This is a link to an article in The Guardian that made me crazy. "What are the great sentences in genre fiction?" I guess I had missed the concept of great sentences. They are the ones that really stand out, like the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice or the ending of The Great Gatsby. I said on facebook:
Most of the sentences listed in the article and its comments draw attention to themselves. They are finely wrought, often elaborate, often clever. Which is okay, but a lot of very good writing does not have flashing neon arrows that tell us, "Art! Art! Art."
Sentences belong in the texture of a story, and many sentences in a story are not going to be -- should not be -- examples of tour de force writing. I'm sure it's possible to write entire works of fiction with tour de force sentences. Most likely it has been done. But Jane Austen didn't do it. Yes, she has written some amazing, witty sentences -- the opening to P&P is the most famous. But a lot of her beautiful, clear, precise writing simply describes her characters and their actions. You say, "What beautiful writing." But you don't remember the individual sentences, except the opening to P&P.
The comments to the article gave some good examples of tour de force sentences in SF. But I don't think this kind of writing is necessary for good fiction. I was trying to think of great, memorable sentences in the Icelandic family sagas. Everything I came up with was a line of dialogue, which does not display the skill of the writer, but the personality of the character. When Bergthora says she will go into the house with Njall and die with him, when the family's enemies burn the house to kill Njall and Bergthora's sons, she says, "I was given to Njall young, and I said that our fates would be the same." That does not draw your attention to the writing, but to Bergthora, her toughness and loyalty. You can't pull a line like that out of context and marvel at its beauty. It only works if you know the story.
Or when Grettir and his brother Illugi are making their last stand on the island of Drangey and Grettir says, "Bare is the back with no brother behind it." Sounds lofty and heroic, doesn't it? Well, by this time we know that Grettir has a nasty mouth on him and likes to quote Viking proverbs sarcastically. What he is saying is, "You asshole, someone just got behind me. You get back there and defend me." Which Illugi does and does well. I love that line, because it shows us Grettir's character so well. At this point, he is dying of gangrene and can't even stand up to fight, but has to fight on his knees. He knows he's going to be killed in a few minutes, and he still manages to be sarcastic; and Illugi still manages to be loyal to his difficult, even impossible brother.
The people commenting on the article are right: there are a lot of tour de force sentences in P.G. Wodehouse. The family fight with "aunt calling to aunt like mastodons across a primeval swamp." He was a terrific stylist. I have read him for years looking for serious content and not found any, which may reduce his chances of being called a great writer. But what a stylist!