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On the Shelf: David Foster Wallace’s Wishy-Washy Legacy and Noir Galore

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In her recent essay in the New York Times, “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace”, blogger, critic, essayist, and all-around book flogger Maud Newton talks about the link between the deceased writer’s loquacious writing style and the rise of wishy-washy criticism today.

Referencing another essayist, Geoff Dyer, in his piece on Wallace’s writing, “My Literary Allergy,” in Prospect magazine where he says “I react against the variously contrived sloppinesses of all those ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kind ofs’ in tandem with, sometimes followed by, the magisterial flamboyant (‘Existentiovoyeuristic conundra notwithstanding’). Or the grunge affectation of the double ‘though’ in: ‘There are big differences between Agassi’s and Joyce’s games, though. Though Joyce…’,” Maud voices her own feelings about David’s (over)use of qualifiers: sort of, pretty much, really. “At their worst these verbal tics make it impossible to evaluate his analysis; I’m constantly wishing he would either choose a more straightforward way to limit his contentions or fully commit to one of them,” she says.

Dyer laments that DFW’s style is “catching, highly infectious” and Maud poses that Wallace’s “slangy appeal,” in the Internet age has “been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.”

Newton says that when blogging was first coming up in the world, the confusion about style was understandable: “Was a blog more like writing or more like speech?” But after all these years, she wonders (and I’m condensing her essay horribly right now but you should read the whole thing after this) why today’s critics are still “making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy”.

“Increasingly drawn to directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony,” Maud concludes, “Qualifications are necessary sometimes. Anticipating and defusing opposing arguments has been a vital rhetorical strategy since at least the days of Aristotle. Satire and ridicule, when done well, are high art. But the idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe. And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”

Read Maud Newton’s Blog and then, if you missed it, you can check out my essay on three grammar books to help you write more economically.

If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace, have you noticed this tendency to use qualifiers? Did it bother you? Do you notice this trend in reviewing and commentary?

And now, what on the shelf . . .

This week it’s all about noir. It occurred to me the other day that I have a gaping hole in my library—mental and physical. As many of you know, I’m on a sci-fi kick. What I noticed about the stories is that many of them have a mystery element to them—and I like that. So, I figured it was time to dive head first into the stripped down genre—minus the the fantasy and spacecraft. Noir, for those like me who are first coming to this, is also called “hardboiled”. It’s crime fiction, detective stories, “distinguished by the unsentimental portrayal of sex and violence.” Sounds like some good reading for the tail end of summer.When I asked for help on Twitter, Paul, the co-host of the arts & entertainment podcast Fuzzy Typewriter, recommended the first book on this list. Some other helpful people chimed in with a few others and some I found through my own searching.

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane
Description from IndieBound: A cabal of powerful Boston politicians is willing to pay Kenzie and Gennaro big money for a seemingly small job: to find a missing cleaning woman who stole some secret documents. As Kenzie and Gennaro learn, however, this crime is no ordinary theft. It’s about justice, about right and wrong. But in Boston, finding the truth isn’t just a dirty business . . . it’s deadly.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce is a book I’ve heard about from a number of people. It got a boost from HBO when they created a mini-series starring Kate Winslet. Here’s a brief description: Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Sin City: Volume 1 by Frank Miller
For some reason I never realized Frank Miller’s Sin City was considered neo-noir. If you’re looking for something other than a straight prose but are curious about this genre, check out the graphic novel. Here’s a brief description: It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town. But Marv doesn’t care. There’s an angel in the room. She says her name is Goldie. A few hours later, Goldie’s dead without a mark on her perfect body, and the cops are coming before anyone but Marv could know she’s been killed. Somebody paid good money for this frame. . .

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Arguably, no noir collection is complete without Raymond Chandler and his popular protagonist, Philip Marlowe. Farewell, My Lovely is considered one of his best. The Little Sister and The Long Goodbye being the other two that are often mentioned.

Tart Noir edited by Lauren Henderson
Another recommendation was the author Lauren Henderson, a crime writer with a feminist edge. While Tart Noir is a collection of female crime writers edited by her, with a story of hers included, she has seven novels in her Sam Jones mystery series. Henderson’s website’s about page says that she’s “been described in the press as both the Dorothy Parker and the Betty Boop of the British crime novel.” Sold!

Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin
As a Brooklyn girl, I’m tempted to pick up this little collection, especially since it’s published by the local indie press Akashic Books. Contributors include Pete Hamill, Nelson George, Maggie Estep, Adam Mansbach, and others.

Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker
Speaking of Akashic Books, I recently went to a party for them at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn and had the pleasure of hearing Persia Walker read from her book, Black Orchid Blues. After just 5 minutes, I added this mystery set in 1920s Harlem to my mental “to be read” pile. I’m including it here so you can add it to your as well.

What’s on your shelf?


Written by Gabrielle

August 25, 2011 at 5:46 am

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a Writer’s Philosopher

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“A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world. They are all constructed according to a common logical plan.”

In Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, renown British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a strong case for summarizing the late-philosopher’s views. Critics of the idea argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work, often stated in aphorisms, is compressed enough already and that any further breakdown would misrepresent both the content and intention.

For those first coming to Wittgenstein it’s helpful to know beforehand that his later writing is largely a takedown of his earlier work with his middle writing acting as a transition. Another problem posed to newcomers is where to start. His first book, the one that garners most of Wittgenstein’s criticism, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was the only book published in his lifetime. All others emerged posthumously and are often featured in many different collections, making difficult to know which one to buy.

A Very Short Introduction, aptly named, moves swiftly through Wittgenstein’s personal details—born in Vienna in 1889 to a wealthy family, taught at the University of Cambridge before serving in the First World War, after returning he took a 10-year hiatus from teaching, at the age of 40 he went back to Cambridge, World War II broke out, he felt compelled to help and left teaching for the last time, and finally, at the age of 62, he died of prostate cancer. Instead, Grayling spends most of  the 134 pages charting the ins-and-outs of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and explaining the trajectory of his evolving theories.

Categorizing Wittgenstein is not easy. In another book on this towering figure, a collection of analytical essays, The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, the editor, a philosophy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Hans Sluga, says that what makes it difficult to peg the twentieth century philosopher is “first of all the unconventional cast of his mind, the radical nature of his philosophical proposals, and the experimental form he gave to their expression.”

What does help provide context is his main influence, and possibly biggest supporter, the prolific philosopher Betrand Russell. It was Russell’s 1903 The Principles of Mathematics, where the author argues that mathematics and logic are identical, that put Wittgenstein on the path to a career in philosophy. With Russell, Wittgenstein, at the time of their writings, took part in what Sluga calls a “sense of a new beginning in philosophy”. Together they broke from the traditional and national constraints that prevailed.

Russell was instrumental in getting the Tractatus published and had written an introduction to the edition in 1921. Known to be irascible, Wittgenstein had a bad reaction to what Russell’s interpretation and in an angry letter claimed his friend had not understood a word of his work. However, as Wittgenstein’s theories progressed he realized that he had not reached his objective: “to solve the problems of philosophy . . . by showing how language works”.

Wittgenstein’s focus on language makes him something of a writer’s philosopher. With saying such as, “Language must speak for itself” and “Language is like a collection of very various tools,” his books are brain candy for those who love words.

Throughout Wittgenstein’s work there are brilliant sayings that make him sound like a spiritual leader: “A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of discussion,” “Philosophy is not a body doctrine by an activity,” and famously, the last line of the Tractatus, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” But as with those gurus from the 60s, it’s tempting to hang onto Wittgenstein’s theories as if they were absolute truths; they’re concise, poetic, and have a koan-like quality to them. Unfortunately, history shows them to be misguided, refuted by the very same man who had once believed in them wholeheartedly.

It’s refreshing, however, that Wittgenstein was not afraid to disagree with himself and that over the years he continued to flesh out his ideas. Sluga believes that “Wittgenstein’s development from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations parallels that of the culture at large” and goes on to explain that the analytic tradition as a whole “progressed from the single-minded pursuit of an ideal of formal unity to the acceptance of informality, pluralism, and proliferation of forms.”

Grayling summed up the shift saying that the Wittgenstein made the “rejection of [the Tractatus’] central doctrines the very cornerstone of his later philosophy”. What Wittgenstein had originally asked readers to believe he later felt was oversimplification and instead began to argue the opposite, “that language is a vast collection of different activities each with its own logic.”

Abandoning his earlier assumptions, Wittgenstein focused on language as a medium of communication that doesn’t follow strictly prescribed rules and became interested how language is learned. In short, he went from asking “What is the meaning of a word?” to “What is it to explain the meaning of a word?”. He even went so far in the Philosophical Investigations to make the critical view of the function of rules his central theme.

One is left to wonder, does Wittgenstein’s sharp divergence from his early work mean that the Tractatus should be thrown out the window? The answer, if we are to listen to the man himself, is no. Wittgenstein felt that the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations belonged side-by-side, understanding that the latter is largely a reaction to the former.

A.C. Grayling prepares the casual philosopher and autodidact for the content and context of Wittgenstein’s theories while The Cambridge Companion’s essays, spanning a diverse range of views regarding the philosophers work, expands the reader’s scope of analysis. Both introductions will create a more confident reader and spark an interest for further investigation.

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction by A.C. Grayling
The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein edited by Hans Sluga and David Stern
The Puzzlement of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone
The Unhappy Family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an interview on The Philosopher’s Zone

Written by Gabrielle

August 9, 2011 at 8:31 am

Posted in books, reviews

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On the Shelf: Punctuation, Webcomics, and Robot Uprisings

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If you like grammar you probably have a favorite punctuation mark. Maybe you feel strongly about the use of the serial comma or exclamation points in email. Quite possibly you have an opinion on double spacing after periods. If any of these ring true, you’ll want to read the following articles. In case you missed them, here’s Ben Yagoda on where to put the period when using quotation marks, Farhad Manjoo on the origins of double-spacing and why you should never do it now, and Aimee Lee Ball’s fascinating cultural piece on the exclamation point—she even interviewed some of today’s top authors for their thoughts.

And, If you still haven’t gotten your fill, the Christian Science Monitor has a language column called Verbal Energy; Grammar Girl is a great reference site to keep handy for all your grammar questions and the Grammarphobia blog features fun language facts that are bound to keep you the life of the party.

What’s on the shelf?

Since listening to the Bookrageous podcast and now SF Signal‘s, both of which frequently comment on comics and graphic novels, I’m seeking out webcomics, comics published on the internet and are often free. I grew up with Archie Comics and then, in my early 20s, I found some great artists published by Oni Press but since then I haven’t stayed on top of the graphic novel industry.

While many of the top webcomics tend to focus on gaming culture, such as Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley and Penny Arcade, written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik, both wildly popular, there are a few for the non-gamers. The award-winning Girl Genius, by Kaja and Phil Foglio, is a steampunk adventure story with a female lead, Agatha Heterodyne. Diesel Sweeties by R Stevens is the story of a robot who dates real women and, despite my doubts, is surprisingly addictive. Over at The Rumpus, they take their comics seriously and have an impressive lineup of contributors which currently includes Tony Millionaire, All Over Coffee, Jon Adams, and more. While you’re at it, you should follow legendary Scott McCloud, one of the earliest promoters of webcomics. What’s your favorite? I’m looking for more.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
It’s hard not to notice that Robopocalypse is out now in stores. If you read major newspapers, scroll through popular websites, or peruse your local bookshop you’ve undoubtedly seen the haunting cover image—the close-up of a shiny, white plastic face with determined red eyes. Daniel H. Wilson, a man who holds a PhD in Robotics and who has written many humorous nonfiction books on robots now brings us the story of a world after a robot uprising. Boingboing sums it up as a “a kind of oral history, composed of vignettes that take the form of first person accounts, transcripts, technical documents. . .” and Steven Spielberg has a film version slated for release in 2013.

You can read a review at boingboing, check out an excerpt at io9 followed by nonfiction musings from the author, and listen to an interview with Daniel on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. If you still want more, Future Tense, a project in conjunction with Slate, even used the book’s buzz to jump into the larger issue of safety in a world that is increasing its use of technology.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
I recently came across Angry Robot, a publisher specializing in “modern adult science fiction, fantasy and everything in between,” according to their site. A few of their books caught my eye at the bookstore last week, thanks to their really cool logo and cover designs, and I picked up Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes. Zoo City is Beukes’ second book—Moxyland is her first—and can be summed up as an urban speculative fiction novel about a young woman, recently released from prison, now “animalled” (saddled with an animal due to a past illegal act), who is hired, under the radar, to solve a missing persons case. I’ve plowed through half of this book in a day, full review to come.

Written by Gabrielle

July 7, 2011 at 6:11 am

Books for Writers :: Fashionable Grammar

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To write is to communicate with the outside world. It’s how we explain ourselves and understand each other. In whatever form it takes, whether it be print, email, text, or tweet, writing is a representation of the self.

Incorrect grammar, or the simplification of sentences in fear of it, limits expression. Just as someone is turned away from a nice restaurant for not wearing a tie, a person without command of the English language is shut out of certain social circles. It’s with this analogy in mind that one can begin to think of grammar’s demands. As someone who would much rather wear jeans and a t-shirt than skirts and heels, and as someone who once struggled with grammar and who still has questions, I can understand the trepidation of someone who feels lost in the sea of rules.Unfortunately, sometimes a situation calls for the Editor Pants from Express. But not to worry, there will always be Casual Fridays and times when cutoffs and sandals are appropriate. Just as it’s important to know which clothes to wear and how to wear them, it’s important to have an informed writing style. And just as it is with clothing, once you know the rules, you’re in a better place to break them; or as Stanley Fish says in his book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, “you can’t depart from something with confidence unless you are fully practiced in the something you are departing from.”

There’s no denying that grammar can be daunting, especially for those who, like myself, attended public school at a time when the subject was on the wane. Sure, we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing, a verb an action, that an adjective “modifies” a noun and an adverb “modifies” a verb but go beyond that and it starts to feel like a foreign language.

In his introduction to Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar of the Poynter Institute, calls on Americans to become a “Nation of Writers”. As part of his plea he refers to The National Commission on Writing’s report that warns about the “disastrous consequences of bad writing in America — for businesses, professions, educators, consumers, and citizens.” Apparently, “poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money.” It’s as if we all woke up one morning and went to work in our pajamas.

The good news is, through the ubiquity of handheld electronic devices and use of email for work, the majority of us write everyday—now we just need to do it well.

Clark offers a comprehensive—and comprehensible—guide to grammar, style, and practice, which he arranges into four sections: “Nuts and Bolts,” “Part of Speech,” “Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”. The first section introduces readers to the basics: the use (and overuse) of -ing endings, the difference between active and passive voice, the proper way to construct long sentences, and how to get a feel for punctuation. Unlike many grammar books that have come before it, Clark’s does more than merely list prescriptive rules—prescriptive grammar being the language that people think should be used (think: stuffy) as opposed to descriptive, how people actually speak and write (think: conversational). Instead, he pays homage to both forms, allaying fears of wrong use and putting the audience at ease.

In one of the most welcomed chapters in the book, Clark evokes strong visuals to explain the role of punctuation, a terrifying aspect of grammar suddenly made accessible to anyone familiar with the rules of the road: “If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks?” he asks. “The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.”

At the end of the chapter, as with each chapter in the book, Clark offers practical assignments. On punctuation he says: “Take one of your old pieces and repunctuate it. Add some optional commas, or take some out. Read both versions aloud. Hear a difference?” then, “Make conscious decisions on how fast you’d like the reader to move. Perhaps you want readers to zoom across the landscape. Or to tiptoe through a technical explanation. Punctuate accordingly.”

Just as Roy Peter Clark encourages us to dissect other people’s writing to see what works and what doesn’t, Stanley Fish, in How to Write a Sentence, urges the same careful study of sentences. But in comparison to Clark, whose book has the feel of “What Not to Wear,” the BBC reality show where the fashion-challenged are given basic do-and-don’t tips, How to Write a Sentence is Vogue. This philosophical treatise on language, like the upscale, glossy magazine, presumes the reader brings with them a sophisticated appreciation for the subject.

Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, frequent contributor to the New York Times Opinionator blog on legal matters, and self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” says, “if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.” Using material from novels, films, and speeches, Fish finds sentences for imitation and, step-by-step, recreates their structure. He admits that quality doesn’t always follow but, as he says so elegantly while convincing us to focus on form rather than content: “verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.”

According to Fish, “without form, content cannot emerge,” which would explain why the former makes up more than the first half of the book. Wading deep into what could be considered a master class, he defines “forms” as the “structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings—lots of them—can be generated.” Logic, he defines, is the relationship between part of speech that make a statement and rhetoric the relationship between statements.

Fish highlights three “formal categories” and gives each their own chapter—the subordinating style: “the art of arranging objects and actions in relationships of causality, temporality, and precedence”; the additive style: a form that has “the effect not of planning, order, and control, but of spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance”; and the satirical style: “sentences that deliver their sting in stages.”

Although grammatical terms appear throughout, Fish criticizes rote knowledge: “You can know what the eight parts of speech are, and even be able to apply the labels correctly, and still not understand anything about the way a sentence works. Technical knowledge divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” Instead he speaks of developing a “sensitivity to the presence of a problem” by “performing exercises that hone it.” This is a not-so-veiled dig at the many conventional grammar guides on the market.

The criticism continues as he points out the flaws in the bestselling book Elements of Style: “Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.” Fish does a better job than Strunk and White in explaining the terms he uses but is at times guilty of the same crime.

How to Write a Sentence is not for beginners, or at least not the fainthearted newbie, but it is one of the more original books on the English language, a book that as you become familiar with introductory material found elsewhere you’ll long to read. In this respect, Fish’s short yet challenging exposition should be considered motivation for learning the fundamentals of grammar.

While Fish’s book delves into the first half of Roy Peter Clark’s book, analyzing the technical aspect of sentence structure, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a companion to the second part.

In his chapter “Limit self-criticism in early drafts,” Clark says that in books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott he’s “less likely to find advice on technique than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.” Through this lens, one can see the influence in part three and four of Writing Tools—“Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”.

Clark’s chapters go from “Set the pace of sentence length” and “Vary the lengths of paragraphs” to “Work from a plan,” “Write from different cinematic angles,” whose subtitle, ‘Turn your notebook into a camera,’ is by far my favorite, and “Turn procrastination into rehearsal”.

In “Turn procrastination into rehearsal,” one of Clark’s tips is to “keep a daybook,” a place where you can jot down story ideas, key phrases, and momentary insights. Although it might seem like commonsense to some, many writers are often caught without pen and paper, often with disastrous consequences. Ann Lamott, in her chapter “Index Cards” talks about how she always keeps one folded in her pocket ready for use whenever anything strikes her.

If Clark is the host of “What Not to Wear,” than Anne Lamott is the friend who tells you it’s ok you wore white after Labor Day or that your skirt was tucked into the back of your pantyhose—because it happens and, despite her numerous bestsellers, these faux pas threaten her too.

Lamott’s own struggles, both as a writer and as a human, reduce the paralysis brought on by fear of failure and inadequacy. As if riffing on the biblical device of repetition, twice in this collection of essays she says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” The book is full of these self-help observations, funny anecdotes, and clever one-liners; but they never feel cheesy—only poignant and inspiring. “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts” is another mantra, simple yet liberating to legions of wannabe authors everywhere.

Anne’s willingness to expose her insecurities with biting humor and self-deprecation makes her harsh truths for aspiring writers seem like a shared experiences—wisdom from an elder—rather than a nasty take down.

Each author approaches the subject from a different angle: Clark as a journalist whose “practical tools will help you to dispel your writing inhibitions, making the craft central to the way you see the world”; Fish as a literature professor who believes sentences “promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world”; and Lamott, a fellow soul-searcher who wants you to “start seeing everything as material.” But all have the same goal in mind, to turn their audience into astute and confident writers.

Not all of us may be suited for the runway, or feel the need to aspire to it, but it’s worth knowing how to clean up when the situation demands. These three books are a great place to start.

Stray Questions for Roy Peter Clark on the NY Times Arts Beat blog
Interview with Anne Lamott on Big Think (opens with sound)
Interview with Stanley Fish on ABC Radio National’s Book Show

*please note that I am still a student of grammar and there may be some errors in this piece. be nice. 

Written by Gabrielle

May 17, 2011 at 8:02 am

Posted in books, grammar, reviews

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vocab:: f is for . . .

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fastidious (adj.): hard to please
fatuity (n.): something foolish or stupid
feckless (adj.): feeble; ineffective
fettle (n.): state of health or spirits
filigree (n.): ornamental work especially of fine wire of gold, silver, or copper applied chiefly to gold and silver surfaces
firkins (n.): a small wooden vessel
foist (v.): palm off as genuine
frisson (n): a brief moment of emotional excitement
fug (n.): the stuffy atmosphere of a poorly ventilated space
fulsome (adj.): cloying; offensively excessive; insincere
fussbudget (n.): someone who fusses about insignificant things

Written by Gabrielle

May 3, 2011 at 7:20 am

Posted in grammar

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books for readers :: how to write a sentence / stanley fish

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Chapter 1
Why Sentences?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’ ” The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that “if he liked sentences he could begin,” and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. “I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I like the smell of paint.’ ” The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it), is that you don’t begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.

But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):

And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places “ordained” for them—”ordained” is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures—they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine. . . .

. . . Here is Dillard again: “When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.” And when you come to the end of the path, you have a sentence.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One / Stanley Fish / ©2011


syntax: the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses)
syntactical: of, relating to, or according to the rules of syntax or syntactics
inexorable: not to be persuaded, moved, or stopped
syntactic structures: good definition not found
ligature: a) a printed or written character (as æ or ƒƒ) consisting of two or more letters or characters joined together;
b) something that is used to bind
subject: a) one that is acted on; b) an individual whose reactions or responses are studied
object: a) a noun or noun equivalent (as a pronoun, gerund, or clause) denoting the goal or result of the action of a verb;
b) the goal or end of an effort or activity
actions: things done
descriptives: serving to describe
indications: serving to point out
stanley fish on ABC radio national’s the book show

Written by Gabrielle

March 27, 2011 at 10:51 am

Posted in books

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vocab: e is for . . .

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ebullition (n.):
a boiling or overflow of liquid; an outburst of feeling, passion
elide (v.): to suppress or alter by elision; to omit
elision (n.): the omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable in a verse to achieve a uniform metrical pattern
ephemeral (adj.): lasting a short period of time
epistolary (adj): written in the form of a series of letters
eponymous (adj.): of, relating to, or being the person or thing for whom or which something is named
ergo (conj.): therefore
ethereal (adj.): not composed of matter; celestial, heavenly
etiolate (v.): to grow pale; weaken

Written by Gabrielle

February 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

Posted in grammar

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