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:
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:
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
A writer whose sentences are not exacting and exuberant is just not worth reading.