Stanley Fish's latest book has not surprisingly generated a large number of reviews. Etc. It is How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, and it aims apparently to help the reader to write and read sentences. I have read and continue to enjoy Fish's literary theoretical work and his later work applying the insights and principles gleaned from his literary work to law and professionalism in academia, but I probably won't get around to reading the new book, because I'm not interested in how to write a sentence. I am interested in what Fish has to say about how to read one, but for that I'll revisit his earlier literary work, such as Self-Consuming Artifacts or Doing What Comes Naturally.
How to Write a Sentence is indeed a kind of how-to book. An endless stream of how-to books and similar works that purport to explain aspects of the world in terms fit for dummies gluts the market. Many are easy to spot. They sport titles — with Fish's latest, both a main title and a subtitle — that commence with an interrogative. A random assortment: Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddeon; Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America; Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It [a two-fer!]; What the Gospels Meant; Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and so on. Publishers evidently hope to attract a large prospective readerships' desire to know "how..." or "what..." or "why..." something is the case, or "how to..." do something.
Sometimes in lieu of an interrogative, titles — often those of popular non-fiction books — feature colloquial sounding phrases to attract the demotic reader. Fish (or his publisher) took this approach with There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing, Too, and also with Is There a Text in this Class?, the latter being a rare example of the device not merely being used to sell books, but to illustrate the point of the author's thesis. Among the works of James Gleick, one of my least favorite authors whose books I've never read, is What Just Happened: A Chronicle from the Information Frontier (the interrogative approach) and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (folksy). I wish authors would discontinue the practice of "dumbing down" (a self-consuming reference, to be sure) their titles in these ways. One of the reasons, I admit, that I don't want to read Fish's latest is its embarrassing title. (Yet I really admire TNSTAFS: AIAGT,T, precisely because of its blunt, outlandish matter-of-factness.)
By focusing on sentences, rather than novels, poems, styles, or genres, and by aiming to produce a user's manual, rather than a more traditionally scholarly lofty but useless tome, Fish has assumed a task that makes it difficult to reconcile his deep love and knowledge of literature with his own canny skills at writing and argument. (One reviewer, Lee Epstein, questions Fish's authorial skill, claiming Fish is "an undistinguished writer." It would be easy, too easy, to demonstrate how Epstein is wrong, and that he himself is no Sir Thomas Browne.) Take the opening sentence to this paragraph from the first chapter of Fish's book:
One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you're not looking for them. I was driving home listening to NPR and heard a commentator recount a story about the legendary actress Joan Crawford. It seems that she never left the house without being dressed as if she were going to a premiere or a dinner at Sardi's. An interviewer asked her why. She replied, "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door." It is hardly surprising that Joan Crawford had thought about the importance to fans of movie stars behaving like movie stars (since her time, there has been a sea change; now, courtesy of paparazzi, we see movie stars picking up their laundry in Greenwich Village or Brentwood); what may be surprising is that she could convey her insight in a sentence one could savor. It is the bang-bang swiftness of the short imperative clause — "go next door" — that does the work by taking the commonplace phrase "the girl next door" literally and reminding us that "next door" is a real place where one should not expect to find glamour (unless of course one is watching Judy Garland singing "The Boy Next Door" in Meet Me in St. Louis).
I take issue with the premise of the first sentence that one reads for the satisfaction of appreciating, even envying, the occasional witty aphorism or retort. Yet that is Fish's point. He wants to collect a good sentence and "put it under a microscope and examine its innermost workings."
The obsession with sentences infects his reviewers, too. The NPR story begins, "Most people know a good sentence when they read one..." Epstein proclaims, "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." Simon Blackburn concludes, "Sentences matter, perhaps more than anything else..." Adam Haslett confesses, "I would count myself among [those] who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books they couldn't put down but by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn't help but repeat them to anyone who would listen..." It is disconcerting to witness so many self-proclaimed admirers of good writing allow their appreciation of the manifold variety of literary texts to be reduced to a fetishization of the linguistic molecule. The wink-nudge afforded by an overused trope — scholarly writing presented as operator's manual — is no relief.