11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art Is Interpretation
"Living By Fiction" is in essence a treatise by Annie Dillard that attempts to interpret art, and thereby includes fiction as art, and as an interpretation. The book is well constructed and the sentences are beautifully crafted. The treatise starts by discussing in vast detail, the styles and forms of writing. Then it concentrates on "modernistic" fiction. This type...
Published on October 21, 2005 by Jon Linden
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Defining Art: Well, Kind Of
I'm a fan of Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of my favorites. Living by Fiction is just as sharp, just as honest, and yet it's less curious, less humble. I found Dillard's investigation into the meaning of literary art rather dry and shallow. She sought out the most exemplary in literature: Nabokov, Borges, Marquez, and asks what makes contemporary art...
Published on March 13, 2010 by J. Knox
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Art Is Interpretation,
"Living By Fiction" is in essence a treatise by Annie Dillard that attempts to interpret art, and thereby includes fiction as art, and as an interpretation. The book is well constructed and the sentences are beautifully crafted. The treatise starts by discussing in vast detail, the styles and forms of writing. Then it concentrates on "modernistic" fiction. This type of fiction takes numerous and varied forms.
Annie distinguishes between styles of writing. She does this very much by example. She uses the work of many, many authors as her examples and illustrations of the different manners in which a writer can craft a work. Specifically, she describes works of fiction. After detailing these different styles and their characteristics, she then turns to the purpose of fiction as a subcategory of art.
She posits that art is an interpretation. It is the artist's perspective on the relationship between something in the universe and a representation of that vision of the item. Her analysis inevitably leads her to state that art and religion are the modes by which people explain and interpret the unexplainable. Art produces an interpretation of a vision that is meant for others to see.
The interpretation, interestingly enough, is in fact non-existent without the reader and the critic to observe. While opining that fiction needs readers and critics to be interpreted, the interpretation is the very purpose of the creation. Without the reader and the critic, the work does not really exist. It exists in form, but not in value. The work is a creation that only carries a message if someone reads it; and more so if someone such as a critic helps us to interpret it.
In a fascinating "diatribe" to use her designation, she discusses the complexity of interpretation. In addition, she discusses a concept that art is the ordering of disordered and decaying existence. Basing her discussion of this concept on Newton's Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all things become randomly distributed, unless acted upon by some external force; Annie argues that fiction and art in general are an ordering of this theory of disorder or entropy. She in fact suggests that perhaps art, including fiction, is the purpose of man. And that this purpose is for man to make order of the universe around him. Does art create meaning or does it expose it? In essence Annie says the distinction does not really matter. What matters is that it is a depiction; which is open to anyone who wishes to interpret it. Without an observer, it carries no real meaning. It is just an object. Only through its interpretation does it gain meaning. Thus, art and fiction necessitate interpreters, and it is through these interpreters, the reader, that it gains meaning and substance.
While complex in her contentions, she is also sublime. The treatise truly is a thing of beauty, but that is not sufficient to Annie. Nor is it really sufficient to a reader or a critic. What is sufficient and valuable is that the art object presents the reader with an interpretation. And whether the reader's interpretation is in accordance with the artist's is really of no account. Its value is in its illustration of a message. That message is open to all to interpret as they see it, and as it relates to life and existence. This book is recommended to all readers of complex fiction. It is truly a picturesque look at the art of writing and also the purpose thereof.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars stimulating and thought-provoking,
By A Customer
I thought Ms. Dillard distinguished herself with this literary piece of literary criticism. She got into some pretty deep and convoluted places with this book, but I felt that every point was well-made and well-taken. I feel the book is an education in itself. Loved it!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Literary criticism"...,
This review is from: Living by Fiction (Paperback)
... the subject phrase grates like chalk pulled across an English classroom's black board. At least for me. It conjures up images of writing critical papers on a school-assignment novel, struggling with concepts like symbolism, and at more advanced levels, "deconstructionism." All in an effort to get the "right" answer, which was how the teacher wanted us to "see" a particular novel. I still remember giving a verbal "book report" to the class on Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (P.S.), and the "right" answer was to assure the teacher that drug use was bad. In the sciences the "right" answer seemed to come easier, and certainly more objectively. Which was why I only "had" to take two years of English in college, which may be a key reason why I still read.
Annie Dillard is best known to me for her excellent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perrennial Modern Classics) and An American Childhood. My appreciation of these works helped me overcome my natural aversion to the "subject" of literature. And I was richly rewarded. She wrote this book almost 30 years ago, when she was about 35, and just her erudition is dazzling (and humbling). Not only had she read so many of the major and minor contemporary writers, but she can deftly compare their strengths and weaknesses. There is Carlos Fuentes, Marcel Proust, James Agee, Nabokov, Borges and on and on. As she says in the introduction, she "...attempts to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup."
Dillard examines the transformations of various elements in modern fiction, noting that time is no longer linear, and that characters have changed from the familiar depictions of Charles Dickens to the more outlandish ones of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Thomas Pynchon. The point of view of the novel can now be multitudinous, from Faulkner's As I Lay Dying: The Corrected Text (Modern Library) to Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet.
The author's style is dense and rapid fire. There is a lot to "chew over." Consider the following concept, which seems to become truer with every passing year: "Fuller's assertion was roughly to this effect: the purpose of people on earth is to counteract the tide of entropy described in the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Physical things are falling apart at a terrific rate; people , on the other hand, put things together." (Or, I guess that is the optimistic interpretation.)
As for the issue of our schooling in English literature, Dillard has the following observation: "Students also study Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf in the classroom, but they usually read Nabokov and Pynchon on their own, just as our professors a generation ago read Joyce on the sly." She goes on to explain that modern language departments, fighting for their lives, insist that students need to read authors in the original language, and thus English students may therefore lack genuine knowledge of European and Latin American fiction. Oh, how true.
The novel most cited in this book is Nabokov's Pale Fire (Everyman's Library (Cloth)), enough so to place it high on my "to-read" list, and is just one of the reasons this stimulating book on the very nature of contemporary literature merits 5-stars.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Defining Art: Well, Kind Of,
I'm a fan of Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of my favorites. Living by Fiction is just as sharp, just as honest, and yet it's less curious, less humble. I found Dillard's investigation into the meaning of literary art rather dry and shallow. She sought out the most exemplary in literature: Nabokov, Borges, Marquez, and asks what makes contemporary art work. How does she conclude? Basically with an existential shrug of the shoulders. I was often chastised in graduate school for writing a research paper with too large a thesis, and although at the time I disagreed, now I understand exactly what my professors meant. I finished this book with little more than a bunch of loose juxtapositions. Meanwhile, Dillard's sparkling style will cause me to go back to her again and again. Her writing is always enjoyable to read. Even when the content is lacking.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The word "rondure" obtains in these essays....,
This review is from: Living by Fiction (Paperback)
Did you ever read the essays of Susan Sontag and suffer the realization that she knows everything and you know nothing? I had the same reaction to this slim volume of essays about literature by Annie Dillard, whose prose-poetic writings about small nature moments are dazzlingly brilliant.
I had trouble getting through these essays. She sent me to the dictionary too often. "Rondure"? She uses it at least four times, maybe five. "Neotenous," "basal," "excursus," "hadron...." Okay, my fault for not knowing these words ahead of time. In college, I used "obtain" in a paper as an intransitive verb, and the professor circled it and wrote that I shouldn't use it..."too pretentious" was his criticism. Imagine my amusement to find it throughout this slim volume....five times on page 180! I'll say, then, that the word "rondure" obtains in these essays. Proceed at your own risk.
There is a lot of heavy thought going on here. She's read everything; she sees the connections between this obscure novel and that brilliant short story. I get the feeling that she doesn't read for pleasure; she reads in order to write something intensely profound about it because only she understands. She mentions a lot of writers of whom I've never heard (Thomas M. Disch, Stanislaw Lem, Witold Gombrowicz, Michael Ondaatje). This is my failing, and I have drawn up a reading list. I will seek them out. But Dillard's implication is that I'm not smart enough to read them (much less appreciate them) at the high intellectual level she thinks and works at.
If you want a real challenge, read this volume. But keep a dictionary handy.
5.0 out of 5 stars Metaphysics in a teacup!,
Metaphysics in a teacup! What a lovely metaphor, calling up the ubiquitous Gypsy Tea Rooms, Madame Rosie and the ilk, of an innocent bygone age, before flow-through tea bags. Sip a cup of leaf and get your fortune conjured up from the tea leaves left in your teacup, all for pocket change. A time of Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits and Get Your Fortune Told, Fifty Cents.
[page 11] This is, ultimately, a book about the world. It inquires about the world's meaning. It attempts to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup. The teacup at hand, in this case, is contemporary fiction.
Why read fiction to think about the world? You may, like most of us most of the time, read fiction for other things. You may read fiction to enjoy the multiplicity and dazzle of the vivid objects it presents to the imagination; to hear its verbal splendor and admire its nimble narrative; to enter lives not your own; to feel, on one hand, the solemn stasis and immutability of the work as enclosed art object -- beginning and ending the same way every time you read it, as though a novel were a diagram inscribed forever under the vault of heaven -- and to feel, on the other hand, the plunging force of time compressed in its passage, and that compressed passage like a river's pitch crowded with scenes and scenery and actions and characters enlarged and rushing headlong down together. You may, I say, enjoy fiction for these sensations and turn to nonfiction for thought.
What a magnificent sentence, the penultimate one of the above passage! She uses this sentence to set up the last sentence, but her dichotomy between fiction and nonfiction is belied by her own skillful evocation of sensations in her ever-thoughtful nonfiction, such as Holy the Firm.
If your preference is non-fiction and the life of thought, as mine is, Annie says "one day you will find yourself on the receiving end of an 'idea for a story.'" (Page 12) That happened to me when I discovered the way in which dolphins communicate with one another, by receiving and speaking 3-D holographic images, and it seemed that writing a fictional novel to describe my insight was preferable to some dry non-fictional essay. My journey to the production of my novel, The Spizznet File, certainly led me to appreciate the work of fiction writers in a way I hadn't before, exactly as she predicts.
[page 12] Then you will understand, in what I fancy might be a blinding flash, that all this passionate thinking is what fiction is about, that all those other fiction writers started as you did, and are laborers in the same vineyard.
Narrative collage, as Annie describes it in the passage below, was a new term to me, but it brought up memories of a poem I wrote about what it is "To Be a Writer" in my review of Building Great Sentences. I was surprised and delighted by the audience response when I read it in public -- the presuppositions and juxtaposition of images created spontaneous outbursts of laughter as each phrase of the collage was layered upon the previous one. It was a "world shattered" perhaps, but with the express purpose of creating a bit of fun.
[page 24] The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange. It may emphasize the particulate nature of everything. We experience a world unhinged. Nothing temporal, spatial, perceptual, social or moral is fixed.
New fiction styles since the early 1900s are bewildering at times, confronting us with authors who are confronted by the question, "Why are we here?", which leads to their producing novels in which we ask ourselves "Why are we reading this?"
[page 26] At any rate, our contemporary questioning of why we are here finds a fitting objective correlative in the worst of the new fictions, whose artistic recreation of our anomie, confusion, and meaninglessness elicits from us the new question, Why am I reading this?
The feeling is similar to many people's reaction to what is called Modern Art, "Why am I looking at this?" If that is the response the artist wished to elicit in viewers of his art, then he has certainly succeeded, but to what end? Do we look at art to be baffled or to enjoy a pleasant experience?
In my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction, I make the claim that true art is the process of destroying the sameness which exists in the current state of art, and that to do anything less is to create kitsch, even if it is a smoothly executed copy of a true artist's work. In literature, it also true that art is the process of destruction, according to Annie Dillard. She names modern writers like Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, Barth, and Calvino and adds:
[page 32] That other writers may produce fictional surfaces similar to theirs, but without their internal integrity, does not in any way dim their achievement. But someone must distinguish between art and mere glibness.
In other words, a reader must distinguish between true art and glib copies of true art. As soon as one notices the copy aspect (process) of an author, we know we are dealing with kitsch; it may be fun to read, but it is the writing equivalent of shopping mall art, namely, kitsch. When we encounter the bland taste of such pieces of writing, we may look around for some Kitschup to spice it up, to make it palatable so we can consume it, but no spicing up will ever turn it into true art.
One of Annie's "bald assertions" on page 32 is "Art is the creation of coherent contexts." As an example she applies this assertion about coherent context to the meaning of a whale in the context of Moby Dick, all of which I agree with. As I explain in my essay, "Art is the destruction of coherent contexts," and that would seem to put me at odds with her. My operant phrase is "Art is the process of destruction of sameness". Her coherent contexts, as I understand it, refer to coherence within a particular piece of writing, which I agree is necessary. My sameness refers to the coherent contexts of all of the current state of art and literature. A true artist arrives when his writing or painting breaks the rules (coherent contexts) of all the present and previous artists going back to antiquity. That is the destroying of sameness which I see as the hallmark of the true artist. And such a true artist's work will have a coherent context within itself, but one which the world has not seen or experienced before in other contexts.
In the context of Cubist art and some modern writers, we find an inversion of the concepts of "deep" and "shallow". We cannot become involved deeply with their alien or grotesque creatures, axolotls and dinosaurs, so we remain shallow in our relationship to them as characters and get deeply involved with the tale itself. We find ourselves as if inside of a Cubist painting when we read authors like Calvin, Cortázar, and Roth.
[page 43] Their odd voices and viewpoints deepen our involvement in what would traditionally be considered the works' more or less invisible surface, the tale's teller. Yet at the same time they flatten what would traditionally be the deep part of the work, the tale itself. And so by making the deep parts shallow and the shallow parts deep, they bring to the work an interesting and powerful set of tensions, like Cubist intersecting planes.
Annie says on page 47 that in modernist fiction, "fictional objects revolve about each other and only each other, and shed on each other and only each other a lovely and intellectual light." This hints at Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem of the candle burning at both ends which will not last the night, "But, oh my foes, and ah, my friends, it gives a lovely light."
[page 48] A good story and a good representation have wide appeal. But this is a cheap shot. The more interesting comparison between storytelling in literature and representation in painting is this: that each was considered for centuries the irreducible nub of its art, and is no longer.
The lesson I get from this period of art and literature is to enjoy the lovely light they shed and know that this soon shall pass.
Meanwhile, in the usual school systems, our children are canon fodder, i.e., an educational canon is being taught which would lead to the "narrowed line" with "nowhere to go from" as Annie postulated on Page 89. To restate my postulate about true art, I might say "Art is the process of the destruction of the canon." Yes, students are being taught the canon, but on the sly, every new generation is dodging the destructive force of the canon!
Here she focuses on the canon in the academy and reveals the generational destruction of the canon, yes, on the sly, that is, what students are actually reading when there are no professors around.
[page 95] Let us say first that criticism keeps fiction traditional in several ways. As it influences curricula it most often defends the notion of canon and keeps students reading Trollope and Fielding, Hardy and Dickens, Cooper and Hawthorne. Students also study Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf in the classroom, but they usually read Nabokov and Pynchon on their own, just as our professors a generation ago read Joyce on the sly.
There is a problem if a writer strives for purity and to get down to the essentials.
[page 171] It is hard to see how anyone could think, even in the abstract, that a purging of inessentials is good in itself. Who would want to see the woods purified of inessentials? . . . By the time the arts are down to their various irreducible nubs, they dissolve into concepts; they lose the material energy which made them interesting.
Who would want to read Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" if the woods were purified, stripped to their essentials? His woods would be neither lovely, dark, nor deep and neither would the promises he had to keep. Purity is one of many intriguing questions Annie Dillard is dealing with in this book, shedding light on many of them, and closing this book with many of them unanswered, lamenting that living by fiction, while exciting, interesting, and full of life, living by fiction does not deal with the larger questions of art, nature, history, and the universe, in other words, questions whose answers living by fiction does not lead us to know.
You have read some snippets from my review; to read it all, see DIGESTWORLD ISSUE#133 by Bobby Matherne
5.0 out of 5 stars When reading is more than mere entertainment...,
In this volume of linked essays, Annie Dillard attempts an apologia for fiction and mounts an impassioned argument for its importance in our lives. She traces the technical and thematic influences of the great modernist writers of the early 20th century on contemporary modernist writers (her term for postmodernists). She also draws illuminating distinctions not only between fine writing and popular "junk" fiction but between traditional fine writing and contemporary modernist fine writing. What she ends up showing more than anything else is that there isn't any clear, absolute demarcations between these different types of writing; rather, there are gradations along a continuum.
Perhaps Dillard's most startling and original argument is the one she makes when asserting that literature and the critical response that grows up around it may actually provide a more valid and solid basis for us to experience meaning and interpret the world than scientific inquiry into physical phenomenon. The fiction writer selects, reshapes, re-orders and re-interprets the world around her. The literary critic examines this "fictional" but nonetheless actual artifact and interprets it anew. And so do we, each of us, as readers every time we pick up a text.
Memorable lines and passages:
"There is no epistemological guarantee between any subject and any object. It could be, even, that tests are a great deal more accessible to knowledge than other objects. At least we do not dispute that texts exist. Even when general debate stretches to the point where we doubt (or feign to doubt) that the world out there exists, any of it, we seldom if ever find our epistemological panic focused on the issue of texts."
"Narrative is a side effect of the prose. Prose "secretes" the book...Prose is a kind of cognitive tool which secretes its objects--as though a set of tools were to create the very engines it could enter."
"A traditional fine writer handles his prose as a painterly painter handles paint--with it he describes, beautifully and suggestively, an object in the world. The object shapes the medium. By contrast, contemporary modernist fine writers wield their prose more aggressively. Their prose is not so much a descriptive tool as an end in itself. They fabricate a prose impressionist and refracting, or moodily expressionistic, or fragmented, cryptic, and surreal."
"All mental activity is selective and interpretive; all language is interpretative; all perception is interpretative; all expression is interpretative. And all interpretations miss their mark or invent it, make it up. Humanity has but one product, and that is fiction."
"Fiction is no more interpretative than any other mental product such as eyesight or gossip. It is merely more fictive."
2.0 out of 5 stars Enough Hot Air to Fill a Balloon,
This review is from: Living by Fiction (Kindle Edition)
I'd consider myself a fairly well rounded reader, but unfortunately, I just couldn't handle this text. It's dense, wordy, and highly opinionated; so opinionated, in fact, that I feel as if I am being talked down to by the author. If you need something to help you fall asleep, look no further.
4.0 out of 5 stars A Look Behind the Curtains of the Writer's Process,
When I was a student at the University of Iowa, studying poetry writing in the Undergraduate Poetry Workshop, Marvin Bell read an excerpt from this book. The title of the piece he read was "Wish I Had Pie." I was in stitches and instantly hooked on Annie Dillard. If you're a writer, you will understand yourself and your craft in new light. If you're not a writer, but curious about the process, this book will afford you a look behind the curtains.
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly Magical,
Amazing, magical! Annie Dillard's command of our shared language is truly amazing and her vision distinctive. From her sensitivity to the vagaries of the human condition to her exploration of Christian and Jewish mysticism, this is a wonderful book - one which can be dipped into again and again.
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Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard (Paperback - September 1, 1988)
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