Went to: “On the Well-Tempered Sentence” at The Center for Fiction

Posted by Tobias Carroll

The Center for Fiction, located on East 47th Street, is a modest eight-story building with a small bookstore in the front and event spaces, book collections, and writing rooms on ascending floors. I was there on this particular night to attend an event titled On the Well-Tempered Sentence, assembled by John Madera (the writer and critic behind, among other projects, Big Other). Madera hosted, providing lengthy introductions of each of the four panelists that also served as a fine overview of their work.

His introduction to the evening as a whole included some criticism of intentional flatness in contemporary fiction. He praised “sentences as a vehicle for an unsettling of things,” and went on to cite William H. Gass’s essay “Music of Prose” and Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview. Madera’s own observations, and his citations of Gass and DeLillo, placed the sentence in a realm of physicality, rooting it firmly in the body.

John Haskell was the first to read, choosing a section of his novel Out of My Skin in which the narrator, himself a writer, spends time submerged underwater in a shark cage. Slowly, the narrative broke down and reassembled different notions of desire, even as Haskell’s prose engaged in some memorable, compelling repetition of sounds.

Gary Lutz was next, reading — from his own description — a page and a half from a story. Rolled tubes of paper, holes in office walls, and the reading of phone books all played a part. (And, since it was cited in the Q & A later on, it would probably behoove me to link to his essay “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” right about now.)

Ben Marcus read a taut, surreal piece encompassing manipulated mannequins, Jewish mysticism, codes and broadcasts. In the end, the subject of his language ended up being language, as his narrator paused on the edge of recounting a revelation and instead said, “About this I can say no more.”

Christine Schutt was introduced by Madera praising her understanding and usage of the “power of repetition in prose.” She read from a new story, which had a hell of an opening line: “The man has a hole in his foot.” What followed was a portrait of a fraying upper-middle class life, with accompanying wound.

At this point, the four writers shifted into panel mode, answering questions posed by Madera and members of the audience. Video of the event will, I believe, be posted to the Center for Fiction’s website; I’m going to cover a few highlights here.

  • In response to a question about first awareness of sentences, Schutt and Haskell discussed the need to make sure that well-written sentences are within larger works that are equally compelling. (Alternately, from Schutt: “The problem is writing stories.”)
  • Lutz, on the process of composing sentences, beginning with one particularly striking word: “Somehow, other words yearn to belong with that one word.”
  • The first audience question came from Franklin Bruno, and raised the subject of where, exactly, the line demarcating the sort of fiction written by all four panelists from poetry could be found. Marcus: there is “lots of writing on the border, and a lot is writing I really love.”
  • Marcus described his recent work as “a conversation with myself and my past work,” and followed that up with an equally memorable quote: “I want to do what I don’t know how to do.”
  • In one of the later questions, Lutz was asked about his reaction to “sloppy use” of language in daily life. His response included this: “I enjoy exhibitions of language being brutalized,” and mentioned a fondness for “crackpot talk radio” for the ways in which language was utilized in that context.

Discussions of editors, the work of Diane Williams and Sam Lipsyte, and the ways in which language can bring comfort to a reader were also discussed. Ninety minutes of intelligent people talking about craft: not a bad way to spend a Wednesday night.