Saturday, April 24, 2010

Book 8 of 15: Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard

I have to admit that when I picked this up I was expecting something like Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird", a contemplation of the writing life. But this is actually a book of literary criticism, and, sadly, of the deadly kind.

Not that it's not well-written. It's Annie Dillard; it's perfectly written. There's not a clunker of a sentence in the whole thing. And that sort of fits her theme: that the art of fiction is in the art, and not in the story.

She spends the first half of the book describing modernist fiction as the sort of fiction whose strength is art, not story. To decide on a given piece of fiction's excellence, then, you would ask not "is it true?" but "is it well-done?". And to this, I found myself asking, "why wouldn't you ask both questions?" She spent some time deploring the fact that the masses would rather have "realized content" or "depth" in their stories instead of the self-referential integrity of "form" within their stories.

Yes, yes. Some of us think fiction is about the characters and the narrative. We poor, ignorant, bourgeois clods. We'd rather you told us a story than that you showed off your skill at word-arranging. (Again: can't we have both? The beautiful prose, the elegant structure - and the compelling plot?)

I am also one of those ill-educated clods who think that language can actually correspond to objects in the real world. I know. Dillard, to her credit, does eventually come down on the side that language can have shared meaning among different people, albeit imperfectly shared meaning.

Dillard then goes from performing literary criticism to singing a paen of praise about literary criticism. She declares that fiction itself is impotent until someone critiques it. Not merely reads it. Critiques it. Fiction interprets the world, but critics interpret fiction, and the works of fiction are mute until the critics do their job.

Yes. Of course. I'm sure that's exactly how it goes. Forget arguments about author's intent vs. what the reader brings to the story - it's all about what the critic brings to the story. Uh-huh. That's even better!

So, I spent the beginning of this book being angry (hard not to be when she keeps asking questions like, "after you have read a detailed analysis of Eliot's 'Four Quartets' . . . why would you care to write fiction like Jack London's . . . ?", as if the world weren't big enough for both), but I ended it just feeling sad.

I mean, here is Annie Dillard: brilliant, talented, writer of unmatchably elegant prose, a woman who cares deeply about literature, and she's left at the end unable to assert that literature actually does anything useful in the world. She hopes it does. She's inclined to think it does - she's especially inclined to think that fiction can interpret the human (as opposed to the natural) world to us. She says "art remakes the world according to sense," and I can see what she's saying. But she can't, in the end, actually assert any of these beliefs, because her philosophy of knowledge keeps her from saying, "I am right," or even "this, at least, I know."

I am with her when she says that not knowing completely doesn't keep us from not knowing at all. But she seems to lose even this conviction by the end of the book. This is - I kid you not - the final paragraph, and the point at which I gave up my (faint, but persistent) hope that all of these chapters were leading up to some variation of "of course, I am only joking":

Which shall it be? Do art's complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know.

Now, please, tell me I am not the only person who reads that and wants to weep for the woman. This poor lady, spending so much time, caring so much, and being left only with the cold comfort that at least within the text there are balanced relationships. No wonder, I realized at the end, she is so adamant that art be prized for art's sake. She doesn't think there's anything outside art that art could reflect. To be left with only the formal and cold beauty of Modernist fiction for your comfort? Only with the sop that at least, in this or that story, there might be internal integrity? That this or that artist made his little world have a formal logic, and so at least there, in all the huge universe, there is order? That's a small, lonely comfort indeed.

I think I'm going to go cry now.

But I also have to say: there's none so blind as those that won't see. There is a paragraph where she says:

Can we not loose the methods of literary criticism upon the raw world? May we not analyze the breadth of our experience? We can and may - but only if we first consider the raw world as a text, as a meaningful, purposefully fashioned creation, as a work of art. For we have seen that critics interpret artifacts only. Our interpreting the universe as an artifact absolutely requires that we posit an author for it, or a celestial filmmaker, dramatist, painter, sculptor, composer, architect, or choreographer.

But then, she says,

And no one has been willing openly to posit such an artist for the universe since the American transcendentalists and before them the Medieval European philosophers.

Okay: I do understand that rational people can be atheists or agnostics (though I would argue they've followed the data incorrectly), but this seems to be a case of being unwilling to even take up the argument at all! Firstly, "no one"? Really? She must be limiting those she would consider people to, what? Academics in her own social circle? Second of all, does she have a bias against taking arguments from her ancestors? That seems very narrow. Why assume that ancient man is less intelligent than modern man? Especially when so much of what we know has built on their work? This last sentence just seems very close-minded to me. "Of course, it could be there is a meaning to the universe, but no one I know has thought so for at least a hundred years, so oh well."

I might be doing her a disservice (I hope I am), but it really does seem to be a dismissal of the bulk of humanity in favor of her own class and era of people. I guess we all have our faults. (And I do mean that - we all do, and maybe this is just where she falls down. I can feel for that, as I hope others have compassion for me in my errors.)

So, I go back and forth between being upset at this book and being saddened by this book. There is some good stuff in here (observations about artistic integrity, and the effect of an audience on the artist), but that just makes it worse, because at the end the author is not sure any of that good stuff means anything. Again, I just found this a very sad read, all the moreso because I have fond memories of her other work, and now I realize that I might ascribe more meaning to her work than she could herself.

More on the 15/15 challenge can be found here.

Peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


Girl Detective said...

Jessica, I almost always write longer reviews of books I don't like than of ones I do, to be clear on why I didn't like it. Have you read Francine Prose's Reading like a Writer? I loved that one, as it argued that a lot of lit crit kills the fun of lit.

MomCO3 said...

I had a similar --though much shorter =)-- response to this book: I thought it was about writing, but it was about criticism. Very disappointing, especially as I love her other things so much. But The Writing Life IS about writing, and you'll like that MUCH more. =)

Jessica said...

Girl Detective, I haven't read Prose, but now I have her book on request at my library; thank you!

Annie, I'm pretty sure I have read The Writing Life and enjoyed it, but I might have to reread it to restore my faith in Dillard!

TwoSquareMeals said...

This makes me sad because Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books that is like an old friend to me. I was just having a discussion with my sister-in-law today about how really good writing needs to be well-done but also true and accessible. Ulysses, for example, may be a brilliant demonstration of the use of language, but I will never think it is good in the sense that a Shakespeare play or a Flannery O'Connor short story is good. Joyce may be a linguistic genius, but writing for writing's sake is like modern art that just demonstrates the method without conveying a meaning. It serves no one.

Have you ever seen the movie, Lady in the Water? If you don't like what criticism does to literature or film, then you would love that movie.