The Art of the Sentence: Douglas Bauer


“He was an ugly fellow, Ivy Peters, and he liked being ugly.”

—Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

Thus we meet the soulless, scheming villain of Cather’s brilliant novella and I love this introductory sentence for a couple of reasons. First, I can imagine no better description that might capture a character whose every instinct is to find a mercenary leverage in any way and anywhere he can. Past all vanity (vanity is for suckers), he gratefully regards his disarming homeliness as a potent weapon in his arsenal.

I love the sentence, too, because it violates the golden rule of narrative that instructs a writer to show rather than tell readers what they need to know. Before offering it, Cather does vividly show, detailing Ivy Peters’ repellent features: freckles like rust spots; dimples like knots in a tree; lashless eyes that make his pupils look as hard and unblinking as a snake’s or a lizard’s; and there’s still more! After such an inventory, isn’t it redundant to then tell us he was ugly? Yes, if Cather had ended her sentence there, but by continuing it to say that he liked his ugliness, she takes it in a counterintuitive direction that adds rather than repeats information, and into the realm of deliciously earned surprise.

Douglas Bauer has written three novels, Dexterity, The Very Air, and The Book of Famous Iowans, and a book of essays, The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft. He has taught at Harvard and the University of New Mexico and has been writer-in-residence at Rice University and Smith College. He currently teaches at Bennington College.