After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”
Learning to write sound, interesting, sometimes elegant prose is the work of a lifetime. The only way I know to do it is to read a vast deal of the best writing available, prose and poetry, with keen attention, and find a way to make use of this reading in one’s own writing. The first step is to become a slow reader. No good writer is a fast reader, at least not of work with the standing of literature. Writers perforce read differently from everyone else. Most people ask three questions of what they read: (1) What is being said? (2) Does it interest me? (3) Is it well constructed? Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them: (4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And (5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing? This can slow things down a good bit.
All sorts of people write books that promise shortcuts to writing well, most not particularly helpful, if only because shortcuts are not finally available. Over the years, I have consulted many of these books, on rare occasions taking away a helpful hint or two, but not much more. The most famous is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which is devoted to teaching the composition of prose clear, crisp, and clean of excess verbiage or tricky syntax, served up in what is called the active voice. Nothing wrong with clean, crisp, and clean prose, or with the active voice, but The Elements of Style is limited in its usefulness, if only because there are more ways of writing well than the ideal advocated by its authors. On the Strunk and White standard, for example, I suspect my opening sentence would have to be heavily edited, if not deleted.
The best book on the art of writing that I know is F. L. Lucas’s Style (1955). Lucas was a Cambridge don, a Greek scholar, and an excellent literary essayist, especially good on eighteenth-century writers, who wrote a once-famous book called The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal. Style is filled with fine things, but the most useful to me in my own writing has been Lucas’s assertion that one does best always to attempt to use strong words to begin and end sentences. Straightaway this means eliminating the words “It” and “There” to begin sentences and dropping also the pompous “Indeed.” This advice also reinstates and gives new life to the old schoolmarmish rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition, for a prepositon is almost never a strong word.
F. L. Lucas wrote the best book on prose composition for the not-so-simple reason that, in the modern era, he was the smartest, most cultivated man to turn his energies to the task. He understood the element of magic entailed in great writing—and understood, too, that “faulty greatness in a writer stands above narrower perfections.” He also knew that in literature style can be a great preservative, and “how amazing it remains that . . . perfection of style can still do much to immortalize writers of the second magnitude like Horace and Virgil, Pope and Racine, and Flaubert himself.” Pause a moment to consider the wide reading required to have written that last sentence.
Style, according to F. L. Lucas, “is simply the effective use of language, especially in prose, whether to make statements or rouse emotions.” That it is, but it is also of course much more. Even though there have been national (English, French, German) and historical (baroque, rococo, plain) styles, style itself is not finally about ornamentation or its absence. In its subtlest sense style is a way of looking at the world, and an unusual or sophisticated way of doing so is not generally acquired early in life. This why good writers rarely arrive with the precocity of visual artists or musical composers or performers. Time is required to attain a point of view of sufficient depth to result in true style.
In a chapter boldly titled “The Foundation of Style—Character,” Lucas writes that “the beginning of style is character.” I write “boldly,” for what, one might at first think, has character to do with composition. “The fundamental thing,” Lucas explains, “is not technique, useful though that may be; if a writer’s personality repels, it will not avail to eschew split infinitives, to master the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which,’ to have Fowler’s Modern English Usage by heart. Soul is more than syntax.”
Lucas didn’t hold that good character will make an ungifted person write better, rather that without good character superior writing is impossible. And, in fact, most of the best prose writers in English have been men and women of exceedingly good character: Samuel Johnson, Edward Gibbon, Jane Austen, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, Max Beerbohm, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, Willa Cather. Even those excellent writers with less than good character—compose your own list here—seem to have been able to have faked good character, at least while at their desks.
F. L. Lucas fought and was wounded in World War I, opposed the British policy of appeasement, was properly skeptical of the Soviet Union, and, along with H. W. Fowler, had acquired the most interesting point of view of those who have attempted books on the art of writing well. A paragraph from Lucas’ first chapter, “The Value of Style,” will suffice to render his point of view, with its fine sense of perspective and proportion, plain:
It is unlikely that many of us will be famous, or even remembered. But not less important than the brilliant few that lead a nation or a literature to fresh achievements, are the unknown many whose patient efforts keep the world from running backward; who guard and maintain the ancient values, even if they do not conquer new; whose inconspicuous triumph it is to pass on what they inherited from their fathers, unimpaired and undiminished, to their sons. Enough, for almost all of us, if we can hand on the torch, and not let it down; content to win the affection, if it may be, of a few who know us and to be forgotten when they in their turn have vanished. The destiny of mankind is not governed wholly by its “stars.”
First day of class I used to tell students that I could not teach them to be observant, to love language, to acquire a sense of drama, to be critical of their own work, or almost anything else of significance that comprises the dear little demanding art of putting proper words in their proper places. I didn’t bring it up, lest I discourage them completely, but I certainly could not help them to gain either character or an interesting point of view. All I could do, really, was point out their mistakes, and, as someone who had read much more than they, show them several possibilities about deploying words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, of which they might have been not have been aware. Hence the Zenish koan with which I began: writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned.
In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish, in his jauntily confident manner, promises much more. Fish’s central key to good writing, his Open Sesame, is to master forms of sentences, which can be imitated and later used with one’s own content when one comes to write one’s own compositions. Form, form, form, he implores, it is everything. “You shall tie yourself to forms,” he writes, “and forms will set you free.”
By forms Stanley Fish means the syntactical models found in the sentences of good writers, or sometimes even in grabber lines from movies, or even interviews with movie stars: “If you want to see the girl next door,” he recounts Joan Crawford saying, “go next door.” He serves up John Updike’s sentence about Ted Williams’s last home run in Fenway Park—“It was in the books while it was still in the sky”—as a form that can be made use of in one’s own writing by wringing changes on the original. “It was in my stomach while it was still on the shelf” is Fish’s example of such a change.
Fish’s first bit of instruction is that one practice wringing changes on these forms, over and over again, as a beginning music student might practice scales. “It may sound paradoxical,” he writes, “but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.” He adds: “For the purposes of becoming a facile (in the positive sense) writer of sentences, the sentences you practice with should have as little meaning as possible.” Is this true? Taking the Updike sentence for my model, allow me to kitchen-test the method: “My toches was still in Chicago while my mind was in Biarritz”; “My mind was still in Vegas while my toches was in the Bodleian.” I fear it doesn’t do much for me, but perhaps I am too far gone for such warming-up exercises.
The larger point for Fish is that one learns to write
not by learning the rules [of grammar, syntax, and the rest], but by learning the limited number of relationships your words, phrases, and clauses can enter into, and becoming alert to those times when the relationships are not established or are unclear: when a phrase just dangles in space, when a connective has nothing to connect to, when a prepositional phrase is in search of a verb to complement, when a pronoun cannot be paired with a noun.
That ungainly Fishian sentence is of course itself built on reciting a few rules, but let that pass. The first thing that one might argue with in Stanley Fish’s method is that the number of relationships that words, phrases, and clauses can enter into is not limited, but nearly inexhaustible. In art, anyone writing a book on how to write ought to remember there are no rules except the rule that there are no rules. One does come upon a sentence with a fresh form from time to time, and makes a note to abscond with it, but learning the forms of sentences alone will not take one very far. The argument of How to Write a Sentence is that it will take you all the way: “Hence the formula [of this book]: sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation.”
Some well established sentence forms are, in fact, better neglected. Those sentences that begin with the word “Although,” or those sentences requiring a “however” somewhere in their middle, are almost always dead on arrival. If a form is imitable, it is probably stale, and hence best avoided. Superior writers do not seek out old forms. They create forms of their own devising.
Fish’s notion that “without form, content cannot emerge” is not very helpful either, and, except in the most blatant way, untrue. Content obviously needs to be given form, but in my experience it dictates form rather more than the other way round. Form too well fixed, in fact, is ripe for comic response. “The world is everything that is the case,” wrote Wittgenstein, “So stop your blubbering and wash your face,” added, several years later, the poet Donald Hall.
If one is to write a solid book on how to write, one ought on every page to demonstrate one’s own mastery of the skill. H. W. Fowler, the author of Modern English Usage, a writer with great powers of formulation, dressed out in witty peremptoriness, was easily able to do so. Here he is on the delicate matter of the split infinitive: “The English-speaking world is divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.”
Ernest Gowers, who revised Modern English Usage and wrote an excellent book called Plain Words intended to eliminate the pompo-verbosity of bureaucrats, commanded a fine common-sense style suitable to his message. Writing early in the history of the feminist incursions on language: Gowers noted: “chairperson and other new words ending in person have yet to win general approval. Meanwhile, it is safer for official writers to be cautiously conservative, and to take evasive action where possible.”
Stanley Fish is not a writer of this caliber. He is a fluent, sometimes a lively (for an academic), but finally an undistinguished writer. A self-advertised sophist, he is most at home in polemic. Sentence by sentence, this would-be connoisseur of sentences is insufficiently scrupulous. He often roams deep into cliché country. “You can talk the talk,” he writes, “but you can’t walk the walk.” Earlier he writes that “the very thought of putting pen to paper, an anachronism I find hard to let go of, is enough to bring on an anxiety attack.” An anachronism isn’t the same as a cliché, and pen to paper, as clichés go, is blue ribbon, and let go of it, gladly, Fish should have done. His diction, or word choice, is commonplace: those worn-out vogue words “focus,” “meaningful,” and “bottom line,” come to him all too readily. “But, far from being transparent and incisive,” he writes, “these declarations come wrapped in a fog; they seem to skate on their own surface and simply don’t go deep enough.” Take three metaphors, mix gently, sprinkle lightly with abstraction, and serve awkwardly. These infelicities are from Fish’s first twenty pages. Many more, to stay with my salad metaphor, are peppered throughout the book.
Unless one is considering aphorisms or maxims, the study of the sentence, by itself, has its severe limits. After one has charted simple, complex, and compound sentences, mentioned sentences dominated by subordinate clauses and sentences that are additive, or add one clause after another on their tail end, there isn’t all that much useful to say, except that one sentence is ill- and another well-made, one tone deaf and another sonorous.
Fish ignores the crucial fact that sentences owe their form and their language to their place in that larger entity, the paragraph. One cannot know the form one sentence is to take until having taken into cognizance the sentence, or sentences, that precede it. As the principle of poetry is—or once was—uniformity of meter, so the reigning principle of prose is variety, which means avoiding uniformity of syntax, rhythm, repetition of words, sameness of syntax. A sentence, every sentence, is a tile in a briefer or lengthier mosaic known as a paragraph. No sentence, like no man, as the poet said, is an island.
Here is a paragraph from that brilliant prose mosaicist Evelyn Waugh from his biography Ronald Knox, in which I can descry seven artless—which is to say perfectly artistic—sentences and no clear forms whatsoever:
Ronald had no desire to grow up. Adolescence, for him, was not a process of liberation or of adventure. Manhood threatened him with tedious duties and grave decisions. His mind had flourished and matured while his heart was still a child’s. He grew up slowly. Each stage of his growth imposed a burden; each enlargement of spirit, the loss of something fond. Perhaps some instinctive foreboding of the heaviness of the coming years years tinctured his love of Eton and sharpened his longing to delay.
The only sentences that stand alone—that is, that are not utterly dependent on what has come before them—are the first and, to a lesser extent, the last sentences in a composition. Fish defines the missions of first and last sentences thus: “First sentences . . . are promissory notes,” prefiguring what is to follow. Last sentences “can sum up, refuse to sum up, change the subject, leave you satisfied, leave you wanting more, put everything into perspective, or explode perspectives.” I should put it differently. Excellent first sentences are about seduction, seducing the reader, at a minimum, to read the second sentence. Fish chose to ignore the best first sentence in literature, which is Tolstoy’s in Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Often first sentences aren’t composed as first sentences at all, and rare, I should say, is the writer who has never had the experience of discovering that his initial first sentence was a misfit and that his composition starts better by opening with the sentence beginning his second or third or fourth paragraph.
As for last sentences, along with that of A Tale of Two Cities (“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done before; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known”) of which Stanley Fish doesn’t approve, the best in my opinion is that which ends on Madame Bovary: “Monsieur Homais received the legion of honor,” which signals a victory for all that its author wants his readers to despise. The task of a fine last sentence is to set the plane down safely, without any bumps, and the satisfying sense of a trip completed.
Stanley Fish refers to himself as a “sentence nut” and at one point refers to “the wonderful world of sentences,” reminding me of nothing so much as of the Erpi Classroom films of my boyhood, which contained lines like “Wonderful world of fungus,” with the public-school camera generally grinding to a slow breakdown on the word fungus. In his chapter “What Is A Good Sentence?” he neglects to tell us what, precisely, it is, perhaps because there is no convincing solitary answer. He teaches, as the old proverb has it, by example—the example of a few score sentences scattered through his book.
What these ostensibly exemplary sentences prove is that, in the realm of sentences, tastes differ. Fish exults over sentences by Leonard Michaels, D. H. Lawrence, Virgina Woolf, and Ralph Waldo Emerson that I find without power or charm. He cites an abstruse sentence from Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” on the composition of sentences when much better, and more efficient, sentences were available to him in the preface to that same story: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see,” followed by the clincher close, “That—and no more, and it is everything.”
Fish quotes a few sentences by Gertrude Stein—he ends his book on her writing about the seduction of diagramming sentences—and is under the impression that she was a great writer. (He also quotes from that most useless, for the real writer, of essays, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.”) What Gertrude Stein attempted was to make prose do what the great avant-garde art of her day—that of painting—did, by writing in the continuous present and using boring repetitions as if filling in a canvas. She failed in her attempt, and a good thing, too, for English prose.
Perhaps the reason for the rather poor choices of so many of Fish’s sentences is that they allow him, in obeisance to his subtitle, which promises how also to read a sentence, to do rather elaborate riffs—explications du texte, in the old New Criticism phrase—on these sentences. While many of these heavy-breathing exercises allow Professor Fish to work himself up into a fine pedagogical lather, their chief effect on this reader is to remind him that it is good no longer to be a student.
I seem to have written more than three thousand words without a single kind one for How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. To remedy this, at least partially, let it be noted that, at 165 pages, index and acknowledgments and biographical note on the author included, it is a short book.
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish; Harper, 165 pages, $19.99.