Living by Fiction

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2313

Annie Dillard first made a name for herself as a mystical nature writer in 1974 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning personal narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and has since furthered her reputation as a latter-day female Thoreau with such books as Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk ...

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Annie Dillard first made a name for herself as a mystical nature writer in 1974 with her Pulitzer Prize-winning personal narrative Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and has since furthered her reputation as a latter-day female Thoreau with such books as Holy the Firm (1977) and Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), which is also reviewed in this set. Here she applies her personal Platonic and religious views in an attempt “to do unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup.” Her ultimate subject, she says, is the meaning of the world, approached via the microcosm of contemporary fiction.

In this three-part book, sections of which have appeared earlier in such magazines as Harper’s Magazine, Dillard sets out in part 1 to draw distinctions between such Modernist writers as William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann and such “contemporary Modernists” as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Jorges Luis Borges. In part 2 she attempts to deal with general issues concerning the status of contemporary fiction; and in part 3 to “raise the roof on fiction” and take on the world at large. Made up of what she herself calls “free speculation, blind assertion, dumb joking, and diatribe,” Dillard’s book is not intended for the professional literary critic, but rather for the general reader. Critics and scholars familiar with European literary thought from the Russian Formalists to the French Structuralists will find nothing new here. Dillard does manage, however, to put together many of the implications of contemporary phenomenological thought in a popular (although at times cloying) style, posing such basic questions as “What is (gasp) the relationship between the world and the mind?”

Much of part 1 of Living by Fiction focuses on such familiar conventions of modern fiction as the shattering of narrative time and the breakup of traditional cause-and-effect relationships, the flattening of character and the notion that the fictional world is self-contained, the intrusion of the authorial voice and the interruption of narrative flow and verisimilitude, and the foregrounding of point of view toward fictional reflexivity. Dillard also approaches here the bothersome problem of the integrity of the art work itself. Confronting the common misgiving about contemporary fiction—that is, when is a work about meaninglessness, and when is it simply meaningless?—Dillard delves into the metaphysical problem of metaphor itself. Because she is still firmly entrenched in the now outmoded “New Critical” approach to literature, however, her only real solution is that the integrity of an art work lies in its unity, although she never actually defines the term “artistic unity.” She suggests, for example, that the image of an egg in a cage is a more unified metaphor than that of a shoe in a cage. However, she persists in her own mystical belief that the integrity of a metaphor depends on the things being compared; she ignores the fact that the human mind can perceive a revelatory meaning in the juxtaposition of any two objects.

In fact, what Dillard intellectually knows often seems at odds with what she intuitively believes. For even as she tenaciously holds to her Platonic views, she willingly nods to the theories that have evolved from Albert Einstein to Werner Heisenberg to Kurt Gödel, that the world is more likely to be mind stuff than thing stuff. Moreover, she seems to endorse the studies of phenomenological thinkers in various fields, such as Gregory Bateson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Piaget, and Roman Jakobson, and admits that any penetrating interest in anything leads ultimately not to ontology but to epistemology. No matter where you start, says Dillard, “you end up agog in the lap of Kant.” Her main point in part 1 is to suggest that the significance of such Modernist writers as James Joyce and Franz Kafka is that they expanded fictional techniques to achieve traditional ends, whereas contemporary Modernists have, she claims, lost sight of those ends. For example, she suggests that whereas Kafka wrote profound cultural criticism and along the way had a character turn into a cockroach, some contemporary writers throw away the rest and keep the cockroach for a laugh.

The concept that traditional fiction is a container and an embodiment of cultural and philosophic ideas is still in the mainstream, she says. Although Dillard is not as radical in her reaction to so-called “post-Modernist” fiction as John Gardner was a few years ago in his diatribe Moral Fiction (1979), she still waxes nostalgic for the good old days when a story was a story and was weighted with moral meaning. Some critical readers more professionally concerned with the nature of narrative in the twentieth century may feel that Dillard underestimates Kafka’s self-conscious awareness of the metaphysics of his metamorphosis and that she is oblivious to the deeper cultural meaning in the works of writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.

Dillard begins part 2 of her meditation with the basic question of whether the material of the writer is the phenomenal world in its entirety or whether it is made up of only words and linguistic techniques. Admitting that the post-Modernist view doubts that words correspond to anything, she says that she wants to treat this idea with some respect before she discards it. There is little evidence, however, that she gives it the respect that it deserves. For example, she suggests that Charles Dickens drew the materials for Bleak House (1852-1853) from London society and British legal usage; “it were madness, or quibbling, to say he drew them from a dictionary.” Such reasoning is both equivocal and sophistical. One might indeed admit that Dickens drew the material stimulus for his novel from his perceptions of such phenomenal sources, but that is not to say that what he created is merely a representation of such sources. Moreover, the dictionary is surely not the core of contemporary linguistic thinking. By suggesting that the materials of fiction are “bits of the world,” Dillard completely ignores the process of defamiliarization by metaphor developed by the Russian Formalists, with whom she claims to be familiar.

Another argument which Dillard holds up to support more traditional functions of narrative is that fiction only keeps its audience by holding tenaciously to the world as its subject matter. “When the arts abandon the world as their subject matter, people abandon the arts.” Because fiction is not the prerogative of specialists (as poetry is more likely to be), Dillard suggests that fiction is by its very nature a basically conservative mode; the nonspecialist prefers content to abstraction. If one considers fiction an essentially inferior art form—as it was indeed regarded until the end of the nineteenth century—then perhaps Dillard’s point here is well taken, but surely Henry James settled this question at the turn of the century when he made his case for the art of fiction precisely on the basis of its technique and abstract surfaces.

Dillard is also troubled by the possibility that contemporary Modernist fiction is essentially a creature of criticism and of the academic study of literature. It stands to reason, she says, that the critical approaches which dominate the graduate schools will also dominate undergraduate thinking about fiction and will thus affect what those undergraduates will eventually write. She suggests that as a result of this relationship between fiction and criticism, the works of such writers as Barth and Samuel Beckett “tremble with the sense of being read critically.” Again, it seems that this bias against a relationship between criticism and fiction is really a bias against fiction as an art form. Surely, Dillard would not complain about the relationship between poetry and criticism since the two have gone hand in hand since Aristotle, each in turn inspiring the other. It is difficult to think of the poetry of William Wordsworth without the criticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson without the criticism of Matthew Arnold. Furthermore, one would certainly hope that all literary works of art tremble with the sense of being read critically.

Dillard is obviously concerned here with the relative readability of fiction, a mode which, unlike poetry, she feels, should, or must if it is to be read at all, remain rooted to the world. As Raymond Federman (one of the post-Modernist writers who, Dillard would say, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater) has recently suggested, the term “readability” describes that which “guides us back from the text to the world, to the security of the world, and therefore gives us comfort—the pleasure of easy recognition.” If the writer cuts off the referential paths to reality, or if he examines his relations with language within the text, he is declared “unreadable,” and to be unreadable these days, says Federman, is to be immoral.

After what amounts to a long digression on prose style, a digression which suggests a moral difference between the “fine” writing of such writers as William H. Gass and the plain prose of Jorge Luis Borges, Dillard finally presents her most basic questions: Can art have meaning? Can criticism know art? In the beginning of this final section, where she attempts to deal with the problem of whether it is ultimately possible to discover meaning, her style is a bit precious: she urges readers, “Bear with me, please, for a few difficult points before the shooting starts,” and advises those who are not interested in the complex internal problems of literary criticism to skip several pages to the point where “this chapter and the book as a whole, begin to take off at last.” At last indeed, with only fifty pages remaining! While the reader is waiting for the book to “take off,” Dillard attempts to describe Deconstructionist criticism, which she understands primarily to hold that the art object cannot be known, that criticism itself is prose poetry. Although Dillard does not believe that the truth of criticism can be validated, she is confident that, by consensus, readers can say when criticism is probable, workable, or fruitful; thus, although she does not say who shall constitute that consensus, she does maintain her underlying Platonic view that art works are unified because the world is, and thus that criticism is unified because of the unity of all world-inspired work.

True to her New Critical background, Dillard, like Philip Wheelwright and William Wimsatt before her, suggests that art, like religion, probes those difficult areas where blurred and powerful symbols are the only language and where their arrangement into works of art are the only grammar. The problem is that, although artists are interpreters of the world, they prize originality rather than fidelity; thus, although they interpret the world, they hide the true significance of their discoveries and thus require interpretation by critics. Basically, then, says Dillard, since art interprets nature and culture, criticism of the arts is perhaps the best of the interpretative disciplines for interpreting the world at large. In this last section of her book, Dillard also reveals most emphatically her own fence-sitting position between the traditional conception of criticism as the New Critics saw it (that is, as a means to lay bare meaning) and criticism as it is understood by a number of contemporary critical schools (that is, as the means to lay bare process).

On the one hand, Dillard claims that art presents objects for contemplation, and that art objects interpret the world itself. On the other hand, however, she notes that it is the manner of the art work’s representation—that is, its surface structure rather than its content—that is a form of knowledge. Works of art symbolize the juncture between spirit and matter and matter and ideas, says Dillard, and she sums up her Janus-faced position in one crucial sentence: “Any art object is essentially a model in which the creative process is frozen with its product in its arms.” This is true as far as it goes, but it evades the issue: What is the art object, and how should one approach it—via its process, or via its product? It is just at this point that the old New Critics and the Deconstructionists, for example, either part company or uneasily hold hands, for the issue is between interpretation, which attempts to uncover the product to reveal its latent meaning, and criticism, which is concerned with the nature of artifice and the process of the mind encountering the problematical world.

Dillard’s response to this juncture, what she calls her own “timid” solution, is a Platonic one, finally laid bare on the penultimate page of a book saturated throughout with its assumptions: that if any coherent order is true in the art work, and thus if any coherent order is true in the world, it is because it partakes of a universal order, an order that does not exist solely in the symbol-making mind of man, but that somehow exists out there in the world itself. Yet even after tentatively asserting her idealistic dictum, Dillard, coy to the last, ends her book with the following: “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.”

There is clearly a need for a book aimed at the educated lay reader which would clarify the complex issues of epistemology in which literature, especially fiction, now finds itself entangled, relating those issues to the larger concerns of the reader and demonstrating the relevance of literature and criticism to contemporary life. In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard goes a long way toward performing such a service, but her mystical intuition too often interferes with her capacity for analysis. Dillard is a great friend to literature and literary criticism; it is simply that she is not a fine enough critic to be the friend that literature and criticism need.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 46

Choice. XX, September, 1982, p. 76.

Christian Science Monitor. April 9, 1982, p. B6.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 638.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 31, 1982, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 9, 1982, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LVIII, May 9, 1982, p. 140.

Progressive. XLVI, June, 1982, p. 61.

Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 64.

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