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How to Write a Sentence

Professor Stanley Fish is an odd bird, famously controversial in literary criticism circles [1] — which is to say, not famous at all in normal circles. Fish's new book How to Write a Sentence recently got a glowing review by Simon Blackburn, a philosopher who writes well about complex topics (cf. Think Again and Being Good). The general theme of Fish's book is noble: to identify fine sentences, to analyze them, and to aid the reader in crafting better ones.

But alas, How to Write a Sentence is an uneven voyage. Early sections discuss structures that sometimes make a sentence good. The patterns that Fish focuses on are helpful, but far too few. And Fish's own efforts tend to be cute or clever rather than creative.

Then the book really starts to drift. Final chapters offer mystical commentary on selected first and last sentences of famous novels, plus a discussion of "Sentences that are about themselves" which descends into even murkier depths. Perhaps Fish has sailed these waters so often, in his decades of teaching, that it all makes perfect sense to him. But alas, How to Write a Sentence is nowhere near a useful manual for the student who wants to improve her or his own writing. Inspirational examples don't make a map.

^z - 2011-05-19