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Living by Fiction

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Living by Fiction is written for--and dedicated to--people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary's Art and Reality, this Living by Fiction is written for--and dedicated to--people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary's Art and Reality, this is a book by a writer on the issues raised by the art of literature. Readers of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm will recognize Dillard's vivid writing, her humor, and the lively way in which she tackles the urgent questions of meaning in experience itself.


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Living by Fiction is written for--and dedicated to--people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary's Art and Reality, this Living by Fiction is written for--and dedicated to--people who love literature. Dealing with writers such as Nabokov, Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Borges, García Márquez, Beckett, and Calvino, Annie Dillard shows why fiction matters and how it can reveal more of the modern world and modern thinking than all the academic sciences combined. Like Joyce Cary's Art and Reality, this is a book by a writer on the issues raised by the art of literature. Readers of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm will recognize Dillard's vivid writing, her humor, and the lively way in which she tackles the urgent questions of meaning in experience itself.

30 review for Living by Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Stela

    With her “Living by Fiction”, Annie Dillard seems to contradict Emile Cioran’s belief that building on the ideas/ creations of others is a form of intellectual parasitism, such an outstanding proof is this book that criticism can be art, that it can use literature as an inspirational source to its own glory, just like art uses world to the same purpose. In fact, these are the two main themes of the essay: criticism versus art and art versus world, both suggested by the inspired title. The second With her “Living by Fiction”, Annie Dillard seems to contradict Emile Cioran’s belief that building on the ideas/ creations of others is a form of intellectual parasitism, such an outstanding proof is this book that criticism can be art, that it can use literature as an inspirational source to its own glory, just like art uses world to the same purpose. In fact, these are the two main themes of the essay: criticism versus art and art versus world, both suggested by the inspired title. The second one is also emphasized by a clever question asked in Introduction: “Does fiction illuminate the great world itself or only the mind of its human creator?” The answer is gradually developed in the three parts by discussing the how, the what and the why of the fiction-world relationship. Part One, “Some Contemporary Fiction”, compares what the author calls historical modernists (Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, Gide, Woolf, etc.) with contemporary modernists (Borges, Nabokov, Beckett, Barth, Robe-Grillet, Calvino, Cortazar, etc.) to show that the techniques of the first are still employed by the latter, by looking over timeline, characters, point of view, fable or themes. One of the most preferred techniques in nowadays fiction is the narrative collage, that breaks time “in smithereens” and simulates chaos, although, in the author’s opinion, art cannot imitate disorder, only pretend it, for there is always unity and meaning in the true art: “In this structural unity lies integrity, and it is integrity which separates art from nonart.” Integrity, says Annie Dillard, is the essential criterion by which we should judge a work, the sieve that separates sentimental art (which “attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us”) from real art (which creates “characters and events which will elicit special feelings unique to the text”). On the other hand, characters, once the center of the fiction, do not longer appeal to us emotionally, but intellectually. They are flattened (as opposed to the rounded, “drawn in depth” traditional ones), reduced to surfaces, and anyone, and anything can become a character: a mental defective (Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury), a toddler (Grass, The Tin Drum), a dinosaur (Calvino, Cosmicomics), a breast (Roth, The Breast), an axolotl (Cortazar, Axolotl), a goat (Barth, Giles Goat-Boy). Moreover, they are mocked or commented, are given funny names (Humbert Humbert, Betty Bliss, Word Smith, Benny Profane), and sometimes the authors even try to impose a pronunciation (Barth wanted that Giles be pronounced in the same way as “guiles” and Nabokov that Ada be pronounced in the same way as “ardor”). The same goes for the point of view, already limited by the Modernists to one narrator. Now there may be several voices to tell the story, or an axolotl, or a breast, and it is not a rare event for these points of view to collide, becoming another aspect of the collage. As for the story they tell, well, the drama and action that appeal to everybody are avoided (in the same way modern painting avoids representation) by serious novelists, who want to separate their work from trash, keeping in check the readers’ emotions by telling a bad story: Literature as a whole has moved from contemplating cosmology – Dante – for the sake of God, to analyzing society – George Eliot – for the sake of man, to abstracting pattern itself – Nabokov – for the sake of art. As a result, one of the main themes of the contemporary fiction has become art itself, be it in novels that talk about art (with heroes who are artists like in Gide’s The Counterfeiters), be it in novels in which the referents don’t leave the surface of art and the fragmented world becomes an art object contained on its own plane (like in Gertrude Stein’s works or in Nabokov’s Pale Fire). In relation to this theme there is the relationship between the tale and its teller, which can lead not only to the nature of art and narration, but also to the nature of perception (the biased narrator deals in part with the theme of perceptual bias): Gradually, then, the question of the relationship between tale, teller and world fades into the question of the relationship between any perceiver and any object. And this matter is a frequent theme – nay, obsession – in contemporary, modernist fiction. However, the big challenge of Art, the problem of knowing the world, is by no means abandoned. The problem of cognition can be approached by isolating the object from its context (surrealists), by using language as a cognitive tool to plainly describe the world of objects (Henry Green, Wright Morris, Alain Robbe-Grillet), by looking for the nature of knowing (Stanslaw Lem, The Cyberiad, Robbe-Grillet, The Voyeur, Borges, Death and the Compass), by transforming the world in an arena of possibilities (Calvino, Invisible Cities). But in the end most contemporary writers are in the middle of the distance between traditionalism and contemporary modernism, as are the Modernists themselves, for their mainstream still consists of stories that, using modernist techniques, penetrate the world and order it, and are populated by complex characters. The second part of the study, “The State of Art”, after observing that there is no real revolution in literature, most techniques being known and used from Sterne’s time, with the new including the old (Gertrude Stein and Finnegans Wake’s efforts to alter the language remained without proselytes, “because the material of fiction is world”), considers that one of the greatest strengths of fiction is that any reader feels qualified to review his readings, the audience of literature being eclectic – educated but not necessarily specialized, which distinguish fiction from the other contemporary arts that “have rid themselves of all impure elements, including an audience”: Who apart of specialist will say of a Di Suvero sculpture, “It doesn’t work,” or of a Alvin Lucier composition, “It’s no good”? yet who hesitates to rate contemporary novels? This symptom reveals the assumption that fiction, even when it is literature, should answer to its audience by pleasing it. This easy approach has been facilitated by a blissful mixing of genres (a phenomenon unheard of in visual art). There is no minor or despised genre for most serious writers: Murdoch has written gothic romances, Calvino fantasies, Barth fairy-tales, etc. Unfortunately, from this blurring profits also the book industry, which has no reservation to recommend, for example, a detective novel to those who loved Ficciones. This halo effect can increase or decrease the literary value of a book: And it is here that the blurring of genres goes too far for art’s health. For the viewpoint of big business, a dog care manual and a novel of genius are both marketable objects called “books”; since the dog care manual will be easier to market for profit, there is no point in taking a chance on the novel. Therefore, the role of the critics should be to help the readers to escape this halo effect, and in a way it is, since it influences the students’ thinking about fiction and it keeps fiction traditional by defending the canonic works, the national writers, and by ignoring the contemporary writers. But the critic experts are not as needed as in painting, for everyone can approach any work (except Finnegans Wake, maybe). They seem to influence more the contemporary fiction itself, both by canonizing the historical modernism and by making the contemporary one aware of criticism to the point that it helps to create it. Thus, criticism (to reassume the argument I opened my review with) has become a source of inspiration for fiction while proudly separating itself from it: As an art form, criticism is more highly developed than fiction is. Its own theories are actually the most suitable objects of its intelligence. If the Part One spoke about the main traits of the contemporary modernism and Part Two about the role and place of Art in contemporary society, Part Three, “Does the World Have Meaning?” speaks about the broken links between criticism, art, and world. Criticism cannot truly interpret art, only create a parallel world and become itself art: Criticism must always try to know a text on its own terms; but it will always fail. Criticism cannot know its object. There is no guaranteed thread of connection between any interpretation and any text; so criticism is a particularly fanciful and baroque form of skywriting. And this is because art cannot (and doesn’t want to) interpret the world. What it does is create something that did not exist before, because the artist is more interested to be original than to interpret the world: Melville’s whale is not the object of the world, but the tool of interpretation: The art object does not teach, exhort, arouse, aid, and so forth. It does not “help us to see”, like an optometrist; it does not “make us realize” like a therapist; it does not “open doors for us”, like a butler. Nevertheless, insofar as art has any function whatsoever (and I am coming to believe that it does), it requires an audience. (…) If outside human perception the art object has no human value, then the art object needs a perceiver, lest or it is or does be lost. If there is a meaning of the world, the author concludes, it could be found in Art. Art’s greatest gift, finally, is to convince us that the world has a meaning and a purpose. Even if it has not.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Snell

    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 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.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Carlos Anderson

    Dillard demonstrates a real command of language in this work and a real facility with words, a kind of acoustic keenness that is truly rare. The one qualm that readers may have is that there is really no definite organization to the book or rather that she elects to use really slippery demarkations in terms of her subject. Even as she begins to outline these delineations she is deftly moving in and out of these lines, though these stray remarks are thoroughly enjoyable. Another awing fact is the Dillard demonstrates a real command of language in this work and a real facility with words, a kind of acoustic keenness that is truly rare. The one qualm that readers may have is that there is really no definite organization to the book or rather that she elects to use really slippery demarkations in terms of her subject. Even as she begins to outline these delineations she is deftly moving in and out of these lines, though these stray remarks are thoroughly enjoyable. Another awing fact is the display of Dillard's breadth of knowledge, expanding into philosophy, metaphysics, and the variegated sub-stratum of sciences, as well as of course her depth of literary history and theory, as well as a steady drivel of amusing facts. Ultimately this book is for lovers of fiction and especially would-be writers, though one may walk away with a sort of foggy recollection of what exactly they have just read if asked to give summary (I myself am having this problem), bits of the book bubble up in your consciousness unexpectedly, as if grafted to neurons in a way only accessible by association or the purest forms of daydreaming/intellectual wandering. The book is an engrossing page turner. I read it in a fugue state-ish 2 day stint, without any intrusion from my usual book rotation tendencies. Afterward, I kept myself from turning it into my local used book store, expecting one day to pluck a piercingly cogent quote from it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    NICHOLAS

    It’s weird, this one gets the fifth star more for the effect it had on me in the time of my life that I read it than for what I actually recall of it specifically. In the cauldron of my early 20’s, searching, longing, lost, hopeful, desperate, pretentious, portentous, ponderous, and more than a smidge overindulgent, to name but a few of the emotions and states roiling tumultuously within and around me, this book materialized on the cluttered coffee-table of a crash pad in Milan I was living in It’s weird, this one gets the fifth star more for the effect it had on me in the time of my life that I read it than for what I actually recall of it specifically. In the cauldron of my early 20’s, searching, longing, lost, hopeful, desperate, pretentious, portentous, ponderous, and more than a smidge overindulgent, to name but a few of the emotions and states roiling tumultuously within and around me, this book materialized on the cluttered coffee-table of a crash pad in Milan I was living in one fall. It meant something profound to me, this volume of Dillard’s, though of course I didn’t fully grasp that at the time. Pekid and somewhat spooked in my ongoing battle with insomnia, I took this geeky little lit-crit book with me at dawn everyday to the cafe and pored over its musings as though they held some sort of key to another kingdom of life, another realm of value and meaning, a place where another hitherto unknown aspect of myself might be lurking...

  5. 5 out of 5

    John

    Some of the coolest, matter of fact referential and confident conversation about fiction that I've ever come across. It's also a very "80s" kind of literary criticism, which I dig.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    When I found this book, I thought it might teach me how to better understand and appreciate fiction. It seemed like most of this esoteric work was going right over my head, especially when it felt as though Ms. Dillard's explanations were coming in for a soft, easy landing, only to suddenly accelerate back into the sky, leaving behind a fog of cute, mysterious prose and unfamiliar references. However, I'm now finding little wisps of thought from this lyrical meditation coalescing into bits of a When I found this book, I thought it might teach me how to better understand and appreciate fiction. It seemed like most of this esoteric work was going right over my head, especially when it felt as though Ms. Dillard's explanations were coming in for a soft, easy landing, only to suddenly accelerate back into the sky, leaving behind a fog of cute, mysterious prose and unfamiliar references. However, I'm now finding little wisps of thought from this lyrical meditation coalescing into bits of a new understanding of what fiction and art and even reality itself actually are. It's an enjoyable feeling.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I love Dillard as a writer. And I wanted to love this. If I were writing fiction more regularly, perhaps it would be different. But the truth is, it was a struggle for me, and while I've read many of the works she references, I haven't read enough of them recently enough to feel invested in the arguments she makes. As always, the prose is clean and clear...but I couldn't get myself invested in the arguments being made. [2 stars for Dillard's usual prose, clean and clear.]

  8. 5 out of 5

    Harperac

    A very lucid and powerful attempt to understand the fiction of the past century - "contemporary modernist" fiction as she calls it, as opposed to Post-modernist. In the meantime Dillard attempts to understand the fiction that preceded it and the visual arts the coevolved with it. I was so struck because she talks about all the things I'd been thinking, and says them so well. For some reason I had got the impression that Annie Dillard was a loosey goosey hippie Romantic, but here she's all about A very lucid and powerful attempt to understand the fiction of the past century - "contemporary modernist" fiction as she calls it, as opposed to Post-modernist. In the meantime Dillard attempts to understand the fiction that preceded it and the visual arts the coevolved with it. I was so struck because she talks about all the things I'd been thinking, and says them so well. For some reason I had got the impression that Annie Dillard was a loosey goosey hippie Romantic, but here she's all about hard and deep analysis. I should say that I shotgunned this one in a day - I picked it up just all "Oh, I think I'll read for a half hour or so" and twenty hours later I was finishing it up. (I did other stuff in between). I was drawn in and she didn't let me go at all. Like I said, she's not interested in Romantic theories of inspiration and feeling, she's interested in philosophical analysis. But she's such a fair critic, I have almost no issues with what she says - I usually hate the philosophic style, but she uses it so well. If you like Northrop Frye or Harold Bloom, you'll like this book. She refers to those two twice as examples of excellent close readings, and she clearly sees herself in the same tradition. I fully recommend this book!

  9. 5 out of 5

    Richard Gilbert

    Dillard views criticism, of which this book is an example, as the modern “focusing of the religious impulse.” The making and interpreting of art, she implies, may be our last clear purpose left here on Earth. At least she expresses the view that, of human intellectual activities, art still produces and retains holistic meaning, and she holds faith that we may discern it. Fiercely intellectual without being pedantic, Dillard also goofs around in her sidelong way and has her quirky fun that’s fun Dillard views criticism, of which this book is an example, as the modern “focusing of the religious impulse.” The making and interpreting of art, she implies, may be our last clear purpose left here on Earth. At least she expresses the view that, of human intellectual activities, art still produces and retains holistic meaning, and she holds faith that we may discern it. Fiercely intellectual without being pedantic, Dillard also goofs around in her sidelong way and has her quirky fun that’s fun to see. Hers and others’ theories aside, she believes, “Always, if the work is good enough, the writer can get away with anything.” So what's the book about? Fiction and nonfiction that's modernist or traditional. Fiction and nonfiction that employs plain or fine prose styles. The mix and match here is really interesting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Zach

    Not as beautifully written as the other work by Dillard I've read, and not much use as a "traditional" work of criticism - particularly now that many of the postmodern writers who are her main subject of analysis have faded in relevance - but an interesting think-piece for those who like their literary critics to be expressive writers as well. Dillard's main thesis - that fiction can interpret and provide perspectives on the world in ways that other disciplines cannot - is well explored, and Not as beautifully written as the other work by Dillard I've read, and not much use as a "traditional" work of criticism - particularly now that many of the postmodern writers who are her main subject of analysis have faded in relevance - but an interesting think-piece for those who like their literary critics to be expressive writers as well. Dillard's main thesis - that fiction can interpret and provide perspectives on the world in ways that other disciplines cannot - is well explored, and though she doesn't come to any solid conclusions she asks some compelling questions along the way. I assigned the Introduction and two chapters from the third (and best) part of the book as readings for an Intro to Fiction class I'm teaching this fall...hopefully the students got as much out of the chapters as I did!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Vel Veeter

    This is a very 1980 book. Depending on your specific connection with literary criticism (and its history), you may or may not be aware that the 1980s was a weird and dramatic shift in the field. Because of the dying off of some significant figures, the opening up of the university to the influences of critical theorists, and the rise of identity studies departments, English, which always sort of lagged, went through some attempts to legitimize and re-canonize. This book feels right in the midst This is a very 1980 book. Depending on your specific connection with literary criticism (and its history), you may or may not be aware that the 1980s was a weird and dramatic shift in the field. Because of the dying off of some significant figures, the opening up of the university to the influences of critical theorists, and the rise of identity studies departments, English, which always sort of lagged, went through some attempts to legitimize and re-canonize. This book feels right in the midst of all that. So while it has argument and a purpose (specifically providing some access to academic analysis of literary texts for someone not expressly trained in the field — say for someone writing book reviews ) it’s also a kind of artifact. I am reminded quite handily of the comments in the Elizabeth Hardwick essays, and some recent Orwell I’ve read but not reviewed yet, and now Annie Dillard of the constant plague of book reviews and criticism that mean nothing, do very little thinking, and are ultimately aimed at propping up an industry and arguing for one’s own existence. So Annie Dillard spends some time dealing with the state of criticism (in intellectual if not academic fields…a distinction that is becoming again quite relevant) and provides some interesting tools, and a hefty reading list. What also makes this a very 1980s book is that she spends the bulk of her time assuming you will have or at least agree about the legitimacy of 18th and 19th century novels, Modernist novels, and now need a way to tackle what she decides upon calling Post-modernism (though considers metafiction et al) as a flawed catch-all. So if your goals or interest lie in this book capturing a moment in public intellectualism, providing a reading list as considered in a radical shift of 1980, or wants some additional tools especially geared toward post-modern literature, this is a very satisfying book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Matt Sautman

    This book is probably most interesting to literary scholars and contemporary writers. Fans of Annie Dillard’s nature writing may be confused by the fact that this is a literary criticism text. Yet for those willing to follow Annie on this journey, readers will find insight into the American literary movements of the second half of the 20th century. Those more invested in 21st century writers in turn can have a better insight into how the contemporary scene has shifted away from our literary This book is probably most interesting to literary scholars and contemporary writers. Fans of Annie Dillard’s nature writing may be confused by the fact that this is a literary criticism text. Yet for those willing to follow Annie on this journey, readers will find insight into the American literary movements of the second half of the 20th century. Those more invested in 21st century writers in turn can have a better insight into how the contemporary scene has shifted away from our literary predecessors.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    Before beginning find your favorite pen and notebook. Annie Dillard's look at the purpose and role of literature in our lives is replete with insights phrased with her usual felicity of tone and eloquence. Does literature, or even life itself, have meaning? Do contemporary modernist have more to offer than slick techniques? What of symbols?

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kathryn

    It's been almost 20 years since I read literary theory, and this was the perfect book to pull me back into the genre. Dillard packs a surprising number of beautiful and thought-provoking ideas into a short 185 pages. My only wish is that she would revisit the subject now, since more than 35 years have passed.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Geoff Young

    Short collection of dense, thoughtful essays on art, literature, and meaning. Depressing or inspirational depending on one's bent, possibly both. Deserves and perhaps even demands multiple readings. Difficult in places, unapologetically ambiguous, requiring genuine engagement and mental effort from the reader. Good exercise for the brain, rewarding and satisfying in its way.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Hannah Paige

    Wow. An absolutely mandatory addition to any writer's repertoire.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stewart Lindstrom

    I was surprised that I loved this book as much as I did. Annie Dillard has some fascinating ideas about literary theory and about art in general, and her prose makes this book very enjoyable to read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Helen Mary Labao Barrameda

    Thought-provoking, beautifully written, and demonstrates Dillard’s extensive expertise in literature.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Carla Freeman

    Too wordy and abstract to be helpful. Not what I thought it was going to be. She is pretty funny at times though :)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Mary Beth

    Whatever this book is, it isn't what I expected. I was expecting a biased defense of modern and post-modern literature. This is instead a very balanced meditation on fiction and literary criticism among other things. Dillard manages to embrace both innovation and tradition and still call out the charlatan's who have given modern literature a bad name. I also enjoyed her bits of commentary on modern art. "The French Impressionist bedtime story (which implies that popular works are ipso facto bad) Whatever this book is, it isn't what I expected. I was expecting a biased defense of modern and post-modern literature. This is instead a very balanced meditation on fiction and literary criticism among other things. Dillard manages to embrace both innovation and tradition and still call out the charlatan's who have given modern literature a bad name. I also enjoyed her bits of commentary on modern art. "The French Impressionist bedtime story (which implies that popular works are ipso facto bad) combines appallingly with art's severing of historical ties to give contemporary painters the abysmal license of a free fall. Cut off from both an audience and an agreed-upon set of traditional values, pushed out of a plane, a free falling painter may wiggle any way he chooses, repeating, "They laughed at Manet and they laughed at Renoir"; but the air is very thin. If the remote and aristocratic painter can do no wrong, he can also do no right. And no one is laughing now." My favorite quote in the book though is this: "Any penetrating interest in anything ultimately leads to what used to be called epistemology. If you undertake the least mental task -- if you so much as try to classify a fern -- you end up agog in the lap of Kant."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Charles Bechtel

    One is thankful, if one is thoughtful (as in fully thinking), to have an Annie Dillard writing in his or her lifetime because she penetrates well past the obvious and well-taught stuff of writing schools. There are so many notational gems in Living by Fiction that it would prove tedious to list any, because i'd want to list them all.She rides the subject of literature as one may on a teeter board, that plank set on a roller that keeps one pitched left or right at a moments notice. But her left One is thankful, if one is thoughtful (as in fully thinking), to have an Annie Dillard writing in his or her lifetime because she penetrates well past the obvious and well-taught stuff of writing schools. There are so many notational gems in Living by Fiction that it would prove tedious to list any, because i'd want to list them all.She rides the subject of literature as one may on a teeter board, that plank set on a roller that keeps one pitched left or right at a moments notice. But her left is the perspective of a writer, while to her right is the precarious dip down into criticism. One must be, and this writer/reader is, thankful she can do both with incredible balance.Although I am certain there are brainier investigations out there, and more current, this text is highly recommended by this writer/critic. It's a far, far better job than I could ever do.#AnnieDillard #literature #criticism

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Dillard comments on the devices and conventions employed in the postmodern fiction of writers like John Fowles and Philip Roth. Her book is not a work of criticism or theory; rather it is an exploration of the function of fiction in contemporary individual experience. Thus, she does not analyze the narrative techniques and characters in the recent novels she discusses; instead, she discusses what we should bring to these books as readers, and what they give us in return. Really more of a Dillard comments on the devices and conventions employed in the postmodern fiction of writers like John Fowles and Philip Roth. Her book is not a work of criticism or theory; rather it is an exploration of the function of fiction in contemporary individual experience. Thus, she does not analyze the narrative techniques and characters in the recent novels she discusses; instead, she discusses what we should bring to these books as readers, and what they give us in return. Really more of a personal essay about reading contemporary fiction than an academic interpretation of the meaning of the novels. Dillard employs little jargon, and this is one reason why Living by Fiction is not a difficult book to read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Parvoneh

    Annie Dillard is a writer/intellectual who knows she's talking about some brainy stuff. Still, she manages to be funny and welcoming and heart-y, and I'd like to be around her while she talks about life and books and writing. I would especially like to hear her thoughts now, since this book is pretty dated (physically, too--my copy is actually three stacks of pages held together by glue that flakes off): it's kind of bizarre to read her reject the term "postmodernist" (guess she was wrong about Annie Dillard is a writer/intellectual who knows she's talking about some brainy stuff. Still, she manages to be funny and welcoming and heart-y, and I'd like to be around her while she talks about life and books and writing. I would especially like to hear her thoughts now, since this book is pretty dated (physically, too--my copy is actually three stacks of pages held together by glue that flakes off): it's kind of bizarre to read her reject the term "postmodernist" (guess she was wrong about that taking off), and she hasn't jumped on the talking-about-ladies train, either. Still, still, I think she articulates the workings of past literary trends and criticism while also looking at what writing could be and it's very insightful and hopeful in a way I can believe. The beginning is a little dry and the end is definitely weak, but I flagged so many passages in between.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

    This was definitely more on the Literary Criticism side of what I normally read, written for an audience that tends to just sit around around and read... critically. Lots of big words and outside references to things that I had never even thought about reading. It stretched my thinking in that way, perhaps. The best chapter was the one which posited that Art is the best means for communicating Meaning of our existence. Dillard tackles some huge ideas in this book, and unfortunately, I think she This was definitely more on the Literary Criticism side of what I normally read, written for an audience that tends to just sit around around and read... critically. Lots of big words and outside references to things that I had never even thought about reading. It stretched my thinking in that way, perhaps. The best chapter was the one which posited that Art is the best means for communicating Meaning of our existence. Dillard tackles some huge ideas in this book, and unfortunately, I think she chickened out, ending the book with a polite "I don't know."

  25. 4 out of 5

    Harry

    Annie Dillard is a folksy postmodernist, like your grandma on the porch discussing Derrida. She explores some mighty big questions about life and fiction's relationship to the world, and deftly pushes through them. I argued with a lot of what she had to say, and agreed with just as much. There's a long section in the middle about critics and writing styles that I found dull and uninteresting, but I liked that she frequently compared literature to painting in order to parse the differences.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kristianne

    “Language, like other cognitive structures, is useful for some task and worthless for others. I cannot tell you, because I do not know, what my language prevents my knowing. Language is itself like a work of art; it selects, abstracts, exaggerates, and orders. How then could we say that language encloses and signifies phenomena, when language is a fabricated grid someone stuck in a river?” From the “Revolution, No” chapter

  27. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

    When I was a student at the University of Iowa, studying poetry writing in the Undergraduate Poetry Workshop, Marvin Bell read an excerpt from this book. The title of the piece he read was “Wish I Had Pie.” I was in stitches and instantly hooked on Annie Dillard. If you’re a writer, you will understand yourself and your craft in new light. If you’re not a writer, but curious about the process, this book will afford you a look behind the curtains.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This was an interesting and difficult read (for me). The author mediates on literature and writing and in particular on fiction. Her essays are very smart and very thoughtful and give a lot to chew on. But it is not for the light of heart. It is a rich text…but it is one that will take some work to mine. It is worth it. I liked it and I’m very glad I read it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    Pot-smoking hippy wackadoo Annie Dillard, a patron saint of overwrought prose, takes a brief break from navel-staring to stare at her bookshelf and tell us all about what's there. To judge from her writing, she seems like she would be a trying person to actually talk to. The pressing question is: what shit-caked C.H.U.D. keeps publishing her books?!

  30. 4 out of 5

    M.J. Daspit

    This is the sort of book that needs to be reread and reread. Dillard writes about the function of writing in the world and vice versa with an agility that belies the difficulty of the ground she covers. I've discovered a slew of titles that I need to put on my reading list just so I can appreciate her references to them. Much of importance in this slender volume.

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