I don’t know anything much about Stanley Fish other than that I have heard and seen his name listed among critics of a certain age. When I first started reading his new book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One I was pretty open to what he had to say since I had no preconceived notions of what to expect. I soon found myself grinding my teeth and thinking he and Harold Bloom were probably BFFs. Then I found out that besides a literary critic he is also a legal scholar and suddenly he made a bit more sense.

The first part of the book is written like a lawyer wrote it. He has a whole neat and tidy argument laid out and he moves through it point by point. He says early on that he is a sentence watcher, not a sentence writer, yet that doesn’t stop him from putting forth his theories on the best way to learn how to write good sentences.

Fish is of the mind that form comes before content. Until you understand the forms a sentence can take and how a sentence works, one shouldn’t bother worrying about content. For Fish a sentence is two things:

  1. organization of items in the world
  2. a structure of logical relationships

Blessedly he is not a grammar Nazi. He insists you can understand what a sentence does without knowing the parts of speech and all that. But while you don’t need to know the parts of speech, you do need to know the variety of ways in which a sentence can be built and he is here to show us how.

The best way of course is to imitate well-written sentences. Take, for instance, the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. Rip it apart to see what it is doing, then use its form to write your own sentence. But don’t worry about content, only worry about the form. The sentence structure is a template and if you understand the template, then you can just fill in the blanks with content later.

When he says:

This, then, is my theology: You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free

And then goes on to say it’s like the Karate Kid being trained to fight by waxing the car and painting the fence. Well, I just about decided I had read far enough. I mean, Karate Kid is a movie. You can’t seriously tell me that “wax on, wax off” is a good way to learn karate. He does have a point in that a good writer does need to know how a sentence works. But I am in the Vonnegut camp in Like Shaking Hands with God when he says a writer needs to have passion and something to say before he or she tries to write anything. Then you start working to shape sentences to fit the content.

So I’m thinking I’m not going to finish the book but for some reason I keep reading. I’m glad I did because when Fish starts reading sentences, taking them apart and putting them back together again, he is really good. His analysis of what makes Virginia Woolf’s sentences so magical is marvelous. And his analysis of what Gertrude Stein does with her sentences is the best I have ever read. Happily, the middle section of the book is mostly Fish reading sentences and showing us why the ones he has chosen are so good. And it is fun to read.

Then the bubble is broken, we wind down to the end and he is back to his old self, but a little softer than in the beginning. Or maybe I was a little softer having so enjoyed the middle section of the book. Does the middle part make up for the beginning and end? Not entirely but it does make the book well worth reading. And if your personal approach to writing meshes with Fish’s then the entire book will likely be a pleasure. If you, like me, are not a writer, or have a writing philosophy opposed to Fish’s, the middle section of the book still makes it worthwhile.

The edition of How to Write a Sentence I read is a review copy sent to me by the people at HarperCollins.