Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In an interview with the Washington Post shortly after Goldengrove was published, Francine Prose sighed, “I would really like, before this whole thing is over, for at least one review to talk about the sentences in my novel.” Before it was anything else, she said, Goldengrove was a “vehicle for me to hang those sentences on.”

Along with every other reviewer of the novel, I failed her. A little later, in reviewing Robert Cohen’s Amateur Barbarians, a lesser novel, I did discuss the sentences. But as much as I have written about Prose—with more to come in a national magazine—I have never said anything about the grammatically complete expressions of her thought.

Or does she mean something else by “sentences”? In Latin, sententiae are opinions, aphorisms, dicta. Indeed, in the Middle Ages sententiae were short passages from longer works that were copied out and rearranged for their moral or amorous wisdom—a meaning still preserved in the adjective sententious. The earliest use of the word recorded in the OED, dating from the first quarter of the thirteenth century, refers to the meaning of a passage rather than its wording.

Almost exactly the opposite is its use by contemporary writers. “I turn sentences around,” Lonoff tells Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer:

That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.This may be the surest way to divide the world of literature into East and West. There are some writers for whom literary distinction is identified, at its most basic level, with exactitude of sentences. And there are other writers whose priorities lie elsewhere—story, thesis, “atmosphere,” effect, catching the wave of topical chatter. For years, when new acquaintances would ask my opinion of Stephen King, I would not know what to say, since I have never given him a second thought. Now it occurs to me why: King spares little attention to his sentences.

And I wonder if this is the real division that critics only approximate when they speak of the difference between “serious writing” and everything else. The novelist Charles Johnson attributes it to a sense of urgency:Now if you can write out of the sense that you’re going to die as soon as this work is done, then you will write with urgency, honesty, courage and without flinching at all, as if this were the last testament in language, the last utterance, you could ever make to anybody. If a work is written like that, then I want to read it. If somebody’s writing out of that sense, then I’ll say, “This is serious. This person’s not fooling around. The work is not a means to some other end, the work is not just intended for some silly superficial goal, this work is the writer saying something because he or she feels that if it isn’t said, it will never be said.”By writing as if you’re going to die as soon as the work is done, Johnson seems to mean writing with finality. Nothing is more dissatisfying than an idea that is given merely provisional statement because the writer is in a hurry to get on with it. In “An Octopus,” Marianne Moore defines her aesthetic conviction:Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
But it is not neatness of finish that identifies good writing—not the quality of having been arranged and shined—but of completeness. And since the basic unit of grammatical completeness is the sentence, the basic unit of all good writing is the sentence.

A writer whose sentences are not exacting and exuberant is just not worth reading.


DB said...

I disagree. The basic unit of a good book is not the sentence but the quality of the incidents. An incident of quality captures the essence of the human condition as it manifests itself at the portrayed moment in time.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"An incident of quality captures the essence of the human condition as it manifests itself at the portrayed moment in time."

I think that's more in the realm of storytelling than writing, per se. I think one of the hallmarks of literature is fine writing, and the building block of fine writing is the sentence. Certainly without incidents, there is no story to tell. But I would argue that plot is nothing without felicitous language to carry it. I might also argue that the basic unit of a good book is the perception the author has of character, more than the incidents chosen to reveal that character.

DB said...

I think that there is no possibility of character without an incident. No matter where it be located--in memory or in the now--the incident stirs up up all that defines the human experience, provoking the workings of man's heart and of his intellect. It offers the possibility of action, without which, character could not be.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

You will note that I wasn't particularly impressed with the events of the novel--I found them a satisfactory vehicle, but it was precisely in her evocative sentences, her beautiful and on-target use of language that I found the most persuasive element of the novel. Were I to rate it on incident, I would not recommend reading it--but the incident is, well, incidental with respect to the real action--jewel-like crafted sentences that perfectly convey the lostness of the characters or the state of suspension they find themselves in. They are sentences that combine poignancy and unexpected humor--sentences that embody recovery from the central trauma.

For me they redeemed an otherwise okay book--they moved it from what many others had done better into the realm of something no one could do better--the language, the sentences.

I can't thank you enough for recommending the book for precisely this reason--she produced masterful thoughts, masterful experiences, masterful insights, nearly perfectly phrased.



Richard LeComte said...

I've stopped reading books because the sentences were choppy or poorly executed -- specifically, "The Shipping News" and "Snow Falling on Cedars." "Shipping News" had too many fragments, and "Snow Falling" had too many adverbs. The wisest comment I've heard about sentences it that they should contain a single thought. That idea hearkens back to your introduction about sentences being thoughts taken from works. Also, use a lot of action words, and vary the structure so that you have no more than three subject-verb-object sentences in a row.