Fine Writing or Plain Prose? Where do you fall within the Annie Dillard spectrum?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Last night I was all tangled up with Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction, a book that ponders the makings, magic, and meaning (is there any?) of fiction.

Living by Fiction was published in 1982, while I was still at Penn studying the history of science and too intimidated by capital L literature to take the courses I might have been taking, given the turn my "career" ultimately took.

(Although I have argued, perhaps to appease myself, that my years of studying science and history and biography ultimately helped the novels I'd write. Certainly they shaped my idea of what a novel should or might contain—something larger than plot, something big enough to cradle culture, landscape, and idea, something with a hint of the mesmerized.)

Fiction is about books I have read and also about many books I have not read by authors like Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jonathan Baumbach, and Flann O'Brien. It weaves in and out of ideas, whisks readers along, challenges at the same time that it befriends. It is short, but the heart and range of it feels unbounded.

I won't pretend to have received all the heft of Dillard's mind in a single reading. I'm planning on a re-read. But I cherish what I've already picked up along the way, a bevy of fragments that have me thinking about how I read and why I write—and, indeed, how and why I write reviews.

Here, for example, the gauntlet is thrown down:
Fiction writers are, I hope to show, thoughtful interpreters of the world. But instead of producing interpretations—instead of doing research or criticism—they doodle on the walls of the cave. They make art objects which must themselves be interpreted. How convolute, how absurd, how endlessly interesting is this complexity! The world is filling up with works of fiction, with these useless, beautiful objects of thought—to what end? What links any work of fiction with anything we want to learn? To the world we see? To our understanding of the world we see? Does fiction illuminate the great world itself, or only the mind of its human creator?
Dillard takes time, in Fiction, to delineate between "fine writing" and "plain prose." These are my favorite pages, the places where I scribbled most energetically in the margins. I have racked up my share of detractors for my interest in complex, unusual language. I have often admired, even envied, the simple and unadorned. I am most assuredly not a fan of the simplistic, which deteriorates all too quickly into dull, trite, overly familiar, crude, or any number of other things. Simplistic doesn't make room for stories, I find. It hammers stories out of imaginistic possibility.

Dillard's own thoughts on all of this had me reading very slow—and wishing I could share the whole with you here. Instead I'll share a few more fragments.
Fine writing, with its elaborated imagery and powerful rhythms, has the beauty of both complexity and grandeur. It also has as its distinction a magnificent power to penetrate. It can penetrate precisely because, and only because, it lays no claim to precision. It is an energy. It sacrifices perfect control to the ambition to mean.... Fine writing is not a mirror, not a window, not a document, not a surgical tool. It is an artifact and an achievement; it is at once an exploratory craft and the planet it attains; it is a testimony to the possibility of the beauty and penetration of written language.
Fine writing lays no claim to precision. It is an energy. Beth Kephart, are you listening?

After teaching us how fine writing sometimes gets done, Dillard moves on to plain prose.
The prose is, above all, clean. It is sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs; it avoids relative clauses and fancy punctuation; it forswears exotic lexicons and attention-getting verbs; it eschews splendid metaphors and cultured allusions....  There is nothing relaxed about the pace of this prose; it is as restricted and taut as the pace of lyric poetry. The short sentences of plain prose have a good deal of blank space around them, as lines of lyric poetry do, and even as the abrupt utterances of Beckett characters do. They erupt against a backdrop of silence. These sentences are—in an extreme form of plain writing—objects themselves, objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.

Plain prose erupts against a backdrop of silence. Beth Kephart, is that not enticing?


Jeannine Atkins said...

Fascinating. Thank you, Beth.

Jeannine Atkins said...

Fascinating. Thank you, Beth.

Jenny Hoppins said...

Beth, I am just now discovering Annie Dillard. Last night I read the prologue to An American Childhood and it took my breath away. I am so excited to read the world she paints and to feel her consciousness awakening. What a gift. I would not have encountered her if not for your list in the back of Handling The Truth.
I hope your holiday was full of light and love.

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