Against Terse American Prose

The question of how forms of writing produce forms of thought is one that the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish explores again in his new book, How to Write a Sentence.

If the history of the American sentence were a John Ford movie, its second act would conclude with the young Ernest Hemingway walking into a saloon, finding an etiolated Henry James slumped at the bar in a haze of indecision, and shooting him dead. The terse, declarative sentence in all its masculine hardness routed the passive involutions of a higher, denser style. As a result, pared-down prose of the sort editor Gordon Lish would later encourage in Raymond Carver became our default "realism". This is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to "omit needless words" leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.

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