Flaying Sentences

Over at The Millions, Garth Risk Hallberg has diagrammed a sentence of Barack Obama's, building on the central insight Zadie Smith laid out in her recent essay:

This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine… or rather, it may be one facet of a larger gift: what Zadie Smith calls "having more than one voice in your ear." Notice the canny way that the sentence above turns on the fulcrum of what may be Obama's favorite word: "but." What appears to be a hard line – "My view is… that nobody is above the law" – turns out to have been a qualifier for a vaguer but more inspiring motto: "I am more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back." The most controversial part of the sentence – "people should be prosecuted" – gets tucked away, almost parenthetically, in the middle.

This reminded me that I wanted to blog about William H. Gass's excellent essay in the most recent Review of Contemporary Fiction. Beyond making me wonder why Harper's continues wasting him on author biographies, Gass's essay offered many intriguing alternatives to the familiar sentence diagram for visualizing a sentence.

He had never dreamed of anything
                                 so fringed     and scalloped,
                                 so buttoned    and corded,
         drawn everywhere        so tight       and curled
               everywhere        so thick.

This is actually one of the tamer examples from the essay.

Of late Gass has showed greater and greater interest in flaying the sentence on the page, so as to better understand how the sounds and meanings come together to work as we read. It makes one hopefull that he will one day publish a book-length exploration of the topic.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Long Sentences AC at Slightly Bluestocking asks a good question. Long sentences. Correction opens with a sentence that’s about two pages long. Most of the sentences (not...
  2. She’s At It Again Zadie Smith, who might as will have a regular column in the NYRB at this point, has published yet another essay in that journal. These...
  3. First Sentences I think Ed’s got a meme here. Best first sentences in fiction. Ed quotes one from Anthony Burgess that is pretty strong. I’ll look to...
  4. Smith Essay Redux Over the weekend I came back to the Zadie Smith essay in the current NYRB. It’s really the kind of thing we should be seeing...
  5. Vitality vs Empathy There’s a nice post over at CultureSpace that looks at the pitfalls implicit in the characters of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, and...

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Have you seen Gass’ intro to Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans? (I don’t know if it’s collected in any of his books of essays.) He does much the same thing. Quite interesting.

Also check out Gass’ breathtaking “spindle diagram” of Gertrude Stein’s prose in his introduction to The Making of Americans. It’s illuminating. Btw: Read Sot-Weed first.

Ooops. Sorry, Richard. You got there first.

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