- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2011


By Stanley Fish
Harper, $19.99, 164 pages

Who is Stanley Fish to tell us how to write and read a sentence? Well, for starters, he has been the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has taught at Duke, Johns Hopkins and Berkeley universities, and today he is the Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor and a law professor at Florida International University. OK, but university professors are not, by definition, writers of clear, sparkling prose. Then consider this: He has written 12 books and is a weekly columnist for the New York Times.

You know this is going to be a serious book, but it’s heartening to see that the author has a sense of humor. He begins the book with this quatrain from Kenneth Koch’s poem “Permanently”:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.

An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.

The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.

The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence… .

The book is divided into 10 chapters, the first of which is titled “Why Sentences?” Mr. Fish quotes Annie Dillard’s response to a student who asked her whether she thought he could be a writer. Ms. Dillard replied, “Well, do you like sentences?” Her point was that a writer, like a painter, should not begin with a grand conception of the finished product, whether painting or novel.

“You begin,” advises Mr. Fish, “with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.” That’s great advice.

The first chapter contains a mixed bag of sentences that pleased Stanley Fish. In one, he quotes Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.” The author also admires John Updike’s great line about the home run Ted Williams hit in his last career at-bat in Fenway: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”

Another helpful quote is what Hugh Kenner advised when Mr. Fish was starting a book: “Just get the first sentence right, everything else will follow.” Many journalists consider this heresy; they are taught to write the article and write the lede. But here we’re talking about clear writing, not journalism - which should be synonymous but often is not.

The author invites the reader to try his hand at writing a sentence like Updike’s, and even gives it a try himself. It turns out to be an intriguing exercise, the idea and spirit of which stay with you throughout the book.

Speaking of heresy, Mr. Fish titles one chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White.” In that chapter, he says that S&W assume their readers are already familiar with the building blocks of language, the parts of speech and sentences. In today’s world, where students’ thumbs wear out long before their fingers, it’s not a helpful assumption to make.

Mr. Fish writes that people dislike having to write because “they fear committing one of the innumerable errors that seem to lie in wait for them at every step of composition.” Then he cuts to the chase: “There is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical.”

One of the many things I like about this book - and its author - is Mr. Fish’s penchant for quotes and analogies from fields other than literature or criticism or “the teaching of composition,” (in which you can now get a Ph.D.).

For example, to support his point that “It’s Not the Thought that Counts” (Chapter 3), he cites the wise counsel of Mr. Miyagi: “This then,” writes Mr. Fish, “is my theology: You should tie yourself to forms and the forms will set you free. I call this the Karate Kid method of learning how to write. … [H]e is asked by his teacher to practice polishing cars (‘Wax on, wax off’) and painting fences. Although the kid thinks he isn’t learning anything, he is learning everything; he is learning the formal motions that, when actual combat occurs, will come to him naturally.”

The author then moves on to explain what, in his opinion, makes a good sentence, discusses subordinating elements and then discusses what he terms “the additive style.” Some of the sections make you feel as if you’ve walked into a seminar on logic, but that’s hardly a bad thing.

Stanley Fish works hard, and he expects the reader to do the same. But, as a sort of bonus, the writers he quotes to support his points are a magnificent melange: Virginia Woolfe, George Eliot, Laurence Sterne, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, John Milton, Jane Austen and Lewis Carroll, among many others. You’d get your money’s worth from the quotations alone. This not an easy read, but if you give this book the attention it so clearly deserves, you will be well rewarded.

John Greenya is the author of “Blood Relations: The Exclusive Inside Story of the Benson Family Murders” (Harcourt, 1987).

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