Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: "How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One" by Stanley Fish

It seems perfectly reasonable to use this blog to also review books on writing. Because writers love to read, and especially love to read books about writing. Plus, I'm certainly on the lookout for books I can get tips from to apply to my revisions.

I believe I'd been recommended How to Write and Sentence by another writer I follow. She had good things to say about the book, and I said, what the hell? I love being nit-picky with sentences (probably because of my foundation in short stories), and that title is certainly catchy, should be a good read.

Well, I have very mixed feelings about Mr. Fish's book. And I have dubbed it a toilet reading book.

What is a toilet reading book you ask? Well, it's a book that I'm sort of interested in, but can't seem to make myself read unless I'm on the toilet (making myself a captive audience). I can actually get through it because I only have to devote a few minutes every day to it. It's something I know I should read, but not necessairly something I'm enjoying reading.

Here's what I didn't like about the book:

1. It feels more like a book about studying literature, then a book about writing.

Most of the book is detailed analysis of sentences from classic works of literature - praising them for their genius. Yes, Mr. Fish offers us some exercises to try so we can learn to mimic what he calls form. But, nearly all of the examples of sentences he uses are from classics written before 1930. Which brings me to...

2. Almost all the examples are from books a hundred years old.

There is an appreciation for classics that all good writers should have, yes, but I don't know if mimicking a hundred, two hundred year old styles is productive for a contemporary writer. Modern styles are very different from things written a hundred years ago, from fifty years ago. We don't speak or write like our grandparents, and publishers aren't really looking for people who do. That doesn't mean there's not something to be learned from classics, or that something sounds like it was written a hundred years ago won't publish, but it's certainly not the norm. I wished that he would have looked at a more well rounded or at least contemporary writing to do this comparisons. But because he doesn't it feels like he just wants to look at classics making it feel more like a literature appreciate class than a writing tip.

3. Mr. Fish sounds pretentious.

Clearly he loves writing verbose sentences that border on the poetic, which becomes very difficult to read by page ten. Hence, the toilet reading status.

However, as much as it sounds like I didn't like the book, I think it's a good read.

Here's what How to Write a Sentance has going for it:

1. It's short.

The book is 160 pages. A quick read even with the intense literary writing style.

2. The sentence analyisis are really good.

There are some really interesting analysis of what makes a lasting sentence that is really useful to think about when applying it to your own writing, particularly first sentences. There's a whole chapter on a first sentence that really helps nails what an opening should be. It made me want to turn around and start looking deeply at my first sentence, and a few others I'm particularly fond of. I wanted to do some sentence analysis of some of my favorite book openings.

3. It got me thinking.

As much as the classic comparisons irked me, it did get me thinking about how I can apply this wisdom to what I'm writing. How I can use what he sees in that old sentence, and how I can stick it into a new sentence by me. And that made it worth reading.

So, if you think you can, I actually recommend reading How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish, but not buying it. I know it's available at my library, because that's where I got this one. So, go check it out and be prepared to renew.

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