Peter Wood

Stanley Fish’s new book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, adds a flying buttress and a gargoyle or two to his ever-growing cathedral on contrarianism. Fish’s next-to-last book, Save the World on Your Own Time, 2008, called on the professoriate to shelve its interest in making classroom learning “relevant” by bringing politics to the table. Fish instead urged us to “academize” our subject, i.e. “detach it from its real world urgency…and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed.”

How to Write a Sentence moves still further into this lofty air. Contrary to prevailing approaches to college writing instruction that emphasize the mechanics of writing, Fish urges an aesthetic approach. Moreover, true to his title, he puts all his money on the English sentence as the unit of composition. How to Write a Sentence leaves little room for sequels such as ‘How to Write a Paragraph,’ or a sonnet, an essay, a term paper, or an epic. The idea—which seems to me as a quondam teacher of college rhetoric courses, entirely right—is that the student who masters the English sentence has nearly everything needful for the larger architectural tasks.

Fish’s cathedral of contrarianism is appealing in several important ways and yet not a building in which I really would want to linger. It appeals because Fish dispenses with grubbier forms of political correctness with such magisterial ease. He knows his material. In the opening pages of How to Write a Sentence, he enlists the help of counter-culture icon Annie Dillard, who offers an indelible image of a painter who chose his vocation because, “I like the smell of paint.” The writer must likewise “like sentences.” Fish thus puts forward his frankly aesthetic vision of writing and it isn’t long before he has worked up to appreciations of genuine aesthetes such as John Updike and Walter Pater. But he also inoculates himself against any charge that he is too highbrow. He finds dazzling sentences popping out of pop culture too. Joan Crawford explains her habit of never leaving home without being dressed as if for a premiere: “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

In a book saturated with such examples, it is hard not to fall under Fish’s sway. And yet.

His cathedral is ultimately a pretty drafty place. It is beautiful but empty. My calling it a cathedral isn’t gratuitous either. Near the end of chapter three in this ostensible “how to” book, Fish announces his “theology.” That word, like many of Fish’s, is semi-serious as well as facetious. His “theology” turns out to be syntax: “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.

That sentence, of course, parodies Jesus’ teaching (John 8:32), “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Substituting “the forms” for “the truth” is a little miracle of Fishian compression. The critic who has castigated abstract principle in favor of situational judgment (The Trouble with Principle, 1999) and elbowed aside the idea of free speech (There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too,1994), might as well dispense with “truth” too—though Fish seems to understand it is better to evade Truth in subtle maneuvers than to face it on the street at high noon.

Fish’s reference to “the forms” could mislead a reader, for a moment, to think that he is evoking Plato. But Fish’s forms are, as I said, syntactical, not the realm of ultimate reality. There are no Fishian ultimates, “there is only flux,” as he says apropos of Walter Pater’s world of “infinitely divisible” impressions. The flux, however, can be checked and channeled by the logical form of sentence. Sentences that begin “Had I…” go one direction; sentences that begin “Even though…” go another. The forms that glisten for him are “verbal forms that enable thought and meaning.”

Fish, who is 73, reminds me of the young Augustine who, in his Confessions, recalls his brilliant facility with and love of rhetoric as a youth. Augustine, of course, came to repudiate facility for the sake of facility. Fish has instead made it his life-long pursuit. We are both richer and poorer for his choice. I am glad to have the writings of America’s most celebrated scholar of the humanities. If he prompts some students to yearn for a fuller knowledge of literature and a keener understanding of the arts of persuasion, so much the better. If he leaves those students puffed up in the accomplishment, so much the worse. My own sense is that time spent lingering over Fish’s writings leaves one ill at ease and grappling with the question, “Is this all?”

How to Write a Sentence is, I think, a masquerade of a book. It isn’t really proffering advice to novice writers, though Fish, true to Form, never breaks character. The book can be read as his answer to Strunk & White, if one decides to shrink one’s attention away from Fish’s pervasive anti-theology. The book is really, however, a luxurious immersion in Fish’s hot tub of post-modernist sophistry. It’s a very pleasant experience while it lasts, but after 162 pages, the reader is ready to towel off and head out to the world of hard edges and realities not necessarily encompassed by syntax, no matter how beautiful.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on November 1, 2011.

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