- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial; Revised edition (January 5, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060915447
- ISBN-13: 978-0060915445
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 17 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #652,692 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Living by Fiction Paperback – January 5, 2000
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"Stimulating."-- "New York Times Book Review""Everyone who timidly, bombastically, reverently, scholastically--even fraudulently--essays to 'live the life of the mind' should read this book. It's elegant and classy, like caviar and champagne, and like these two items, it's over much too soon."-- Carolyn See, "Los Angeles Times""Living by Fiction is a stimulating book, one of those in which quality of thought and felicity of prose seem consequences of one another."-- Vance Bourjaily, "New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Annie Dillard has written twelve books,including in nonfiction For the Time Being, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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[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
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."
She doesn't hesitate to review and provide research about the many facets of her subjects.
In the end she comes right out and asks if it is important.
And by George she convinces you why it is.
I love her for that!