Stanley Fish and his discontents

Last week, in the Manhattan Mid-town library, I listened to Stanley Fish give a talk about his new book, How to Write a Sentence. I’ve delayed blogging about it because I had written about Fish’s book, and about the formal study of sentence-making in general, for the Fiction Writers Review, and I wanted to wait for that piece to be published.

I more or less agree with Stanley Fish’s main points from that night:

1. Sentence structure can be studied.

2. College composition classes should mainly study the use of language.

And I was delighted to see adults gathering on a Thursday evening to discuss the intricacies of writing and literature.

And yet I found Stanley Fish repellent and unpleasant, as relentlessly aggressive and reductionist in person as he is on the page. He is a man capable of starting a wrestling match in an empty room.

Fish asked us, his audience, to form simple sentences from his prompts, and then discussed the logic underlying them. For instance, an “even though” sentence connects two ideas, the second a surprise considering the first.

Even though I was tired, I went out to dance.

Fish proclaimed that through this process, he was teaching us to write—by isolating the logic of sentences and explaining them. Not by offering us “content,” a term he expressed with more and more loathing as the hour dragged on, but by instead showing us the syntax that lies underneath sentences. Content, therefore, doesn’t matter. Study syntax and your writing will improve. No writing class should have content. No writing class should discuss ideas or issues, especially issues that the teacher cares about. Students should not expect a college class to give them room to express their ideas—according to Fish, “they don’t have any ideas.” In fact, ideas don’t exist. There is only form. The form that ideas and arguments take.

Here are my problems with this philosophy:

1. Fish seems to have mistaken some simplified version of Chomsky’s  generative grammar with writing instruction. It’s true that nearly every English speaker possesses certain grammar-wielding instincts. Every adult knows what “even though” means. But there is a huge difference between speech and writing. Speech contains no comma splices, no run-ons, few subject verb disagreements, and has no spelling mistakes. Pointing out to students the range of their subconscious grammar toolkit is a parlour trick—it is an impressive attention grabber—but I’m not sure it has anything to do with periodic sentences or thesis statements, with the real work of writing.

2. However, it might be useful as the basis of a remedial or entry level writing class—as a way of getting students thinking about words, and from the thrust of Fish’s lecture, this is the purpose he put it to in his own writing classes. But this means that his actual book, How to Write a Sentence, is basically fraudulent. The book claims to be a guide for really advanced students to copy Ford Maddox Ford and Ernest Hemingway; in fact, it is the extreme stretching of a technique designed to teach first year college students the value of “however.” It was noticeable that in person, Fish had absolutely nothing to say about Updike and the other literary heroes examined in his book, and I was left suspecting that this rebranding of the “Fish method” came from the request of an editor who smelled a best seller.

3. Fish railed against teachers who let their writing courses get captured by content, who expect their students to have opinions about affirmative action and so on. And yet, in a paradox that is a little too complex for me to fully parse, his talk seemed full of the wrong sort of content itself. We were a crowd of tense would-be artists, earnest middle-aged readers, and genial octogenarians. None of us, I’d wager, were in charge of a major university’s writing programme. But instead of talking about writing, or even reading, Fish became more and more enraged and gossipy about the business of being a college dean, and the struggles he had faced. As Freud liked to say, the repressed always resurfaces, and Fish’s idea that content is optional, something that can be stripped from reality to reveal pure form, was revealed to be nonsense (because his talk was filled with bizarrely chosen content).

4. I am actually teaching a Composition class, at Rutgers-Camden University, much like the kind Fish advocates. I use Francis Christensen’s “cumulative sentence” as the theoretical basis, but the focus on language over subject matter is perfectly Fishian. And while I think it is the right approach to teaching writing, the costs and benefits are not as simple as Fish makes out. One of the problems of “ditching content” is that the students quickly realise that the course does not require their input or opinion. I, as expert on sentence-making, merely need to teach them one technique after another. Sentence-based pedagogies that try to alleviate this problem do exist (including the seemingly more Socratic “sentence combining” method), and I will try to mingle my methods in future semesters, but the drop in vocal participation has been a surprising and unwelcome unintended consequence of “ditching content,” and one that teachers curious about the Fish argument need to be aware of. Although the anti-foundationalist, post-modern-ish school that Fish belongs to seems, on the surface, to be libertarian, left-wing, anything goes, it is in reality a tool of the powerful, the establishment, the expert. When a college class discusses ideas, anyone can question the teacher. When a class discusses adjectival clauses, everyone who is not a professional grammarian has to be quiet.

5. Fish is a prime case of a frustrating tendency in contemporary literary criticism—the needless obsession with epistemology. At some point in the past, English professors felt they merely needed to explain why Shakespeare was really good, or the social attitudes of people back in his time. Now, probably because of Derrida and Foucault, to be a really exciting thinker about literature, you seemingly have to explain the workings of human thought and knowledge and truth. Fish’s claim that “there are no ideas only forms of ideas” is the kind of epistemological sabre-rattling that seems totally inappropriate in a discussion of the teaching of writing, and an idea, even if it were meaningful in that context, which reeks of reductionist argument rather than actual thinking. It may sound impressive, but it is a claim on the same order of profundity as “Because every apple is different, there’s no such thing as an apple.” And it is a claim Fish makes with no knowledge, his talk almost proudly revealed, of comparative linguistics, neuroscience, or really any discipline other than his own gumption. One longs for a Wittgenstein to listen from the back of the room, smile softly, and then raise a smouldering poker. Fortunately, we still have Terry Eagleton.

PS American readers, if you click on the link to Eagleton’s essay, I apologise for his anti-American remarks. Stanley Fish tends to bring out the worst in people.


4 thoughts on “Stanley Fish and his discontents

  1. An intriguing commentary on Fish’s lecture. But I still am not sure what made it “repellent and unpleasant.” I suspect it must have been something beyond his theory, something revealed about Fish’s character that made the lecture repellent. If would love to hear a paragraph or two from Daniel addressing that issue: what made Fish (not his theory) seem repellent. I find some of Fish’s political views repellent, by the way, and am interested in Daniel’s observation of the fellow’s character.


    • Hi Steve,

      Fish had a method of argument-making, and of relating to an audience, that I didn’t enjoy. He began and ended his talk with attacks on unnecessary opponents–dismissing Strunk and White, various research findings on the teaching of writing, Composition teachers at his college–and then gleefully insisted that his students shouldn’t try to express their ideas in class because they didn’t actually have any ideas. It felt like watching someone bristling for a fight, who if lacking an opponent would invent one, or who could only feel right about his own opinions if everyone else was wrong.

      He also barked out demands for example sentences from the audience that were imprecisely specified, and then, if someone didn’t produce the kind of “three-word sentence” that he had in mind, he yelled, “Wrong!” This gave me the feeling that Fish’s only teaching technique was that of a dictator.

      Why do you dislike his political views?


  2. You dismiss the argument that “Because every apple is different, there’s no such thing as an apple” as being beneath notice, and yet in fact the medieval scholastics spent a great deal of time on this question—among them William of Ockham, whose thoughts on matters scientific and political are the very basis of the world we now know. Maybe you’re right, and the question IS beneath notice, but by dismissing it so readily you’re merely demonstrating your ignorance. Meanwhile, by tsk-tsking Fish’s supposed “aggression” and “reductionism” you’ve more or less proven Fish’s case for him: by focusing on form, instead of content, Fish is doing his students a much greater service than you are, by your own account, doing yours—he is giving them the tools to formulate their own views, while you apparently are merely showing them how to recycle the pieties of their instructor. Please do everyone the only service you are apparently capable of rendering: get out of the profession.


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