April 2011

Amitava Kumar

Denis Dutton Is Dead

Sentences Can Save Us

(Note: The philosopher Denis Dutton (1944-2010) was a founder of the website Arts & Letters Daily but a part of his fame, or notoriety, was attached to his stewardship of the Bad Writing Contest. Dutton declared that his interest was in finding the “most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose.” The Contest awarded its “prize” to such writers as Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Judith Butler. There is much to complain about academic writing but there is also a great deal of anti-intellectual angst directed at such prose, especially if such prose is deemed “theoretical.” My task here is neither to praise Dutton, nor to bury him, but to bring to attention academic writing that is difficult to categorize, or is challenging in a new way, or is noteworthy for its inventiveness.)

I’m not much of a sentence man myself, although I wish I were, but I have a notion that those who are usually express their fetish by quoting first sentences from novels. (“Call me Ishmael.” “ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “A screaming comes across the sky.” “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” Etc.) In his new book, How to Write A Sentence, literary critic Stanley Fish devotes a chapter to first sentences and another to last sentences, but his taste isn’t reducible to a vulgar fetishism.

Like all academics, Fish also wants to understand. Part formalist, part forensic reader, he is interested in drawing our attention to a wide range of sentences and then explaining to us why they work. Here’s an early example from Fish: John Updike’s sentence telling us of the home run hit by Ted Williams in his last at bat in Fenway Park in September, 1960: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” This is part of what Fish has to say about what makes the depiction of that instant so effective in this sentence:

…he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park. Indeed, in his sentence the ball never gets out of the park. It is “still in the sky,” a phrase that has multiple meanings; the ball is still in the sky in the sense that it has not yet landed; it is still in the sky in the sense that its motion is arrested; and it is still in the sky in the sense that it is, and will remain forever, in the sky of the books, in the record of the game’s highest, most soaring achievements. On the surface, “in the book” and “in the sky” are in distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.

You, dear teacher, could use the above passage to teach your undergrad to slow down and appreciate what he or she had just read. But Fish’s aim is more specific and goes further: he wants your student try to write a perfect sentence. To write a sentence like Updike’s, your student will have to take note of the form and imitate it by “arranging clauses in somewhat the same way.” Fish is upbeat about the results, including his own, and quite encouraging: “And once you get the hang of it -- of zeroing in on a form that can then be filled with any number of contents -- you can do it forever.”  

You cannot get the sense of form from, say, Strunk and White. Fish is emphatic about this. On NPR, he calls old instruction manuals useless. Advice from that book like “Do not join independent clauses with a comma” presumes too much knowledge on the part of the writer; instead of rote learning of that kind, Fish wants writers to grasp that “(1) a sentence is an organization of items in the world; and (2) a sentence is a structure of logical relationships.” Several chapters of How to Write A Sentence introduce the formal devices through which we might understand a variety of syntactic structures, e.g., the additive style or the satiric style.

But does this allow me to write a better academic sentence? Does the sort of advice that Fish is offering work only among what we now call the younger demographic? I could ask the question in another way: all the examples that Fish has presented in the book are from literary fiction or nonfiction, and is he saying that he hasn’t encountered any memorable sentences in critical writing?

Let’s not forget: just a little while ago, Fish had begun a column for the New York Times with the following charge:

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?

The piece focused on a writing curriculum for undergraduates but the opening words cut into me. I recognized myself in that description, especially that part of me that wrote papers for my grad seminars twenty years ago, papers that had words like hegemony or historicization in their titles. So, there was that anxiety that persisted in my reading of the new Stanley Fish book. When I finished reading it, I admitted that I had taken delight in some of the sentences Fish had presented, and also his facile (in a good way) readings of those sentences, but I still wanted to know -- what language of criticism would he approve?

When I sent him a note asking for an example of a good sentence written by a literary critic, Fish wrote back saying this: “Here's one I like, Terry Eagleton's example of a theoretical question: ‘Why do we have all these practices, utterances and institutions rather than some others?’” I confess I found the sentence ordinary, quite unremarkable, and I wrote back to Fish, requesting him to share with me his reasons for singling out this sentence. Within minutes, he had sent back this response: “Because it invites us to asks a series of questions -- what are the practices we have and the institutions we inhabit, where did they come from and how do new ones emerge? -- which, if followed through, will lead to an entire course in literary and cultural theory. It a question posed in a very simple vocabulary that just keeps opening up.”

That was helpful, but I guess I wanted more. As I said before, I’m not a so much a sentence man. I like detail, it allows any piece of writing to gather individuality; but what gives any prose greater force is a conflict at its heart. (This might be a story of a contradiction that grows so large it threatens to shatter the assumptions with which we had begun. The conflict or crisis is an essential element but it can inhabit countless forms; the writing can go in many directions, what is crucial is that silence it induces, the silence in which we pay the writer our maximum attention.)

A day or two after my exchange with Fish I sent him another note:

Hello again.

This is probably bad form, at some level, but I couldn't resist asking you, especially because you're intellectually feisty and self-confident, if you'd in any way also relish pointing out how or why these sentences work, especially the second or the last ones (or if you'd at least say something as simple as "look at p.__ of my book Sentences to understand what is good about these lines by Eagleton):

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton.

Once again, Fish responded quickly. Once again, I was reading a clean, clear sentence. Fish had written, “Sorry, this time I'll have to decline.”

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He teaches English at Vassar College.