19 May 2011

Who Writes The Best Sentences?

I jumped into the middle of a literary controversy last night. On a post reporting Iain Banks' contribution to the ongoing debate in the Guardian over the literary merits of science fiction, Hugo Award-winning editor and fanwriter Cheryl Morgan said:

For example literary writers, on average, probably produce better sentences than SF writers.

Now, I should hasten to add that this is one sentence taken out of context, and that Cheryl's post qualifies that statement in a number of ways. But it still got a reaction: Lavie Tidhar and Elizabeth Knox weighed in to the subsequent discussion with Cheryl Morgan on Twitter.

It's a storm in a teacup, perhaps: one more skirmish in the long war to establish, or alternatively to deny, speculative fiction's place at the literary table. But it got me thinking: what does it mean to produce a better sentence? What makes one sentence better than another? Is it the beauty of the words, or the use of metaphor or simile or imagery, or the function the sentence plays in telling the story, or a combination of all of these?

As I understand it, Cheryl's perception - and it's mine, too - is that, in genre fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in its contribution to telling the story, while in literary fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in the beauty of its expression. I'm just not sure that a beautiful but non-functional sentence is "better" than a sentence that is less elegant but contributes to advancing the story.

What do you think? What makes a sentence "better"? And, if that is a meaningful question, then...

Who writes the best sentences?


Rachel Fenton said...

Better/worse/good/bad, surely such limited tags should not exist in the exalted towers of literary criticism? Such lazy terms might be suitable to provoke where the critic supposes their opinion is worth a talent. If so, when they assert something is good/bad they aught to explicate. Why ejaculate otherwise? And on twitter....:)

Aimee L. Salter said...

What a great question... and I wish I didn't hate answering it so much.

I think the real answer to your question is: It depends on what the reader is looking for.

A reader looking for a compelling story probably doesn't care how lyrical the writing is. Whereas, a reader looking for literary excellence or lyrical beauty probably doesn't put so much stock in story tension.

But, frankly, I'm TIRED of writers spending so much time evaluating and criticizing each other. Don't get me wrong, your post is excellent, and I've been in the middle of these twitter storms myself... I just wish it didn't have to be this way.

In my experience, no one understands the life and angst of a writer except another writer. It bothers me that instead of supporting each other as a group, we're constantly comparing, back-biting and defending our own genres, styles and / or publishing tracks.

Why can't we all just get along?

Kevin Cudby said...

"Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me."

Kevin Cudby said...

Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Rachel, Aimee, and Kevin.

Rachel, Cheryl does quite a lot of explication on her blog post - it's worth reading that, as per the link in my post.

Aimee, that's a very good question! While I have contributed to the occasional literary stoush myself, I think that the New Zealand literary scene is a great deal less beset by entrenched positions on what is and isn't literature, or good writing, than the English scene: perhaps because there are now more ways for writers from different genres/backgrounds/courses to communicate with each other.

Kevin, I have never previously felt the urge to call you Ishmael :-)

Raymond said...

Great post Tim. I do love a 'good' sentence where-ever I find it. Some favourites at producing them are PG Wodehouse:
‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”‘
EB White: "Where's Papa going with that axe?" (first line of Charlottte's Web)
and Laurie Lee (every sentence).

Kathleen Jones said...

Really interesting post Tim. I'd take the line that sentences should be beautiful in all genres, it's just that in most plot-driven books you can get away with less. There are some fabulously literary writers in all the genres. Raymond Chandler - now there was a man who could write a sentence. And drive a plot. All at the same time. Iain Banks (writing as Iain M. Banks) is another.

AJ Ponder said...

Let's just put this debate to rest... "I do" ;)

Grant said...

Even if we limit ourselves to the idea of an individual sentence's beauty, I don't think it's necessarily the case that literary writers create more beautiful sentences. I don't think any genre dictates more (or less) beauty at the sentence level.

Although it ultimately comes down to personal taste, I think the sentences of  Neil Gaiman, China Mieville or Ian McDonald can easily be held up as equal to up the best of Raymond Carver, Don DeLilo or Philip Roth. I've read just as many  lifeless sentences from the literary side of the shelf as I have in science fiction.

Zireaux said...

We have only to look to one of the fathers of science fiction, Herbert George Wells, whose novels sit forlornly in the sci-fi section of libraries, pining for their homeland of true 19th century romance, to see the folly of forcing literary works to carry passports.

Shakespeare, Joyce, Melville -- these are the most magnificent writers of English sentences, without question. However, Vladimir Nabokov's sentences are the most crystal-cut and perfectly pitched. I would rank this sentence as one of the best ever written -- Humbert Humbert's comment, "I'm just winking happy thoughts into a little tiddle cup." (And some sentences later: "My little cup brims with tiddles.")


Raymond said...

Janet Frame wrote some good sentences about this:
'A sentence which keeps its feet clean from beginning to end
is good.
A sentence which, travelling, looks out of portholes,as far as the horizons and beyond is good
A sentence which goes to sleep is good,if it is winter;bad if it is spring.
A sentence which stumbles on useless objects instead of buried treasure is bad;
and worse if it illuminates useless objects with artificial light,
but good if it casts a unique radiance upon them.
A word which is exciting to look at and say, and which doesn’t slop its meaning over the side,is good.'

Tim Jones said...

Raymond, Kathleen, AJ, Grant, and Zireaux - thanks so much for your comments! I don't have time to write a detailed response right now, but will do so later today.

I have to say, though, that AJ's comment goes a long way to settling the debate.

Tim Jones said...

A few more thoughts about sentences:

I think the SF writer who produces the best sentences, taking all the functions of the sentence into consideration, is Gene Wolfe, the subject of this well-deserved paean from Neil Gaiman:


Kathleen, I completely agree with you about Raymond Chandler! Oddly, though I have met Iain Banks and liked him a lot, I have never warmed to his writing, with or without the M. inserted in his name.

Raymond (H. rather than C.), I do like that Janet Frame quote! A little P.G. Wodehouse goes a long way for me, but I have friends who count his works as dear friends.

Grant, good points. In my opinion, some literary fiction has an undue emphasis on the-sentence-as-beautiful-object, which detracts from the-sentence-as-story-element. For example, ***controversy alert***, while I fully understand how impressive a writer Eleanor Catton is, my impression is that her work sometimes slips over into an ostentatious display of literary technique which detracts from the story she is telling.

Zireaux, in my limited reading of Nabokov, there is a Russian quality to his English which goes at least some way to account for its distinct flavour.

Kay McKenzie Cooke said...

Thanks Tim - enjoyed the post and the comments. I must read Gene Wolfe! I enjoy both types of writing at different times and for different reasons - I'm glad we have general fiction, lit. fic. spec. fic. poetry etc and that we don't have to limit our reading to only one genre. Good sentences are littered and embedded in all writing. It's always a thrill to discover one. (e.g. One of my favourite books, Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, is a book littered with good sentences.)

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Kay - that's a wise and generous point of view!

Penelope Cottier said...

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Now that's a sentence! No one would dare write a paragraph-in-a-sentence like that today. And Dickens also wrote ghost stories and, in A Christmas Carol, a tale of ghosts AND time travel, so he wasn't afraid of what would now be seen as 'sub-literary' genres.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for your comment, Penelope!

That is indeed a sentence of impressive size, and quality to match, but I'm afraid I disagree that "No one would dare write a paragraph-in-a-sentence like that today". The Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago, who died last year, wrote paragraph-long sentences to put Dickens in the shade.

I think Saramago is a wonderful writer, but his style does take a bit of getting used to.