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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 3, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sentences and Court Decisions

Noted academic and literary theorist Stanley Fish has written a book called How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.

Now, I'm definitely of the school of thought that if, as a writer, you are thinking about your sentences, you're probably not going to be doing a very good job of telling your story.

That's because sentences are a matter of form, and thinking about them instead of just letting sentences flow in the service of telling a clear, powerful story is rather like thinking about balance and pedaling instead of steering while you're trying to ride a bike. You're very likely to fall over, or make little progress toward your destination.

The thing is, Stanley Fish is a really smart guy and his theory of "interpretive communities" has been useful to me in my work on community theory. Besides, a friend told me this was a really helpful, fascinating book.

As a fan of language studies, I'll agree to the last bit. I loved his close analysis of different kinds of formal, elaborate sentences from great works of literature. He goes to great lengths to draw a clear distinction between "the subordinating style" and "the additive style," but his examples in both categories are so self-conscious, so elaborate, that they actually defeat the storytelling by stopping it cold as we admire the workmanship of the writer.

But that's OK -- the examples are chosen from works that are obviously written with the primary purpose of showing off the talent and cleverness of the writer, rather than of telling a story to an eager audience. These are sentences created for admiration more than communication, and so they work very well.

Still, it's almost sad that Fish apparently thinks that the difference between the two methods of constructing sentences is actually significant in anything other than a pedantic way. In fact, reading his examples draws attention to a numbing sameness even in writers generally considered to be quite different in style. I suspect that's because, to make his point, Fish has selected sentences that represent an extreme. Yet, oddly enough, the more extremely additive or subordinating his examples are, the more they feel alike.

Fish pays lip service to the idea that there are many different purposes for sentences, and many kinds of sentences that fulfill those purposes well. On page 44, he says, "Pick your effect, figure out what you want to do, and then figure out how to do it." I would only quibble that most of us, in speech and in writing, do this instinctively, without any conscious thought at all, and usually with excellent success.

Despite his laissez faire declaration, the sentences that he loves and admires are of a particular kind, examples of which he sets forth frequently. And you know what? I think they're all quite wonderful, too.

The trouble is, they are only occasionally useful -- and then only when you don't mind distracting the reader. Writing this way is rather like a playwright who sits on the front row during a performance of his play, and periodically leaps to the stage and shouts, "Did you like that scene? That line? I wrote that! It was me me me! Not this foolish actor who merely parrots the words I wrote! I'm the real star!" Then he sits back down and expects you to go on watching as if nothing had happened.

I will now confess that at times I have written extreme sentences, because I thought they were absolutely essential to my fictional purpose. In retrospect, on those rare occasions when I reread one of my own novels or stories, I come across such sentences and shake my head and say, "What an idiot," which is a correct assessment. Because whenever a reader -- even me -- notices how I wrote something instead of staying completely immersed in the story and character, I have failed.

That's why I heartily recommend this book for people who love close analysis of extravagant writing. It's great fun, a wonderful game. But if you have ambitions to be a writer, please remember that the decision to write like Fish's examples is usually a decision to have only a handful of readers, in which case, unless you're independently wealthy, your writing is likely to be a hobby rather than a career. (And that last sentence of mine, in case you're wondering, is in the subordinating style.)

*

I found The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall, and the Battle for the Supreme Court to be a fascinating book that shone a light on an aspect of our Constitution and government that most of us take for granted: The power of the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by Congress and signed by the President on the basis that they are not constitutional.

This power was only acquired by the Supreme Court because of John Marshall's brilliantly manipulative (and politically astute) decision in the case of Marbury v. Madison. Marshall was displeased with the near uselessness and relative weakness of the Supreme Court compared to the legislative and executive branches, and things were hardly likely to change, with anti-Federalist Republicans (members of the party now called Democrats) like Jefferson and Madison in control of government.

So Marshall wrote a decision that clearly states that:

1. The behavior of Madison was dishonest and wrong in every way, and Marbury, the plaintiff, was morally right on every point, but

2. The law on which his complaint was based violates the Constitution on a technicality, and therefore

3. The Supreme Court strikes down the law, and Marbury loses his case and Madison, as representative of the government, wins.

So here's how he manipulated his opponents. If they declare that he doesn't have the power to strike down a law on the basis of its unconstitutionality, then they decision clearly goes against them, condemning them for illegally depriving a civil servant of a job he was lawfully appointed to.

In order to win their case, they have to accept that the Supreme Court has a new and unprecedented power that is not explicitly written into the Constitution; but if they reject the Supreme Court's having that power, they lose their case -- and suffer serious political embarrassment.

How that master manipulator, Jefferson, gnashed his teeth at this -- Marshall (like so many others) had proven himself smarter than Jefferson, and old Tom could never stand it when everyone didn't agree that he was the smartest man in America, or at least Virginia. So he groused about it for a while -- but the decision stood. It was obeyed. Poor Marbury was out of a job, but Marshall had made the Supreme Court the most powerful of the branches of government -- at least as long as they obeyed it.

I have a good friend who thinks this was the worst Supreme Court decision ever, and when the Supreme Court oversteps its bounds, I'm inclined to agree. But then I try to imagine America without a final authority on what is and is not Constitutional, and I suspect that even admitting the times when Supreme Court decisions are morally and legally indefensible, it's better to have such a final arbiter than not.

For without the Supreme Court in that role, I doubt the Constitution would be taken seriously at all -- it would leave us all wondering, you see, as Al Gore once did about campaign finance laws, "Where's the controlling authority?"

The Great Decision is extremely well written by authors Cliff Sloan and David McKean, but let's face it -- it's about nit-picking law and a lot of deeply trivial historical facts surrounding the case; there are times when only one's prior knowledge of the importance of the case keeps you reading.

But if, as I do, you care about our history and how we got to where we are, this book is indispensable reading.


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