Living by Fiction
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."