In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose writes, “By now you may be asking: what is a beautiful sentence? The answer is that beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face.”
She says this and I completely agree with it but then she goes on to point out specifics about what makes a sentence beautiful. That’s when I started to disagree. In reading her examples, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was maybe something wrong with me since the sentences Prose uses to define “beauty” and “good sentences” didn’t speak to me the way they spoke to her.
Doctor Johnson’s sentence on page 39, for example, that Prose uses to exemplify a good sentence felt wordy and overstated and, to me, the rhythm felt off. While the sentence is easy to understand it’s not exactly what I’d call beautiful.
This is the sentence:
It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.
And while Prose says “the quality that this sentence shares in common with all good sentences is first and most obviously clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.” I agree that the sentence, though long, is clear. But Prose goes on to say, “Despite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete.” I disagree.
Perhaps Prose is talking to (readers like) me when she says “the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word.” I love to read but I’m not always the most patient reader, I admit. As a recovering event planner, my motto has often been “keep it moving!” I tend to read fast and even skip a few words here and there when things get overly descriptive for me. And there are times when I need to go back and reread because I missed something critical.
So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m in too big a hurry. And maybe I don’t, yet, understand true sentence beauty the way Francine Prose does. I certainly have a lot to learn. That’s why I’m here. But in addition to that, to use a favorite cliché of mine, perhaps it’s true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This cliché basically says the same thing as Prose when she says beauty is difficult to quantify.
I understand that as writers we try to steer clear of clichés and find more creative ways but sometimes (not always but sometimes) clichés work. Isn’t that how they came to be clichés in the first place?
More words packed into a sentence don’t necessarily mean more beauty. Beautiful sentences can also be concise. Sometimes short and long sentences say, more or less, the same thing. And (gasp!) in some cases, at least to me, clichés can be beautiful, too.