The Energy in Philip Roth’s Sentences: Readers’ Workshop Roundup

What makes a sentence great? Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer says it’s difficult to quantify but that when you read strong, vigorous, and clear sentences it makes you want to get out a pen and paper and start diagramming sentences.

For the second Readers’ Workshop we focused on sentences and how Philip Roth uses sentences in the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral.

Authors can write sentences for grammar, clarity or rhythm.

Grammar makes the reader comfortable – we expect grammatical sentences.

Clarity is a higher ideal than grammatical correctness, so if a writer needs to break a rule to get a point across they will do so. But it’s deliberate and well thought out.

Finally a writer may choose to write a sentence for rhythm, and possibly choose a slightly wrong word to make the sentence more musical.

9780525432838We saw examples of all of this in Roth’s sentences, which Prose describes as energetic and varied, with fragments scattered among full sentences.

The energy in the sentences can be felt in the rhythm that Roth uses quite often – one long sentence followed by three to four short sentences. Roth uses brief sentences (even fragments) much like a drum beat. You can almost feel this build up of tension as the 400-page lament keeps spilling out.

One thing we almost all agreed on – American Pastoral is a challenging read. The content, the characters, even those beautiful sentences can be intense.

A man in the book club who is the same age as Roth (and also grew up in the Northeast and is also Jewish) said that Roth’s books are so familiar to him. It’s people he knew. It’s the people he grew up with. It’s his father, his friends. On the other hand, a woman who is the same age as Roth said that even though the characters and life experiences were so different from her own, she felt that it was very real.

American Pastoral is very male-centric, and many of us noted how the narrator and the main character really misunderstood the female characters in the novel. It was a stark contrast from last month with Alice Munro. One club member suggested that Munro should write the story of one of the female characters (the speech therapist) and we all agreed that was an excellent idea.

So, Alice, we’re waiting.

For March we’re learning about paragraphs and reading Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Won’t you join us?

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About Stephanie Y.

I'm a professional news writer in Frederick, Maryland. I blog at S.Y. Ciphers.

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