Good writers need readers who can read good writing

To many, Stanley Fish is a strange creature: he’s hard to classify, even harder to keep pinned down. He has been praised as a leading Milton scholar and excoriated as an unrepentant poststructuralist, infamous for such playful  pronouncements as the idea that deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.”

Fish was involved in the Alan Sokal “science wars” hoax. Then the executive director of
the Duke University Press, which published Sokal’s faux essay, Fish blasted Sokal for intellectual dishonesty and academic fraud. Veteran readers of this blog may remember that I sided entirely with Sokal in that debate. I have a lot more sympathy with Fish’s stance in his new book.

In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Fish continues poststructuralism’s assault on the injunction to make one’s writing concise, clear, and direct. Hemingway’s  compact style, Orwell’s warnings against expressing loose thought loosely, and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style are the most famous (or the most infamous) proponents of stripping down expression to its basics, all championing the idea that “less is more.” Never use a sentence when a clause, when a phrase, when a word — we’ve all long since internalized this advice. Yet Strunk’s first version of Style is nearly 100 years old, and Hemingway’s and Orwell’s work more than 60. Fish’s criticism isn’t really the latest thing. But in the age of tweets and emails, as countless commentators have pointed out before this, the debate over what constitutes good writing has seldom been more relevant.

To understand Fish’s objection to “less is more” requires a short look at his own theories of how meaning happens. Fish describes himself as a “defoundationalist” –a description that is itself as good an example as any of the rank obscurantism for which postmodernist scholarly writing is justly infamous. In simple terms, as far as the term means anything specific, he accepts the idea that meaning inheres in interpretation rather than in things. Yet he is not as thoroughgoing a postmodernist as that might suggest, for he accepts the notion that the meaning of a text is constrained by the “interpretive community” of conventions and expectations shared by the author and the reader., This idea refines the strict subjectivity of full-blown “open text” poststructuralism, leaving Fish somewhere in the middle of, and open to criticism by both “sides” of, the Lit Crit debate.

The idea that there is a concrete relationship between the author’s and the reader’s contexts — that this sharing produces meaning — helps explain his antithesis to “less is more.” In How to Write a Sentence, Fish believes that the writer’s ability to infuse syntax with style is the source of the pleasure of reading. Concise is not always best, and some beautiful and rewarding thoughts cannot be expressed fully — or at all — through compaction.

But his new book is not the real reason that I’m writing this article. The Financial Times review led me to read more about Fish, and I found, with some delight, that in one area at least he and I are very much “on the same page.”

While I’m a fervent structuralist in areas where empirical investigation rules, I have written before (“Postmodernism: a few pros, a few more cons”) that postmodernist ideas of context-dependent narratives apply quite naturally to essentially narrative cognitive constructions like literature. Thus, I find Fish’s explanation of how interpretation works worthwhile and instructional — and familiar, as we’ll see below.

Fish’s ideas were famously expressed in his essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One.” The essay describes a classroom experiment in which Fish wrote the names of five colleagues on a blackboard and, after telling his students that it was a religious poem, asked them to interpret the “verse.” He noted that they spontaneously and effortlessly applied to his nonsense list the kinds of analysis which are “naturally” appropriate to poetry. From this (and of course there’s more to it than what’s included here), Fish concluded:

How do you recognize a poem when you see one? The commonsense answer, to which many literary critics and linguists are committed, is that the act of recognition is triggered by the observable presence of distinguishing features. That is, you know a poem when you see one because its language displays the characteristics that you know to be proper to poems.  This, however, is a model that quite obviously does not fit the present example. My students did not proceed from noting the distinguishing features to the recognition that they were confronted by a poem; rather, it was the act of recognition that came first–they knew in advance that they were dealing with a poem– and the distinguishing features then followed.

In other words, acts of recognition, rather than being triggered by formal characteristics, are their source. It is not that the presence of poetic qualities compels a certain kind of attention but that the paying of a certain kind of attention results in the emergence of poetic qualities.

This is an interesting concept, and it’s one that my own teaching experience supports. Many years ago, when students wrote with quill pens, and computers in classrooms were a novelty, I acquired six brand new Mac Classic computers — the fancy ones, with an entire megabyte of hard drive storage capacity. As part of an introduction to a series of classes on poetry interpretation, I wrote a tiny Applesoft Basic program which distributed random words into a pre-determined syntax. The pattern was simple:

gerund —
adjective, adjective;
verb —
adverb, adverb:
noun.

The word data base was limited, perhaps sixty words per category, and the program created little ersatz “poems” like this one:

sleeping —
free, brown;
run —
roundly, slowly:
home.

It’s hard to invent total gibberish, which is one reason for writing a computer program. The example I’ve recreated above is more nearly sensible than the real exercises would have been. The students were put into groups of four (classes were smaller in the days before today’s era of permanent budget shortfalls) and invited to “interpret” their “poems.” They were not told in advance that the poems weren’t “real.” Their interpretations were then shared with the whole class, and students had the chance to critique and add to the work of other groups. The result was exactly what Fish described in his essay. Students assumed that a poem had the characteristics of poetry, which they had already studied. They had no difficulty at all coming up with coherent, creative, and often sophisticated explanations of the poem’s “meaning.”

At the end, they were told how the poems originated, and we discussed what it might mean that they had found sense in nonsense. The point I was trying to illustrate was the idea that reading poetry (or any artful writing?) was not something that was done to the reader; rather, it was something done by the reader. It was active, not passive.

The little computer program provided the content and the structure. The students supplied the reading strategies. The result was a kind of meaning that, I believe, is not as artificial or superficial as the description of the classroom deception suggests.

And there you have it — a posting in which I agree with a postmodernist. And you thought that it would never happen!

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2 thoughts on “Good writers need readers who can read good writing

  1. An old joke played on new apprentices came at tea break. One of the workers produced a flask containing water and put some in his tea before passing it around.
    Invariably the apprentice began to act drunk.Willing suspension of disbelief?
    At the other extreme looking at a poem in a foreign language even with a translation raises severe context problems which require more detailed background from the translator usually. Delight in the asides of a good writer usually comes from grasping that wider context.

    • “Delight … comes from grasping that wider context” — for a litcrit POV that ditches context entirely, see tomorrow’s posting. I won’t be agreeing with that postmodernist!

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