Stanley Fish just might be America’s most famous professor. His columns for the New York Times routinely receive hundreds of comments, and he has published 12 books, including How to Write a Sentence. This slim volume—clever as it is informative—documents Fish’s love affair with language and guides readers in their own pursuit of clear writing. BookPage caught up with the professor for his take on writing mistakes, favorite authors and how sentences can save us.
You write that you appreciate fine sentences as others appreciate fine wines. Do you have a favorite?
My favorite sentence is the one by Swift that I analyze in the book. I admire it for its efficiency, its apparent simplicity and its extraordinarily quiet brutality. “Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.” (Did he really say that?)
Who is the intended audience of How to Write a Sentence?
I had multiple audiences in mind. I’m speaking in part to the universe of composition teachers, many of whom have been seduced by what I call “the lure of content.” I hope to persuade some of them to pay serious and extended attention to forms. I also write for those who find themselves taken with a sentence they read or hear, but don’t quite have the vocabulary to describe and analyze the source of their pleasure. And I am writing for the even larger audience made up of those who fear the act of composing, and feel that writing something coherent and efficient is a task immeasurably beyond them.
I want to tell these readers that they can do it, perhaps not as well as a Jonathan Swift or an Oscar Wilde or a Virginia Woolf, but in a way that brings the satisfaction that attends any act of mastery.
When did you first discover that language has the power to “organize the world” and that sentences can “save us”?
I’ve always thrilled to the power of language, but it was only when I studied classical, medieval and renaissance rhetoric in graduate school that I discovered a world of verbal effects and the ways of codifying them. Almost everything I have done both in my academic work and in my public journalism has emerged from my study of rhetoric.
When I say that sentences can save us I mean that in a world where projects often go awry and situations are almost never neatly and finally resolved, the existence of sentences that move confidently to their destination and provide, for a moment, a definitive summing-up is something of a miracle, and one we can have recourse to at any time.
What is the most common mistake your students make in writing sentences?
All of the mistakes that students make stem from a failure to realize that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships; that is, a structure every component of which relates in a rigorous way to every other component.
You give examples of how to write sentences like Henry James, Tana French and other authors. Is every author imitable? Can you learn to write like Faulkner?
It depends on what you mean by “like Faulkner.” If you mean can you learn to write sentences that communicate both the power and the anguish of Faulkner’s, the answer is not very likely. But you can learn how to write sentences as long and as involuted as Faulkner’s, while learning how to maintain and extend a basic structure of thought for many clauses and phrases. Learning to do that won’t make you Faulkner, but it will make you a better writer.
You refer to “virtuosi in the art” of crafting sentences. In your opinion, who is at the top of that esteemed group?
Ford Madox Ford, especially in The Good Soldier, every sentence of which is a marvel.
I spent many hours in high school diagramming sentences for a course titled Modern Grammar. You write that Gertrude Stein found this activity “exciting”—but my 14-year-old self found it quite taxing. Why should students make the effort to diagram sentences?
When Stein says that the experience of diagramming sentences is exciting, what she means is that the experience of everything falling into place in a complex structure is exciting because it gives you a glimpse into the possibility of achieving a kind of perfection, even if it is perfection on a small scale.
Do all devoted readers have the capability of being good writers, too?
All devoted readers have the capability of becoming better writers because they are devoted readers; whether they become good in some strong sense of that word is another matter, but better is good enough.
Author photo by Jay Rosenblatt.