The Well-Wrought Sentence

Gary Lutz on writers of exquisite sentences:

It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books—mostly of fiction, most notably by Barry Hannah, and all of them, I later learned, edited by Gordon Lish—in which virtually every sentence had the force and feel of a climax, in which almost every sentence was a vivid extremity of language, an abruption, a definitive inquietude. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. As a reader, I finally knew what I wanted to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew exactly what I wanted to try to write: narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude, a minute immediacy of consummated language—the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself. I once later tried to define this kind of sentence as “an outcry combining the acoustical elegance of the aphorism with the force and utility of the load-bearing, tractional sentence of more or less conventional narrative.” The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

And as I encountered any such sentence, the question I would ask myself in marvelment was: how did this thing come to be what it now is? This was when I started gazing into sentence after sentence and began to discover that there was nothing arbitrary or unwitting or fluky about the shape any sentence had taken and the sound it was releasing into the world.

I’ll try to explain what it is that such sentences all seem to have in common and how in fact they might well have been written.

Whom would you put on this list?


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Give a dog a bone. It’s no surprise which author Scott would put on the list. Next, please.

Joan Didion. Period.

Shakespeare. I know, do we even bother to include Shakespeare in such lists? “But look, the morn in russet mantle clad.”

Steve – Laszlo?

Javier Marias would get a vote from me. All the more amazing given his cyclical rhythm.

Haha, Drew! Yes, Laszlo!

I’d nominate Edward Dahlberg for this. His diction and style are outstanding.

Lutz himself, and Christine Schutt (who he mentions in that lecture) would top my list. Hannah too, of course. Lutz says somewhere else that Hannah has “a kind of brawling, roughhouse aphoristicity”, which I think captures it perfectly.

This might be a boring or obvious suggestion, but I really enjoy DeLillo’s sentences.

Yes, Delillo. And Woolf and Nabokov immediately come to mind.

Proust, Cormac McCarthy and Merce Rodoreda.

Barry Hannah is a huge one for me. I would second Faulkner and Nabokov for sure, and add Patrick White, Beckett, and… Charles Portis? It seems like these well-wrought sentences have a lot to do with why writers like Hannah and Portis are so hilarious. The rhythm with which they deliver their punchlines destroys me every time.

Lispector. Ondaatje; though it is fashionable to dismiss him as he’s not an avant-gardeist but his early work has deep pleasures!

Oh! Barthelme is a brilliant choice.

I’m often as surprised by my choice as my friends are when I express it: John Ruskin.

Henry Green, Patrick White, and Beckett, surely. Banville, but only about eighty percent of the time.

Gass came immediately to mind. DeLillo too.

Henry James. Barthelme. EB White/Katherine White. John Cage. William Gaddis. James Joyce. Herman Melville. Thoreau. Walker Percy. Eudora Welty. Norman Mailer. John Kenneth Galbraith. Samuel Beckett.

Emerson is (in a sense beyond the immediate literal one, of course) a writer of sentences.

It’s nice to see Patrick White on the list, although I’m a little surprised at just one mention of Gass. I think Mary Butts is an underrated stylist, as is Marguerite Young. And while translations are tricky, I’d nominate Julien Gracq and Eric Chevillard.

John Hawkes wrote gorgeous sentences. Burroughs exploded the sentence. Kapuscinski made his sentences evoke a place like nobody else’s. Denis Johnson’s sentences can make you hurt. Ditto David Wojnarowicz. Juan Carlos Onetti and Alejo Carpentier.

Hob Broun constructed some pretty riveting sentences. Paralyzed from the neck down, apparently he wrote by breathing into a catheter connected to his computer. As Sam Lipsyte (hugely influenced by Broun) puts it, “every word was hard-won.” The effect is that, at a compositional level, each sentence feels like (this from Gordon Lish, Broun’s editor) “a map of the will of the author to keep on.” An unjustly neglected author, worth checking out…

Clarice Lispector, especially the old translations, in which every sentence I orgasmed. . The distrait, unselfconscious beauty of Cormac mcCarthy. Laszlo, for all his lumbering verbal acrobatics. Joyce.

Gass, Marías, Proust, Gaddis most of the time, Joyce, Melville most of the time

Gass almost none of the time.

SirJack, I concur. Gass labors at his sentences, the result being nothing more than a medicine cabinet put up on the wall.

Lydia Davis for sure. John Hawkes for sure. Thomas Bernhard. Early Sam Lipsyte (Venus Drive). David Foster Wallace here and there (Incarnations of Burned Children, Church Not Made With Hands, some sections of his novels). Carole Maso at her best (AVA). For that matter, David Markson at his best. Gerald Murnane. Marilynne Robinson. Hemingway, even if his topography is flat. Ben Marcus sometimes. Beckett almost always.

To those names already proffered (Barry Hannah and Charles Portis are legerdemain in this field), I’m compelled to cite likeminded examples in Knut Hamsun, Julio Cortázar, Bruno Schulz, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, Brautigan, Kerouac, J.P. Donleavy and, occasionally (but not always consistently), Chekhov, Marquez, Ken Kesey, Roberto Bolaño, Percival Everett, Thomas Pynchon, Steve Erickson, Junot Díaz, David Mitchell, Mark Leyner, Aleksandar Hemon, D.B.C. Pierre and Jonathan Lethem. Some younger writers currently mining this linguistic vein are Matt Bell, Patrick Holland (“The Long Road of the Junkmailer”; “The Mary Smokes Boys”), Sam Thompson (“Communion Town”), and Robert Kloss (“The Alligators of Abraham”). As this constitutes the tabernacle before which I hunch in reverence, I’m enthused for further examples to be slung or sallied my way.

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