This weekend, in spite of looming deadlines, I picked up Stanley Fish’s recent book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (Harper Collins 2010). Nearly finished it–but I savor the really good books, delaying the bittersweet gratification of completion because I know I will miss the company of the author. That says a lot about the author–that she or he is a good companion–and it says something about me–that I prefer an author to be a good companion rather than someone I would rather avoid.
I had the privilege of taking a few classes with Stanley Fish in the Roaring ’90’s, the last hurrah of literary theory in the American Academy, in my view, before its confinement to a few shelves in the Barnes & Noble. As an ABD graduate student in Classical Studies, I was free, if not universally encouraged, to take courses in other disciplines. I studied semiotics with the Slavic linguist, Edna Andrews; I read the American philosopher Stanley Cavell with Toril Moi; but the classes that probably affected me most were Stanley Fish’s seminars on “Rhetoric, Law, and Power” and (less so–because I don’t have time during my prelim phase to complete it) another on “Milton.” I have had the honor of studying with genuinely inspiring faculty both as an undergraduate (Bill Kemp and Bob Boughner leap to mind) and as a graduate student (my debts to Gregson Davis would require many more notes), but Stanley Fish cut quite a figure at Duke–as he would anywhere. Inimitable–though David Lodge does a credible job in Nice Work.
I had read several of Fish’s books in graduate school–most were collections of published essays, but others were conceived and executed as wholes. I regard Fish as one of the great writers in English–a great prose stylist and to no one was Buffon‘s adage more apropos than it was to Stanley Fish: le style est l’homme. But even that does insufficient justice to Fish, because his style is polyvalent: he occupies multiple registers within the same essay, propelling himself along in a mixed, middle style before rounding into a full Ciceronian periods, then pulling himself short with aphorisms. Parallelisms of diction, structure, clauses all conspire to present a master of form. That his “content” can be, and was for many, jarring is almost a distraction, but jarring you was really the point. You need to be shook free from the path you (mindlessly?) followed and pulled along a better, and with conscious irony–given Fish’s acclaimed status as one of the “deconstructionists”–an unabashedly ‘truer’ path.
In How to Write a Sentence Fish gives you the answer key to his prose style, and style being the man, to himself. Though I expect Fish to one day author a memoir, to a literary critic I don’t think one could improve upon a thorough exegesis of the sentences that have mattered most to her or him. Writing, and reading, are intensely personal processes. And maybe the best thing you can say about any book is that, having read it, I now see the world better, and with fresh eyes thanks to my old companion still leading me along the path.
In my next post: a collection of my favorite Fish (Fisian? Piscatory?) sentences.