Sorting Plain from Fancy

Annie Dillard was born on this day in 1945. In the opening sentence of her memoir, An American Childhood, Dillard begins her characteristic weave of nature, family, and books: “In 1955, when I was ten, my father’s reading went to his head….” We go on to learn that her father’s obsession with Twain’s Life on the Mississippi inspired him to attempt an imitation of it, and in later chapters we learn of Dillard’s own inspirations — the rock collection given to her by the paperboy, for example, which led her both to read about rocks and to whack away:

I was all for it. I would lay about me right and left with a hammer, and bash the landscape to bits. I would crack the earth’s crust like a piñata and spread to the light the vivid prizes in chunks within. Rock collecting was opening the mountains. It was like diving through my own interior blank blackness to remember the startling pieces of a dream: there was a blue lake, a witch, a lighthouse, a yellow path. It was like poking about in a grimy alley and finding an old, old coin. Nothing was as it seemed. The earth was like a shut eye. Mother’s not dead, dear — she’s only sleeping. Pry open the thin lid and find a crystalline intelligence inside, a rayed and sidereal beauty. Crystals grew inside rock like arithmetical flowers. They lengthened and spread, adding plane to plane in awed and perfect obedience to an absolute geometry that even the stones — maybe only the stones — understood.

Such passages have earned Dillard high praise as a prose stylist, another topic about which she is passionate. In Living by Fiction she sorts the “contemporary modernists” of her profession into two overlapping style groups, those who like “fancy” and those who prefer “plain.” Below, one of Dillard’s metaphoric attempts to establish a reader-friendly field guide:

You know how a puppy, when you point off in one direction for him, looks at your hand. It is hard to train him not to. The modernist arts in this century have gone to a great deal of trouble to untrain us readers, to force us to look at the hand. Contemporary modernist fine prose says, Look at my hand. Plain prose says, Look over there.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at