16 February 2012

Ways of Worldmaking

Filed under: Fiction, Language — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense — the world is one thing, words another — but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders. Think about what you do when you revise a sentence: You add something, you delete something, you substitute one tense for another, you rearrange clauses and phrases; and with each change, the “reality” offered to your readers changes. An attempt to delineate in words even the smallest moment — a greeting in the street, the drinking of a cup of coffee, the opening of a window — necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand. There is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might have been brought in and, by being brought in, altered the snapshot of reality you are presenting… Sentence writers are not copyists; they are selectors…

[W]hen we write a sentence, we create a world, which is not the world, but the world as it appears within a dimension of assessment… The skill it takes to produce a sentence — the skill of linking events, actions, and objects by a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world. Philosopher Nelson Goodman calls this process of creative representation “ways of worldmaking.” We commonly call those ways “styles.”

– Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence (2011), pages 37-40



  1. Nice idea and well put but is it true? How can a description alter the world even if correct? If correct it is true to something which is independent of it, if incorrect it is not true of what it purports to be true of. Either way the world stands. It is what it is with limitless possibilities of description. There is always more to know and therefore more to say.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 16 February 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  2. I agree, Om. I do believe that different descriptions of the world can affect people’s perceptions of and interactions with the world, which can then change the world after the fact. It’s hard to know what to call this variable interactive milieu of people-in-world. Curiously though, Fish writes almost exclusively about fiction in this book. Even a so-called realistic novel doesn’t purport to describe the world. Is there a fictional reality in the author’s imagination, subject to a variety of alternate descriptions? Or is the fictional world identical to the words in the text? When you edit, are you selecting different facets to describe, or are you altering the world you’ve created? I wonder what your view as fiction-writer is on this.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 February 2012 @ 7:37 pm

  3. John, if I may thus address you, call me Michael, that handle makes me like a Swami.

    A fictional world is one person’s vision of a world that independent of his imaginings. At the same time the way that one lives the world, what stands out for one is dependent on the person that you are. This is one factor of soul or the soul. To get into the soul of the fictional entity we need in some way to create a characteristic way of seeing or of living the world. What they see is the ‘show’ part. What they would see could be the beginning of the fabrication of their world. It’s their little red wheel barrow. Its the naming of parts. ‘Give it a name’. This starts a process of controlled channelling. I was reading about Patience Worth in Wikipedia the other day and I find in that chaotic gibberish that should be avoided. There’s no soul in it, just a tiresome attempt at mimicry. Here’s Kipps by H.G.Wells(first sentence):

    Until he was nearly arrived at manhood, it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he had come into the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other little boys.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 17 February 2012 @ 7:01 am

  4. Michael it is; John is fine.

    “what stands out for one is dependent on the person that you are”

    That seems right. There is a reality to a person that persists across situations, maybe even across states of consciousness. The way I describe fictional events and situations is similar to how I describe things that actually happen to me or that I observe in the world. It’s not so much a self-conscious style of writing as it is a characteristic way of attending. So for example, I’ve been told that my fictional characters are “opaque,” not revealing much about their feelings and motivations and so on. I have this same sense with real people: I don’t really know what’s going on under the hood with them either.

    If, as Fish contends, writing a sentence is largely a matter of leaving things out, then it becomes harder to be self-aware, to describe in positive terms what stands out to oneself, to characterize one’s own style or way of attending, to know one’s own soul. In this sense we are opaque to ourselves, reliant on others to reveal to us who we are, being made evident to them as features that we possess but that they themselves lack.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 February 2012 @ 10:16 am

  5. Patience Worth I’d never heard of. The first thing that came to mind was Joseph Smith channeling the Angel Moroni, maybe because we were discussing Mormonism over breakfast. To be specific, the topic under discussion was the Jewish objection to the Mormons’ practice of baptizing by proxy people who died in the Holocaust. The Mormons say it’s no big deal: the dead baptismal recipient can still decide whether or not to enter into the Mormon afterlife. And now this reminds me of a short work of fiction I’ve been reading: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife, by neuroscientist David Eagleman. Structured rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the book is short, clever, entertaining.

    Your Wells sentence exemplifies a type that Fish illustrated with a the first sentence of a school child’s essay. A large box had been delivered to the school; no one knew where it came from or what it contained — this box was the writing prompt assigned by the teacher. One kid wrote this:

    “I was already on the second floor when I heard about the box.”

    Says Fish: “What is noteworthy about this sentence is its ability to draw readers in and make them want more. It is a question of what we know and don’t know… Many practiced writers would kill for a sentence that good.”


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 February 2012 @ 10:38 am

  6. This is something that I wrote some time ago and copied to the blog. I must discover the way to change the title. It was published locally as Bodhgaya

    That kid is a natural.

    How about this:

    – Do you reckon you can find it?
    – I don’t know, let me see.

    He took out of his pack a hatbox of sturdy construction and laid it on the table. He rubbed his hands on his long duster before drawing out a brilliant white hat into which he placed a smooth fist sized shiny stone with hieroglyphics on it. This had been in a patch pocket over his heart. It now rested in a pool of light at the bottom of his hat.

    – That’s the scrying stone
    – Shh.
    Bringing his hands to his temples and dropping his head Smith gazed into the hat.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 17 February 2012 @ 12:23 pm

  7. The duster is a nice touch. Later I’ll remark on your blog about your enlightening India story.


    Comment by ktismatics — 17 February 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  8. Speaking of characters’ opacity, Fish offers this sentence from Jonathan Swift:

    Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse.

    So much for getting beneath the skin, peeling back the layers, etc.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 February 2012 @ 7:29 am

  9. That sentence is as funny as any I’ve ever read. I can’t even believe it was written (and I’m no fan of that sort of ‘real-life cruelty’ at all). I’m still laughing at it. Well, we know where Oscar Wilde and Ronald Firbank’s roots extend back to, perhaps.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 18 February 2012 @ 2:34 pm

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