Annotating Stanley Fish

Today’s op-ed by Stanley Fish, the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University, is behind the New York TimesSelect Wall, so I’ve decided to reprint it in full and annotate where necessary:

You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the

loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages

of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice.

(That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go

about deciding? (quickly, frantically, trying too hard to calm down while knowing that’s nearly impossible)

Look at the back cover? No, back-cover copy is written by an

advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book (or a marketing assistant, or an editor or even – gasp! – the author!) and is trying for

something short and punchy like (and I will be making none of this up)

“As unpredictable as trade winds” or “It couldn’t get any worse. Until

it does.” Besides, rarely will the style of back-cover prose be

anything like the style of the book itself, so reading it won’t tell

you what you want to know. Depending on your taste, it might tell you

something usefully negative. The moment I spot a reference to any

country but this one, I move on. No international settings for me.

(More’s the pity.) Ditto for any promise that the book I am holding will be funny. Funny

is for sitcoms and stand-up comedians. When it comes to mysteries, I’m

a Matthew Arnold guy, all for high seriousness. (Ditto.)

How about the

blurbs, especially if a few of your favorites are touting the merits of

an author new to you? I used to take direction from blurbs until I told

a very famous mystery writer (because the writer can’t just be “famous”, you know) that he was right to have praised a book I

had bought on his authority. He replied that he didn’t remember it,

probably hadn’t read it, and was no doubt doing a favor for his

publisher. Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each

other like party favors. (But not like you’re actually going to bother doing any research to confirm that. This is an op-ed, after all!)

The only thing left — and this is

sure-fire — is to read the first sentence. The really bad ones leap out

at you. Here’s one that has the advantage of being short (you can close

the book quickly): “He cut through the morning rush-hour crowd like a

shark fin through water.” Enough said. (Really? I quite enjoyed RAIN FALL, but guess Fish won’t be a Barry Eisler fan anytime soon.) Here’s one that begins O.K.,

except for the heroine’s name, but then goes on a beat and a half too

long: “Brianne Parker didn’t look like a bank robber or a murderer —

her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone.” (Seeing as this is from James Patterson’s ROSES ARE RED, I guess I wonder about Fish’s assertion that he’s going for “all seriousness.”) You don’t need the

stuff after the dash. Brianne’s not looking like a murderer is the hook

that draws you in to find out why she is one. The “pleasantly plump

baby face” bit lets you off the hook and dumps you on a cliché, which

might be all right if the author gave any sign of knowing that it was

one. This guy is going to hit false notes for 300 pages, but I won’t be


Sometimes a first sentence is bad because it’s

pretentious. “Some stories wait to be told.” (Damn, can’t identify this one.) That’s an opening Tolstoy

or Jane Austen might have considered (although they would have produced

superior versions of it). But mystery writers usually aren’t Tolstoys

or Austens, and a first sentence like this one is a signal (buyer

beware) that the author is intent on contemplating his or her “craft”

and wants you to contemplate it too. No thanks. (Or perhaps more indicative of the op-ed writer’s pretentiousness, but hey.)

Time is running

out, the doors will soon be closing. Here’s something much better:

“Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday

murder his wife and son.” High marks for compression, information and

what I call the “angle of lean.” A good first sentence knows about

everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force,

taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out

(a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what

happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer, and © what sequence of

events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing

wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants

you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction. (And you know this how? Did you ask T. Jefferson Parker? Or perhaps Mr. Fish is impressed with his own acumen at rejecting books outright. How nice.)


here, finally, is the real thing, efficient, dense, and free of

self-preening: “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his

descent into murder with a bus ride.” The name is nicely cadenced and

sounds serious; “eleven years old at the time” takes the seriousness

away, but it comes back with a vengeance and with a question: descent

into murder, how did that happen? The answer — “with a bus ride” — only

deepens the mystery, and we’re off. And look, the book is big and fat.

Sold. (And you poor, poor thing, getting exactly what you deserve. Hope you had a nice flight!)

Once again, one man’s attempt at humor only displays how deeply unfunny – and inherently prejudicial – he really is.