Friday, December 7, 2007

What is a Perfect Sentence?

There's been lots of interesting hubbub surrounding Rake's dismissal of BR Myers's review of Tree of Smoke. The gist: Myers (an Atlantic darling who made some froth a few years back by claiming that all the literary giants of today are just emperors with no clothes on; that all of us who might like them are just bullshitting frauds who can't possibly actually care about literature) complains that, among other sins, Johnson writes bad sentences, and that since the backbone of good literature is sentences, Johnson is no good. Oh, and Myers brags that Tree of Smoke is the only one of Johnson's works he has ever read, but he's sure the others can't be any good either.

(Off topic: hello, wtf? It is a rare honor to get to write a big long review in a glossy, well-paying mag, and he doesn't even bother reading the rest of the author's work? Come on, work for your money, sir!)

Anyway, there's some arguing in Rake's comments and on other sites about whether Johnson's sentences are, in fact, bad. It got me thinking about the spring of 1987 ('88?) when my beloved writing teacher Stuart Friebert taught us what a Perfect Sentence is. Yes, it exists. It is a sentence of perfect iambic pentameter, such as:

We kissed the cat then threw it down the well.

Because rhythm, even in prose, is vitally important, and iambic pentameter is the most natural rhythm of the English language: that's how our beats fall, and that's how long we can go without wanting to take a breath.

The other important thing, said Friebert, is to stick to words of Germanic, rather than Latin, root. Germanic words are shorter, stronger, more guttural, and came first. Our Latin words are often just fancy substitutes for simpler words.

I believe in this stuff like a religion. But is that it? No! There's also the commandments in The Elements of Style, which are mostly about grammatical clarity -- terribly important, too. But if you could write wonderful prose just by following a collection of rules, we'd all be doing it. And we aren't.

There is clearly a voodoo element involved. There is a Factor X about great writing that cannot be shaken out and distilled. And hey, if I knew what it was, I wouldn't be blogging: I'd be waxing my Pulitzer this evening.

But that's a cop out, isn't it? Here's what I think: you have to also be surprising. If you follow the rules and only follow the rules, you're not surprising anyone. What I like to read is writing made of sentences that pay attention to rhythm, but also knock rhythm off-kilter; that are mostly grammatically clear, but also make use of a judicious amount of fuzz and ambiguity. Not every sentence has to have a snake-in-a-can in it, of course.

Back when I used to teach writing, I sometimes gave the students the first line of Denis Johnson's "Out on Bail" as a writing prompt. The students always produced terrific, inspired stuff with it. There's something about that sentence that pushed open invisible doors in them. Here it is:

I saw Jack Hotel in an olive-green three-piece suit, with his blond hair combed back and his face shining and suffering.

What is the surprise there? The name "Jack Hotel"? The word "suffering"? Or maybe the strange way the sentence begins, not indicating any time or place ("The first time I saw..." or "That was the time I saw...") but just I saw. Funky! But rhythmic and strong enough to know you're in good hands, so you want to go forward.

The fault-finders could find fault with it, for sure. But being without fault doesn't make writing great. If only!


TIV: the individual voice said...

Thanks for this really interesting take on the rhythm of sentences and the quality of surprise. I love that. And that is quite a remarkable sentence, a story all by itself. The words "shining and suffering" are just brilliant. Evoking an image of Jesus Christ. And I'm Jewish.

grumpy said...

"and he doesn't even bother reading the rest of the author's work?"

Precisely! As if reading "Jesus' Son" would take up so much of his precious time. Such an omission speaks volumes about the reviewer's motives.

Mr. Saflo said...

Neither Myers nor anyone else hired to review a single book is under any obligation to read anything else by that author. If Tree of Smoke can't survive a reading without forehand knowledge of Johnson's previous work, it's Tree of Smoke's fault, not the reader's.

jrlennon said...

You have to be kidding me. A good reviewer always, always reads at least part of the author's other books, so that he can establish the context into which the new book is arriving. This is especially useful with Johnson, because his stuff is so all over the place.

Going off half-cocked as if the book exists in a vacuum is lazy and unprofessional. It isn't a matter of giving the book the benefit of the doubt, or grading it on a curve--it's a matter of actually knowing something about the writer you're reviewing. Hell, you might very well appreciate the new book LESS once you read the other ones. The point is not being a fucking amateur.

jrlennon said...

I still believe Waffle Town to be genius, however.

rmellis said...

Yep -- it's perfectly fine to write an Amazon review or blog review without reading the author's other stuff. But sheesh -- in a BIG mag, when you're going to spout off for pages and pages and get your ass archived in college libraries around the country, and moreover are going to be read by the author's fans and scholars.... you're doing everyone a disservice if you don't know who the hell you're talking about.

grumpy said...

Mr. saflo, you're right that Myers is not obligated to read anything else and that Tree of Smoke (or any other book) must stand or fall on its merits. But Myers went out of his way to COMMENT on Johnson's reputation and stature. He evaluated Johnson's work in comparison with the best writers of today, and he found it wanting. THAT is what obligated him to do just a tiny bit of additional reading before making such gratuitous insults.

Mr. Saflo said...

Can somebody hop in here and defend me? I'm not good at this.

jrlennon said...

Also, you're insufficiently emaciated! And one of your knees looks kind of funny!