Traditional vs. Modernist approaches,
Fine vs. Plain prose styles
By Richard Gilbert, Contributing Editor
LIVING BY FICTION by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 192 pages.
The cultural assumption is that the novel is the proper home of significance and that nonfiction is mere journalism. This is interesting because it means that in two centuries our assumptions have been reversed. Formerly the novel was junk entertainment; if you wanted to write significant literature—if you wanted to do art or make an object from ideas—you wrote nonfiction. We now think of nonfiction as sincere and artless. —Annie Dillard
Perhaps this has changed, in part due to her own work, since Annie Dillard first published Living By Fiction in 1982. She might have called it Living by Literature because although it’s about her love affair with reading fiction in particular, she says more about nonfiction in a few asides and by implication than some books entirely on the topic.
Her categories of “traditional” and “contemporary modernist” approaches, of “fine” prose and “plain” prose styles, cross genres as well. In fact, Living by Fiction enabled me better to appreciate and to understand David Shields’s less coherent Reality Hunger for what it is: a modernist’s aesthetic.
Traditional and Modernist Approaches
Dillard prefers “contemporary modernist” work herself (in our lexicon, that’s postmodernism), but she’s knowing in her explanation of the forces—human, societal, economic—that drive writers into the middle ground. She observes that most writers are working there, including excellent ones, somewhere on the bell curve between traditional and modernist approaches, between fine prose and plain. Most people “write largely traditional fiction.”
But she wonders, all the same:
After you have performed or read a detailed analysis of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Stevens’s “Comedian as the Letter C,” why would you care to write fiction like Jack London or Theodore Drieser’s? Contemporary fiction writers may be more influenced by Pound’s criticism than by Joyce’s novels, more by Stevens’s poems than Kafka’s stories. In style their work more closely resembles “The Waste Land” than Herzog; in structure it more closely resembles “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” than The Naked and the Dead. This strand of contemporary fiction has purified itself through the agent of criticism; it has adopted the brilliant virtues of Modernist poetry, whose bones are its beauty.
Of course, she allows, modernist poetry has, like such visual art, pretty much evaporated its audience as well. In any case she takes pains for readers to understand her categories by grounding them in literary and artistic history. With modernism, representative storytelling in prose and paint became secondary: “each was considered for centuries the irreducible nub of its art, and is no longer.” (Yet the bulk of nonfiction remains representational, which may be why we think of it “as sincere and artless.”) What is modernism? It’s not a mirror or a window on the world, Dillard says, but is characterized by the shattering of the narrative line, by collage. The juxtapositions and work’s surface are the point.
The reason? “Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in an orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead, time is a flattened landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen from the air…The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.”
She distinguishes between good modernist collage and bad in a discussion on structural unity and integrity that draws on painter Rene Magritte’s birdcage example: the playful modernist’s birdcage might enclose fish or a shoe—but those are arbitrary and ad hoc, whereas an egg has something final and right about it. “Must arbitrariness always be damning?” she asks. “Must it forever be out of bounds not as a subject but as a technique. I think so…Art is the creation of coherent contexts.”
Among her own works, certainly For the Time Being (reviewed previously) is modernist narrative collage. In it, she writes about birth defects, sand’s formation and ubiquity, China’s buried civilizations, clouds, numbers, Israel, random encounters, thinkers, and torture, and she makes the subjects cohere: her own obsessions with mortality and evil unify the work. Her latest book, and avowed last, the novel The Maytrees, is a shimmering work of art whose love story is told as if by a coolly distant modernist God. And each sentence of it is distilled into poetry.
Fine and Plain Prose Styles
Which brings me to her categories of fine and plain prose styles. Think of William Faulkner as the apotheosis of the former and Ernest Hemingway as the exemplar of the latter. Fine prose is showy and rhetorical, while plain is snappy and visual.
The great prose writers of the recent past, until Flaubert, were fine writers to a man. A surprising number of these—those I think of first, in fact—wrote nonfiction: Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, William James, Sir James Frazer…I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the Modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Becket, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.
Fine writing is energetic, though not precise, dazzling, complex, and grand, an edifice that celebrates the beauty of language; it strews metaphors and adjectives about, even adverbs, and “traffics in parallel structures and repetitions.” All modernist fine writing begins in Joyce’s collages, Dillard says. “Fine writing does indeed draw attention to a work’s surface, and in that it furthers modernist aims. But at the same time it is pleasing, emotional, engaging…It is literary. It is always vulnerable to the charge of sacrificing accuracy, or even integrity, to the more dubious value, beauty. For these reasons it may be, in the name of purity, jettisoned.”
(Others in Dillard’s modernist fine-writer pantheon: Nabokov and Marquez. Among traditional fine writers she mentions Updike, Gass, Styron.)
Plain writing, like Hemingway’s and Chekhov’s, is a prose “purified by its submission to the world” and represents literature’s “new morality,” says Dillard. This “courteous,” “mature” style emerged with Flaubert, who eschewed verbal dazzle. Clean, sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding relative clauses, fancy punctuation, and metaphor, plain prose can be as taut as lyric poetry. In an extreme form of plain writing (as in Dillard’s own The Maytrees), the simple sentences themselves “become objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.” It risks the fatuous: “Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence ‘Paris is a nice town,’ ” Dillard observes. But plainness helps the writer to honor and to under-write real drama, respecting readers’ intelligence and permitting “scenes to be effective on their narrative virtues, not on the overwrought insistence of their author’s prose.”
Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect. In two sentences I heard read aloud many years ago in a large auditorium, Wright Morris introduced me to the virtues of an unadorned prose. The two sentences were these: “The father talks to his son. The son listens and watches his father eat soup.”
(Other modernist plain writers, per Dillard: Borges, Paul Horgan, Henry Green.)
If you’re having trouble placing your favorite author on Dillard’s traditionalist-modernist or plain-fine continuums, remember Dillard’s dictum: most writers work in the middle.
There’s much more in Living By Fiction, especially regarding criticism, which Dillard views 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.”
See “Notes on the plain style” by Stan Carey, Sentence first blog. And read the New York Times review of Dillard’s book here.
Originally published on richardgilbert.me