose food and supplies he plunders: ‘If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.’
Fish goes on to explain why he thinks this is a good sentence. (It has an “air of finality and certainty,” a “parallelism of clauses” and a “patterned repetition of consonants and vowels.” Bonus points for mentioning Mr. Wallach, a terrific actor who went on to set the gold standard for bandit leaders in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.)
In the book’s first chapter, he assures us fine sentences can found everywhere. “Even children can produce a good sentence,” Fish writes. (This strikes me as clunky. Why not “Even children can produce good sentences” or “Even a child can produce a good sentence”?)
I’m more impressed when adults produce good sentences. Children are often great sentence-makers. Their minds aren’t full of stuff like literary theory, and they frequently say and write things without the least bit of self-consciousness or regard for the niceties of grownup discourse.
Gertrude Stein, who appears no less than seven times in How to Write a Sentence, certainly knew this. Fish quotes this sentence from Stein’s Lectures in America (1935):
When I first began writing I felt that writing should go on I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was completely possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it, what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with it to do with writing going on which was at the time the most profound need I had in connection with writing.
As Jerry Lee Lewis would say, that’s a whole lotta writin’ goin’ on. But Stein, in the guise of a precocious five-year-old, gets to the heart of the matter – possession.
Great sentences possess us. The power of language, Fish argues, is its extraordinary capacity to “communicate a reality its forms cannot present.”
As readers and writers, we yearn for the magic moment, for the combination of words that produces, however fleetingly, a miraculous illumination. Fish compares the most skillful writers to great athletes:
The closest analogy, I think, is to sports highlights; you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks. The response is always, ‘Wasn’t that amazing?’ or ‘Can you believe it?’ or ‘I can’t for the life of me see how he did that,’ or ‘What an incredible move!’ or ‘That’s not humanly possible.’ And always the admiration is a rueful recognition that you couldn’t do it yourself even though you also have two hands and feet.
Roger that, professor.
John Hicks just wants to make the team.