22 August 2005

Onward and upward

I've been rereading Annie Dillard's Living by Fiction for fun. Many of her assertions still hold true (it was originally published in 1982), and certain passages are particularly relevent:
The context into which a work is received actually affects its meaning (despite a century's valuable efforts from formalist critics), and this context can be manipulated. What is the context into which publishers launch a work of fiction by an unknown author? It could be, theoretically, that a writer's intentions cannot affect his work's contents so much as his publisher's intentions can. Could a publisher's tampering with a work actually alter its meaning? I think so. Imagine a publisher's whimsically aiming a new detective novel--whose author intended it to sell like hotcakes--at "everyone who loved Ficciones, In the Labyrinth, or Harmonium." Would the actual content of the novel, in such a context, acquire new meaning? I think so. I would be the first to fall for it. My review would read the narrative as an enormous metaphor for the search for epistemological certainty. If we grant this effect, then we must also grant that publishers' aiming other novels at the wide audiences for Airport or Valley of the Dolls dilutes or cheapens our estimation of these novels as literature. The frightening thing is that it may also lower their literary value in fact, if, as I fear, no one is keeping tabs on anything. Whole novels might be altogether lost. Why would a lover of literature pick up a novel aimed at readers of Airport? There must be many such novels every year, damned as both fish and fowl. I hope that a future army of graduate students will pore over ignored novels and rescue the literature, as Moby-Dick was rescued.
Frankly, I don't have much faith in academia (although there are many grad students who do actually care about literature), but it's gratifying to see what has changed since she wrote these words. It appears that many people are willing to "keep tabs" on things, and devoting large amounts of time in order to do so.

She later writes,
More serious a threat is this notion: that quality will out, that quality has already outed, and that the novelists of whom we have heard are the novelists we have. People who believe this pronounce early and dismal verdicts: no one is writing interesting novels, or great novels, or great poetry, or great short stories. Which is absurd. How do we know who is writing what out there? Could Faulkner find a publisher now?

That we are much informed does not mean that we are well informed. What little contemporary criticism we have is responsible, but it must rely on what is available and even on what is expected. The Times could scarcely assign stringers, who also happen to be literary critics, to every garret and kitchen table in the country where the mute, inglorious Miltons are churning it out. And if the Times assigned such stringers, where would it print their reports, when it devotes breathless pages each week to the signing of blockbusters, jogging books, dieting books, and so forth?
We've come a long way. Nowadays we've got canny people keeping tabs on the Times!

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