The confessions of a sentence junkie may not have the inherent squalid drama of accounts by opium eaters, World of Warcraft addicts or even chocoholics, but the self-revelation can be every bit as fraught.
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose tells the story of young author she knows who, when asked by his high-powered agent what subjects he was most interested in writing about, confessed that “[w]hat he really cared about, what he wanted most of all was to write … really great sentences.”
His agent told him, after a sigh (no doubt a heavy one): “Promise me that you will never, ever in your life say that to an American publisher.”
It has been a decade since the infamous A Reader’s Manifesto was published in The Atlantic Monthly. This screed by one B.R. Myers, which flayed the prose of E. Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and others, waged an attack on what he called “the sentence cult.”
As a card-carrying cult member, I can still recall the sting of the assault. Myers’s primary targets were reviewers who felt compelled to tell the reader “some nonsense about sentences that ‘slither and pounce,” blinded by the pretension and vapidity of contemporary literary fiction. (An extreme example, but it’ll do: In a Globe and Mail review in 2000, I spent the first four paragraphs waxing ecstatic over Rick Moody’s way with a sentence.)
Worse yet, the examples Myers used to lay waste to DeLillo and Moody, the novel White Noise and the short story Demonology are in my junkie pantheon.
The highest praise non-members of the cult can give a book is the wan “The writing doesn’t call attention to itself.” In other words, just get on with the story so that the reader can pretend it wrote itself. (A twist on Roland Barthes’s death of the author?)
The go-to guy for these puritans, who no doubt have Strunk & Whites’ The Elements of Style tattooed on their chests, is Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I take it out.” (The advice of those spoilsports Strunk & White would eviscerate the King James New Testament, with its rule-breaking sentences beginning with prepositions and replete with oddly placed italics. (A personal favourite: “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie”: Revelations 22:15)
So hail the new junkie king, Stanley Fish, and his slender but potent volume How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One. Fish, a distinguished law professor and literary theorist, and a New York Times columnist, is the anti-Strunk & White. (In fact, he has a chapter titled Why You Won’t Find The Answer in Strunk and White.) Fish belongs to the “tribe of sentence watchers” who exalt over the performance of a sentence in the same way sports junkies exclaim while watching highlights; “[Y]ou know,” he writes, “the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches.”
In a joyful and lucid manner, Fish demonstrates that the issue is not an oppositional “style versus content” or “style versus substance,” but that style IS substance: “The shaping power of language cannot be avoided. … We can only choose our style, not choose to abandon style, and it behooves us to know what the various styles in our repertoire are for and what they can do.”
Fish finds slam dunks everywhere from Milton to Martin Luther King Jr., from Henry James to Hemingway, from Joyce to a quote from Joan Crawford.
Reviewing Fish in The Financial Times of London, American novelist Adam Haslett noted the effect Strunk &Whites’ plain and concise style had on American fiction, with a little help from Hemingway: “If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie, its second half would conclude with the young Ernest walking into a saloon, finding an etoliated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead.”
The line in the sand does shift, though. “New ways of doing things with language’s limited but protean repertoire of forms are always being invented,” Fish writes. Pyrotechnical writers such as George Saunders and David Foster Wallace have cited Hemingway and Raymond Carver as influences. Fish demonstrates the protean nature of the sentence through examples of writers as different from one another as Sterne, Salinger, Stein, Hemingway and Woolf using the same form with very different stylistic effects.
“One of the properties of language is its ability to generate sentences that have never been heard before,” wrote the late prose magician Donald Barthelme about Edward Gorey and his startling texts, “Surely ‘They spent the better part of the night murdering the child in various ways’ is such a sentence.”
For Barthelme – who also wrote on visual art – a painting, a poem, a story, a novel and a sentence were “objects” in the world, rather than representations of the world. Think of a sentence as a thing in itself (yes, it can slither and pounce, and do all kinds of other tricks, or stand silent as an Easter Island statue). In fact, a single sentence can be a world.
“I have to stand guilty as charged,” Claire Messud, author of a 2006 bestseller, The Emperor’s Children, told an interviewer in response to his question about online reader reviews on sites such as amazon.com accusing her of writing sentences that “go on and on.” “I’m really interested in the capacity of the sentence, what it can hold, what keeps it going, what keeps it clear.”
You would think all writers write because they are head-over-heels in love with sentences, no? American author and editor Ben Marcus writes that in the literary world a false dichotomy has emerged: successful writers who can make readers feel by making them care about their characters and writers who care more about language – the storytellers and the users of language and never the twain shall meet. But Marcus argues that language can also create strong feelings.
Canadian writers Lee Henderson’s and Colin McAdam’s novels The Man Game and Some Great Thing are perfect examples of books in which plot and character and language present a united front. But there are so many “literary” authors who take no evident joy in the sentence, whose assemblages of subject, verb and predicate are barely living things. Their sentences are drones on a death march, ankles shackled together, one plodding foot in front of the other. Or their drones are perfumed nightmares. Or their drones have a tin ear and, like white men, can’t jump. When needing a fix, these are not the drones I seek.
A young, so-called cutting-edge novelist read at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival a few years ago: “I sat down. I flicked back my hair. I asked her for a cigarette. ‘But you don’t smoke,’ she said.” Most tweets have more linguistic effect. Martin Amis, who knows his way around plot and character but also cares deeply about language, disdainfully calls this kind of writing “vow-of-poverty prose.”
“[T]he writers I like and trust have at the base of their prose something called the English sentence. An awful lot of modern writing seems to me a depressed use of language,” Amis told The Paris Review in 1998: “Much modern prose is praised for its terseness, its scrupulous avoidance of curlicue, et cetera. … I don’t think these writers are being terse out of choice. I think they are being terse because it’s the only way they can write.”
For a master class on the sentence, you could do worse than turn to the work – fiction and non-fiction – of the late David Foster Wallace. “You could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure,” Jonathan Franzen said at a memorial service for DFW in October, 2008.
Zadie Smith, no slouch with a sentence herself, parsed a number of Wallace’s sentences at length in an homage in her 2009 essay collection, Changing My Mind. “Wallace’s real innovation was his virtuosic use of the recursive sentence, a weird and wonderful beast that needs quoting at length to be appreciated,” Smith wrote.
She argued that Wallace, for all his innovation, was always “grammatically immaculate” and feeling and meaning were embedded in every line: “The spiral sentences, the looping syntax, the repetition, the invasion of clinical vocabulary – none of this is mere ‘formal stunt-pilotry.’ ”
Hemingway was always seeking the “one true sentence”; Stanley Fish writes, “Sentences can save us.”
Do readers care this deeply about sentences, or is it just us sentence-junkie writers looking to score or cooking up our next fix?
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner’s story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, will be published in April.