Sentenced To Obscurity

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Not too long ago, I came across this article–discussing a recently-released book entitled How To Write A Sentence, by literary critic and New York Times online columnist Stanley Fish.  The article really got me thinking.

Now I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment on it as such, but the article lists a number of sentences highlighted as being Professor Fish’s favorites (I’ll let you take a minute to review those if you wish).  Each of these sentences seems finely wrought, elegant even, and (although a little out-of-date for my tastes) certainly well put together.  I’d even go so far as to say that I’ve never written a single sentence that equals any of these, novice writer that I am.

Elegant as this prose is, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that single sentences can be so important to good fiction. 

In writerly circles, there is much talk of the importance of chapters, scenes, beats, in some cases even paragraphs (what are the elements which make the first paragraph in your novel really hook the reader/agent? for example), but seldom (at least in my experience) do fictionists drop to the level of discussing the importance or impact of individual sentences.

I think there’s a reason for that.  In a well-structured piece of fiction, we hear time and time again that every element–word choice, tense, POV, pacing, etc. etc.–should serve the purposes of the story being told.  Sentences are no exception, IMHO.

This means that scads of poorly constructed sentences (like poorly made bricks in a wall) WILL erode and obscure the story your fiction is trying to tell.  Prose must be like a window: sturdily constructed, transparent and clear.  If it is not, then the story becomes confused, the yearnings of your characters muted and obscured, and your reader may walk.

Therefore, when you, dear fiction writer, build a story–like hand-constructing a machine to tell the tale of the characters involved–you must add parts and pieces with care.  You must write sentences in context to move the story along.  Like any machine, extraneous parts gum up the works or make the the machine stop working.  Poorly constructed parts may cause the machine to bog down or take too long to produce the desired effect.  Each part must be part of the larger whole, and all parts must work together in unison.

Given these realities, I question whether individual sentences are all that critical to good fiction.  Would you walk up to a freshly constructed building and identify a single brick as being key to the building’s functional and aesthetic success?  Or point to a single hue in a painting and state unequivocally that this individual color made all the difference?  See what I mean?

But I know what you’re going to say:  You have a veritable cornucopia of sentences, being your favorites, jotted down in your writer’s journal.  I do too!  And the question before us is why those particular sentences have been chosen.

Where does sentence greatness really lie?  Why are sentences like these–

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea)

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed; hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision. (Ginsberg, Sunflower Sutra)

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’  (Kerouac, On The Road)

–quoted and referred to and pointed at as being greater than your average set of words strung together? (These are some of my favs BTW).

I’m sure there are many theories out there, but this one is mine: it’s all about context.  The reason why these sentences (and many others) speak to us is because they evoke the larger issues/struggles/images/ideas of the work they are a part of.  They feel like a brief, finely wrought distillation of a big idea, a thought or concept which is a fundamental plank of the larger story.

What makes these sentences great is that they are part of a greater work of value.  Would Hemingway’s opening sentence be so powerful if it stood on it’s own, with no story to follow?  Would Kerouac’s bounding and nostalgic prose be so moving if it wasn’t a larger piece of the puzzle?

My feeling is, great as these one-liners are, it is their part in the larger whole, like a single high note in a symphonic movement, rising above the ebb and flow of the rest of the orchestra, held longer than seems possible, stretching, straining, capturing something more than itself, that makes them great.

What do you think?  What makes a sentence great?  What are some of your favorite sentences?