What Makes a Beautiful Sentence?

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

Earlier this week, Publisher’s Weekly posted a short list of five “perfect” sentences on its blog. The post says, “To get your week going on the right foot, here are 5 beautiful sentences.” (Italics mine.)**

Yes, many of the sentences PW lists are tremendously crafted, evocative, and just generally a joy to read. (My favorite is the Mary Gaitskill sentence — shiver-inducing.) But are they beautiful? Honestly, I have no idea. What IS a beautiful sentence? Is there even such a thing?

As I was reading Lauren Groff’s new novel Arcadia recently, I kept thinking, without any sort of intense examination, how “beautiful” her sentences are. It was just a feeling I had as I read, because her sentences made me feel things and see things beyond the page. The novel as a whole, populated by these hundreds of moments of feeling, certainly has its own “soft-around-the-edges” aesthetic — and Groff is described as a “literary artist” on the inside flap, seemingly intimating that she has created something of beauty. What’s more, a review of Arcadia in the NY Times describes Groff’s sentences as “lush and visual.”

But…are these sentences — and any sentences from literature that strike us as profound or interesting or incredibly well-written — beautiful in the same sense we think about artistic beauty in, say, paintings or music? Yes? I think so, but but I’m not sure why. More so than other art forms, beauty in literature seems to be one of those “know-it-when-you-see-it” propositions — and more so than other art forms, there seems to be more widely varying opinions on what truly is beautiful. (For instance, I’d suggest that the Edward P. Jones sentence PW cites is actually clunky and confusing, and not the least bit beautiful.)

So, let’s have a discussion: What, in you mind, makes a beautiful sentence? And is beauty in literature harder to identify than in other art? Why or why not?

** I suspect there is a rather large difference between “beautiful” and “perfect.” Indeed, I can hear many of you saying “There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ sentence.” That was actually my first reaction to that headline. I mean, is there such thing as a perfect painting? A perfect song? Whereas beauty is subjective, perfection is supposed to be — technically — objective, right?