25 October, 2021
On Stanley Fish’s How to Read to Read a Sentence and How to Write One

It may not sound like all that difficult a thing to do. Subject, verb, object, and voila, you have a sentence. But for readers, and writers, the sentence is the coin of the realm, the catch that holds a reader fast to a story. And I love that Stanley Fish wrote a book just about sentences.  And he’s qualified: a professor of law and dean emeritus at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois, Fish has read nearly everything it seems. He looks at both structure and content in a way that is intellectually rigorous and personal, and he is clearly a fan of the well-crafted sentence.

Here, for example is his description of how sentences move a reader:

“…words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time.”

Fish is a keen appreciator of literature, and once he has defined his view of what sentences are, what they do, and how they do it, he moves into examples.  And of course, for writers, this book is a chance to move into the realm of language construction—for just as carpenters love the smell of timber and the sound of a hammer on a the head of nail, I think writers too are prone to a fascination with the nuts and bolts of sentence—and Fish ably examines structure, syntax, grammar and usage, all in his clear, easy style. Words, as any writer who’s just finished a first draft can tell you, can be lumbering, maddeningly opaque things, a point Fish affirms: “Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere.”

I more than agree with his advice for writers to “make language so transparent a medium that it disappears and interposes no obstacle or screen between the reader and the thing it points to.” Though it’s one thing to intend and another to achieve. But I learned a lot from this book, and felt well-advised by Fish. As curator of sentences, he has excellent taste. Here, he cites a language-related line from Anthony Burgess’s novel Enderby Outside (1968):

 And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

As sentences go, I’d say that one definitely grabs.

—Lauren Alwan

So writers, how do you approach writing your sentences? And readers, what in a sentence makes you stop your reading and drift into the place a perfect sentence takes you?

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