Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Sentence is a Lonely Place by Gary Lutz

There's a wonderful, thought-provoking essay in the January issue of 'The Believer' by Gary Lutz. Originally, it was given as a lecture at Columbia University this fall. (I confess a certain love for lectures printed afterwards). What Lutz does is break down prose into one of its most basics units, the sentence, and attempt to analyze what goes on there. He's a very close reader, and the study of literature can only benefit from the likes of such as he. If I'm remembering aright, Lutz also likes words, and likes to add them rather than subtract them from our vocabulary, which I applaud.

All that said, my real reaction to Lutz's essay on sentence was to say to one of my co-workers and recent holder of an MFA, "What it really makes me feel is that I don't know anything at all about writing." She was quick to chime in that studying for an MFA made her a better reader. She hadn't yet weighed in on whether it made her a better writer.

To remove it a little from the personal sphere, Zadie Smith said much the same thing, I think, in an interview--where she was the interviewer--with Ian McEwan.

My personal theory is that many if not most writers like to read other people's discussion of the craft. But I believe that the way that they actually learn is not through analysis, but through osmosis. I am not sure that thinking about their sentences ultimately helps them. But feeling their way through them, pausing, lingering, working for some better phrase or intonation might.


  1. Does he consider a sentence a small enough unit to be worth if aesthetic contemplation, meditation, even? And is thks article easuly available>
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. I think Lutz finds the sentence not only worthy of contemplation but of downright obsession.

    Yes, it's available. The Believer doesn't print the whole magazine on line, but the Lutz article is here .

    Thanks. I didn't think to look it up till now.

  3. God almighty, what was distracting me when I filled that comment with typos? Thanks for not commenting on them, and thanks for the link. I'll read the article and report back.

  4. Although I might raise an eyebrow if I saw that sentence in the paper, in the blog world, they don't matter so much. It's not like I didn't understand your meaning.

  5. And why did such a mess make it into the blogosphere? Because the comment had no copy editor.