Review of "Building Great Sentences," a "Great Courses" Lecture Series by Brooks Landon

            You’ve probably received catalogues in the mail advertising “Great Courses.” I’ve been flipping through them for years thinking I should try a couple but have always been turned off by the price. Recently, I saw that they were on sale, and one in particular struck me as potentially worthwhile. “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft” is taught by Brooks Landon, who is listed as part of the faculty at the University of Iowa. It turns out, however, he’s not in any way affiliated with the august Creative Writing Workshop, and though he uses several example sentences from literature I’d say his primary audience is people interested in Rhetoric and Composition—and that makes the following criticisms a bit unfair. So let me first say that I enjoyed the lectures and think it well worth the money (about thirty bucks) and time (twenty-four half-hour-long lectures).

            Landon is obviously reading from a teleprompter, and he’s standing behind a lectern in what looks like Mr. Roger’s living room decked out to look scholarly. But he manages nonetheless to be animated, enthusiastic, and engaging. He gives plenty of examples of the principles he discusses, all of which appear in text form and are easy to follow—though they do at times veer toward the eye-glazingly excessive.

            The star of the show is what Landon calls “cumulative sentences,” those long developments from initial capitalized word through a series of phrases serving as free modifiers, each building on its predecessor, focusing in, panning out, or taking it as a point of departure as the writer moves forward into unexplored territory. After watching several lectures, I went to the novel I’m working on and indeed discovered more than a few instances where I’d seen fit to let my phrases accumulate into a stylistic flourish. The catch is that these instances were distantly placed from one another. Moving from my own work to some stories in the Summer Fiction Issue of The New Yorker, I found the same trend. The vast majority of sentences follow Strunk and White’s dictum to be simple and direct, a point Landon acknowledges. Still, for style and rhetorical impact, the long sentences Landon describes are certainly effective.

            Landon and I part ways, though, when it comes to “acrobatic” sentences which “draw attention to themselves.” Giving William Gass a high seat in his pantheon of literary luminaries, Landon explains that “Gass always sees language as a subject every bit as interesting and important as is the referential world his language points to, invokes, or stands for.” While this poststructuralist sentiment seems hard to object to, it misses the point of what language does and how it works. Sentences can call attention to themselves for performing their functions well, but calling attention to themselves should never be one of their functions.

            Writers like Gass and Pynchon and Wallace fail in their quixotic undertakings precisely because they perform too many acrobatics. While it is true that many readers, particularly those who appreciate literary as opposed to popular fiction—yes, there is a difference—are attuned to the pleasures of language, luxuriating in precise and lyrical writing, there’s something perverse about fixating on sentences to the exclusion of things like character. Great words in great sentences incorporating great images and suggestive comparisons can make the world in which a story takes place come alive—so much so that the life of the story escapes the page and transforms the way readers see the world beyond it. But the prompt for us to keep reading is not the promise of more transformative language; it’s the anticipation of transforming characters. Great sentences in literature owe their greatness to the moments of inspiration, from tiny observation to earth-shattering epiphany, experienced by the people at the heart of the story. Their transformations become our transformations. And literary language may seem to derive whatever greatness it achieves from precision and lyricism, but at a more fundamental level of analysis it must be recognized that writing must be precise and lyrical in its detailing of the thoughts and observations of the characters readers seek to connect with. This takes us to a set of considerations that transcend the workings of any given sentence.

            Landon devotes an entire lecture to the rhythm of prose, acknowledging it must be thought of differently from meter in poetry, but failing to arrive at an adequate, objective definition. I wondered all the while why we speak about rhythm at all when we’re discussing passages that don’t follow one. Maybe the rhythm is variable. Maybe it’s somehow progressive and evolving. Or maybe we should simply find a better word to describe this inscrutable quality of impactful and engaging sentences. I propose grace. Indeed, a singer demonstrates grace by adhering to a precisely measured series of vocal steps. Noting a similar type of grace in writing, we’re tempted to hear it as rhythmical, even though its steps are in no way measured. Grace is that quality of action that leaves audiences with an overwhelming sense of its having been well-planned and deftly executed, well-planned because its deft execution appeared so effortless—but with an element of surprise just salient enough to suggest spontaneity. Grace is a delicate balance between the choreographed and the extemporized.

            Grace in writing is achieved insofar as the sequential parts—words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters—meet the demands of their surroundings, following one another seamlessly and coherently, performing the function of conveying meaning, in this case of connecting the narrator’s thoughts and experiences to the reader. A passage will strike us as particularly graceful when it conveys a great deal of meaning in a seemingly short chain of words, a feat frequently accomplished with analogies (a point on which Landon is eloquent), or when it conveys a complex idea or set of impressions in a way that’s easily comprehended. I suspect Landon would agree with my definition of grace. But his focus on lyrical or graceful sentences, as opposed to sympathetic or engaging characters—or any of the other aspects of literary writing—precludes him from lighting on the idea that grace can be strategically lain aside for the sake of more immediate connections with the people and events of the story, connections functioning in real-time as the reader’s eyes take in the page.

            Sentences in literature like to function mimetically, though this observation goes unmentioned in the lectures. Landon cites the beautifully graceful line from Gatsby,

“Slenderly, languidly, their hands set lightly on their hips the two young women preceded us out onto a rosy-colored porch open toward the sunset where four candles flickered on the table in the diminished wind” (16).

The multiple L’s roll out at a slow pace, mimicking the women and the scene being described. This is indeed a great sentence. But so too is the later sentence in which Nick Carraway recalls being chagrined upon discovering the man he’s been talking to about Gatsby is in fact Gatsby himself. Nick describes how Gatsby tried to reassure him: “He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly.” The first notable thing about this sentence is that it stutters. Even though Nick is remembering the scene at a more comfortable future time, he re-experiences his embarrassment, and readers can’t help but sympathize. The second thing to note is that this one sentence, despite serving as a crucial step in the development of Nick’s response to meeting Gatsby and forming an impression of him, is just that, a step. The rest of the remarkable passage comes in the following sentences:

“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care” (52-3).

            Beginning with a solecism (“reassurance in it, that…”) that suggests Nick’s struggle to settle on the right description, moving onto another stutter (or seemed to face) which indicates his skepticism creeping in beside his appreciation of the regard, the passage then moves into one of those cumulative passages Landon so appreciates. But then there’s the jarring incongruity of the smile’s vanishing. This is, as far as I can remember, the line that sold me on the book when I first read it. You can really feel Nick’s confusion and astonishment. And the effect is brought about by sentences, an irreducible sequence of them, that are markedly ungraceful. (Dashes are wonderful for those break-ins so suggestive of spontaneity and advance in real-time.)