Monday, July 11, 2016

THE MALCONTENT on the Many Disappointments of Annie Dillard





This, dear readers, is the first iteration of The Malcontent, a new pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? Find Will or Ander at the emails on the right.

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.”


“Nature writing: I seldom read it myself.” —Edward Abbey

My cat is dying and I want to tell you the truth about Annie Dillard: she sucks and apparently no one else wants to say it. There’s too little time for fucking around with nice words about a nice lady, this Dillard who's probably the most universally-approved-of essayist this side of Joan Didion. As the Twitter kids will tell you now's not the time for niceness. Now's the time for rage. For a long time I’ve happily avoided Annie Dillard and you should too.

For starters, avoiding Annie Dillard means avoiding the swarms of Annie Dillard supplicants, “infant sea turtle[s]…running down the beach and into the surf through a gauntlet of hungry ghost crabs, screeching seagulls, swarming and greedy stonefish, hagfish, devilfish, lampreys, manta rays, giant clams, and eggheaded walleyed eight-armed ink-spreading octopodes. Those that survive this initial run for the open sea live to become adult sea turtles, armored and invulnerable giants—literature.” I quote Edward Abbey whom I’ve vowed never to quote. Look what you’ve already driven me to do, Dillard. Twice in one essay, I hope, and then never again.

Annie Dillard probably has something to tell me about my dying cat, but I don’t want to hear it. But you can be pretty sure that something probably involves a tree, a walk, or a bird. 

You cannot get through a Dillard essay without running into one of these boring natural phenomena. They are bad enough on their own, but many essays unfortunately contain all three. Take, for instance (I’m picking at random here) “Schedules” from Best American Essays 1989, in which “Sometimes in June a feeding colony of mixed warblers flies through the pines,” “Nuthatches spiral around their long, coarse trunks,” and “The pine lumber is unfinished inside the study; the pines outside are finished trees. I see the pines from my two windows.” The walk, of course, gives rise to the birds and the pines and the nicely furnished finished/unfinished thought, which is almost, but not quite, worth the walk. The birds just decorate the essay, give us something natural to look at. They fly; they spiral. They’re there.

Let's try another. It doesn't take long to locate these in “For the Time Being” (anthologized in BAE 1999): “Okay, we’re a tree. These dead loved ones we mourn were only those brown lower branches a tree shades and kills as it grows; the tree itself is thriving,” or, very late in the essay, as I very nearly gave up the possibility of getting birded: “The birds were mating all over Galilee. I saw swifts mate in midair.” On they come, bird, tree, metaphor. At least the birds mate in midair: the tree metaphor’s half-dead.

Even in “The Stunt Pilot,” (BAE 1990) an essay about just that, with no shortage of insane airborne acrobatics and dramatic maneuvers, it’s only a matter of time until we arrive at her tropes: “The Bellingham airport was a wide clearing in a forest of tall Douglas firs,” “something caught my eye and made me laugh. It was a swallow, a blue-green swallow, having its own air show.”

At least 1982’s “Total Eclipse,” one of her best-known essays, gets it out of the way early, on the second page: “the trees changed, and in the trees were strange birds.”

I admit that some of her bird descriptions are less boring than others: “He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to the throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot” (“Living Like Weasels,” an essay you probably know and think fondly of). That’s pretty good: this isn’t the usual kind of bird, pecking and mating and flitting from pine to pine and looking pretty; this one’s caught in an epic struggle with a weasel, and so does some useful work in the essay. This bird works as both metaphor and scale move, where all of a sudden we get aerial, and we’re excited. Too, there's that weird location: not in but from the air: we're not just aloft but aloft above the eagle. This is not bad, though you could argue that the weasel is doing all the work here, not the bird.

Elsewhere in the essay we’re back to the same old: “Twenty minutes from my house, through the woods by the quarry…where I like to go at sunset and sit on a tree trunk,” “Then I cut through the woods to the mossy fallen tree where I sit.” The sentence is saved by the entertaining jump to judgment of the fallen tree (“This tree is excellent”) but then we’re back to the pointless presence of birds, when “a yellow bird appeared to my right and flew behind me.”

Jesus, Annie. Is everything bird? Are they just punctuation in your essays? Are they just a handy way to switch out of a scene or let a thought resonate through the woods so as to make it more profound?

Let’s look at your often-anthologized “Seeing”: “I used to be able to see flying insects in the air…Now I can see birds,” “For a week last September migrating red-winged blackbirds were feeding heavily down by the creek at the back of the house. One day I went out to investigate the racket; I walked up to a tree, an Osage orange, and a hundred birds flew away.” Huzzah. Trees hold birds and inspire a walk.


I started challenging the internet to find a Dillard essay without these tropes. Someone suggested that since it's all the suburbs, I should check out An American Childhood, though it’s a memoir, not essays proper. In many (possibly all: I didn’t check exhaustively) of its short chapters, you’ll still find birds usually enforced into servitude as similes: "Consciousness converges with the child as a landing tern touches the outspread feet of its shadow on the sand" ("Waking Up"). On a forced sort of walk we’ll still run into hedges, which are basically just stunted trees: “He chased Mikey and me around the yellow house and up a backyard path we knew by heart: under a low tree, up a bank, through a hedge.” And even in the suburbs, trees are her default setting: “Some trees bordered the little flat backyard, some messy winter trees” (“Being Chased”).

Later on Twitter, Zoë Bossiere, in her attempt to test my theory, challenged me to check out the chapter sort-of-titled “Terwilliger Bunts One,” and on the very last page, I was just about to point out that really these weren’t essays, and surely some of them wouldn’t be bird-tree-or-walk-populated, but then: "she would fly at him in a flurry of passion, as a songbird selflessly attacks a big hawk."

I exhaled. Close one.

Even in “An Expedition to the Pole” from Teaching a Stone to Talk, a visit to the mostly-birdless Antarctic, of course we arrive at the obvious: “penguins, according to visitors, are...adorable. They are tame! They are funny! Tourists in Antarctica are mostly women of a certain age. They step from the cruise ship’s rubber Zodiacs wearing bright ship’s-issue parkas; they stalk around on the gravel and squint into the ice glare; they exclaim over the penguins, whom they find tame, funny, and adorable; they take snapshots of one another with the penguins, and look around cheerfully for something else to look around at. The penguins are adorable, and the wasp at the stained-glass window is adorable, because in each case their impersonations of human dignity so evidently fail. ” The only reason, one senses, that there are no trees mentioned is because in Antarctica no trees exist. Still, perhaps a better essayist could have worked one in from memory.

Tame, funny, and adorable: these are words that Dillard uses to mock the visitors and differentiate herself from them. They also describe the very worst kind of nature writing, the sort that makes us all hate nature writing. All nature writers know this. They tend to be a cranky, somewhat self-loathing group, don’t they? Often enough they go to nature because they dislike being around people. Who could blame them? People are awful. Just check your Twitter or your Facebook or your headlines this year as cops keep shooting people and people keep shooting cops and we keep shooting each other and buying more guns to protect us from each other. One could forgive the nature writer for just opting out of this bullshit. Except here comes Dillard, tame, funny, and usually adorable. Except her writing about nature often enough has the effect of bringing everyone to nature, thus running her bird-and-tree-filled lonely walk.

Tame, funny, and adorable also adorn the lamest nature you can find, the sort you might see in internet videos of cats. It’s easy (if unpopular these days) to be snarky about cat videos (see also the great Coffee House Press anthology, Cat is Art Spelled Wrong, for disquisitions on our weird, obsessive love of cats and cat videos online). And as every tourist knows, it’s easy to be snarky about other tourists. It makes you feel less like a tourist. (As an aside, I’d love to read an essay in defense of tourism.) A little snarkiness goes a long way in a Dillard essay. Even if it’s cheap, it makes you feel like maybe she’s alive after all. For instance, I’ve always appreciated the fact that she smokes, for instance: it makes the image of her walking and writing about walking a little more tolerable. If she were to discard a burning butt and ignite a blaze in a national forest I’d read that essay.


I mean to offer this trope-spotting not as just a party game (though it’s a good one for the kind of party I am glad never to be invited to if it involves reading Annie Dillard) but as a real critique: not only are these three things—birds, trees, walks—closely related in exactly the way you already imagine, but they’re also boring. You know what you already think of them. You like them. Birds are meaningful and beautiful and natural. Walks are probably good though you don’t take them often enough and, because you underestimated the velocity of your digestion, sometimes you end up shitting behind a bush, possibly on a bird. Trees are great except when one falls on the so-called-writing-office in the corner of your house or blows up your retaining wall. Nature’s awesome when contained. It’s great until it gets in your way.

The problem is that for Dillard these images are defaults. Usually they represent laziness, a failure of vision, here not just often but always. Or, when in doubt, as Portlandia reminds us, put a bird on it and it will sell.

Maybe this isn’t her fault. One can’t always pay close attention to everything. (But isn’t that what we go to Dillard for?)

If we were to look at the body of work of any writer with the brand recognition of Dillard, probably we’d find the same. That’s what the people want, isn’t it: some degree of predictability, of recognition, of the familiar? (Say it with me: tame, funny, and adorable.)

As JC Hallman points out in his essay “On Repetition,” essayist Geoff Dyer “has also made the mistake of saying the same thing over and over. I’m quite sure this accounts for [his] wide-ranging popularity.”
This is the secret of what we really want in our reading, our eating, our nature, our travel, our dailiness, our sex: mostly the same—which is to say safety—with minor variations to keep us interested. We’re wired for variety within bounds.

Dillard’s smart enough to know this about us, and like us, she likes us: she likes liking what she likes. And so she’s fossilized herself inside herself.

All of this, though, is Dillard’s fault. It’s the job of art—or at any rate the artist—to resist these norming forces, to, as Alice Notley puts it in a great essay, “How to Break Through: an Homage” (published a few years back in Denver Quarterly):
I must leave you with one final point, the final final point, what you need to know to be a poet, and to continue to be a poet: 
That’s pretty hard to do, I admit. It's harder when you win the Pulitzer at 30.

Sure, we all want to get paid (CREAM get the money), to be professional, to play nice, to make people happy. We like to be funny. We like to be adored. These things are good. But by doing so we risk being tamed—worse, we’re self-taming. And what Dillard reveres is the wild, such as it is, even in the midst of a subdivision: her wild is achievable for us, familiar, accessible. We’re in love with the idea of the wild because we don’t want to see the ways that we are tamed. That’s why we really love Dillard: not for the documentary in her work but for the art in her work, because she massaged things so that they fit a little better with what we were prepared to hear. We want less friction. What we want to hear is a fiction. Which is to say the tameable, a wide green chemically-castrated lawn.

The appeal of the fiction is the appeal of the memoir in the age of deindividuation. It's the appeal of the Big Narrative in the age of the fragmented attention span. It’s the appeal of intimacy—however we find it, preferably without driving too far—in the age of isolation. It’s the appeal of the big claim, in fact in this very sentence (see how appealing it feels to make this statement? see how it obscures as it embiggens?) in the age of what really ought to be our skepticism, unsurety, and doubt.

Every time we make a big old claim (like "Annie Dillard sucks"?) we die a little.

Oh, I know Dillard writes about these things too, probably fringed with feathers and with a lovely backdrop of some bucolic trees. But what I want more of is less birds flitting around trees and more dead ones on the concrete. I want the meat. I want, like essayist Allie Leach, to eat some roadkill bird or one your dying cat brings back to you as tribute because she’s observed that you suck at being a carnivore. Now that is a good thing to do with a bird in an essay. It's also a good thing to do with a cat.

It’s best, too, because it’s not going to bring more people to eat roadkill birds. Actually if it would, that would be an fine outcome of a nature essay.


One of the many problems with nature essays is that they’re appealing. They draw people to the things that they describe. Those things get worse from the attention: commodified, despoiled, and pointlessly mythologized, and visited, visited, visited. Then the occasional asshole who resists this knee-jerk reverence lashes out, and so these people—the fans and the anti-fans—run down what remains of nature and wreck it further for the next to come. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad.

For instance, someone spray painted a bunch of saguaro cacti in Tucson. A half mile from my house no less. Someone cut a couple others in half. They can take a century to grow. Thank you Dillard fans. Thank you Dillard.

Joy Williams knows it well in her seminal guidebook, The Florida Keys, now in I think its seventeenth printing: it’s a guide that is ambivalent about its riches. It does not entirely want you to come to see what it describes, since tourism, the economic lifeblood of the keys, inevitably leads to the dulling of the weirdness of the Keys and the ecological downfall of the Keys, and this will lead to the cessation of tourism, which is the only thing presently that keeps it alive. Joy knows that writing about a thing kills it a bit. So as to heed her point (I have been listening, Joy), I’ve never been there. Reading about the place and all the people like me reading about the place and thinking about coming to the place was plenty meta. It’s hard out there for a hipster.

Google “Annie Dillard sucks.” I’ll save you the trouble. Aside from this essay, three other hits pop up: one’s some fake essay-writing service; one’s Matt Gardner, who uses it as a kind of Wesley Willisesque (Rock over London, Rock on Chicago) signoff: “Till next time, remember, Annie Dillard sucks!” That seems about right. The third is the abstract for someone's MA thesis, which sounds like the kind of thing I want to read. In fact I may try to ILL it right now. What’s up, Karen Jackson, of Acadia University, in Spring 2010? You seem to be speaking my language. The world could use a little more scholarship like you propose. Let’s chop down some pretty trees.

Listen: I blame Dillard for each defaced cactus and the diaspora of crappy kokopelli tattoos that adorn the mailboxes and walls of Arizonans who listen to The Captain & Tennille (now recently divorced, the long lie of their lifelong love finally ruptured) on their bright green lawns. I blame Dillard for the sea turtles that keep cropping up in shitty essays about the glory of the Galapagos. Sea turtles would seem to have one mode in literary writing: majestic, bordering on metaphorical. I would like to piss on one and see what happens.

Maybe it's the adolescent in me, but I'm drawn to defacements largely because they so effectively violate the social contract of what we like to think of as civilization: here’s my shit. Keep out. I keep it safe in my yard, and in my house. The understanding is that you don’t come and touch it. Some of the shit is designated as our shit, such as public lands, and the understanding is that we revere these spaces, perhaps as a kind of apology for the rest of the space that we feel free to buy up and redevelop and poison and burn and trash and abandon. But the defacer—the spray-painter, the graffiti artist, even to some extent the chump-ass burglar who riffles through my car some nights and takes the little bit of change, leaving (this is how these days have changed) my collection of CDs—the defacer traffics in shock. It is a blunt instrument and a powerful one.

It has its uses. It’s easy to settle into what we accept as a common understanding of what it is we do when we live together. “The greater the mass of things, / The greater the insecurity,” Kenneth Rexroth tells us. I like that quote not just for what it says about domesticity and America but what it says about authorship: the bigger the author gets (I don’t just mean the writer but the author, the thing that’s part woman, part expectation, part marketing, and part myth), the more it must tend toward stability. I mean to say I guess it’s not just her fault. It’s fucking ours. We're so needy. By our love we sand the edges off of everything; it all starts to suck and die a little, doesn't it?  

The defacer—the vandal—spits at all of that stability with a single gesture. The kid who took a knife to my childhood friends’ aboveground pool. The teenager who painted a big red X on a neighborhood garage door and buried an axe in it. The girl who egged your house or slashed your tires or took your bike and dumped it in the lake. She’s invasive, powerfully so, unanswerable. She says who the hell do you think you are? She asks are you just what you’ve amassed? She says are you the bumper stickers on your car? Your kickass RV? Your bird-infested lemon tree? Your carefully-curated lawn gnome collection? She says fuck that. It doesn't mean what you think it means. 

Yes I’m unbalanced. I think I know what it means when some asshole breaks into my car in the carport and steals the little drawer full of collected change, maybe ten bucks worth: not much money, I wail, but it's the violation. In my better moments I'd like to be able to savor that unbalancing: it makes me feel alive. I think I want to be the weasel: to latch on and not to give way. But usually I’m not able to. Who is? Instead I’m just pissed off because I know I’m vulnerable, as I always was. Another desire to buy a gun arises. Why is this the state I want to abate, this fear, this awareness of my penetratability by the world? Is it that my fiefdom feels so safe or has become so big and knowable that a small intrusion is enough to click me into outrage mode? That I know it's all just a car crash or an embolism away from disappearing? Or is it just protective that I’m feeling, my wife and kid and dying cat inside? Is that realism or is it desperation?

Dying, all of them. The vandal and the petty thief, the eagle, the weasel, the cut-in-half cactus, each and every tree and bird and memory. All of them are dying. All of us are dying. We slump slowly toward our further slumping then our stretching out and eventually our leaving who we were before.

Annie Dillard is dying too. Isn’t it important to be honest about it?


The Malcontent is a cranky, pseudonymous column of Essay Daily, a black hat donned by writers of many stripes. 


  1. Look at me, using my real name, saying surely there's a better use of time than writing an essay like this.

  2. Agree w/Sam. What a goofy waste of time & space.

  3. I had two Annie Dillard books on my shelf, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and American Childhood. I managed to get about a third through American Childhood, but I can't barely remember a single thing. The book had zero suspense or interest for me. She was talking about her Pittsburgh childhood. I shouldn't say zero interest, but not much.

    I think this article, which maybe seems in bad taste, is just doing what it says in the beginning, encouraging us to critique those we may imagine "everyone likes" because everyone doesn't, and there are reasons for that. As the article says, success can make someone end up repeating their schtick over and over because it works for their career. I don't know anything about Annie Dillard besides the experience of being overcome with boredom when opening any page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but maybe she's not for everybody.

    And I love trees, birds, and walks. And I do boring things myself. Turns out, when I'm reading, I don't want boring.

    I was liberated from all the occasional bout of guilt at not having read her books when I finally gave them to the thrift store a week ago. Finally.

    1. I agree with anonymous and disagree with sam and chila. kudos to the writer of the essay for taking a stab at the "exercise" of the malcontent assignment and drawing some interesting blood from annie dillard. i like SOME of dillard, some of her stuff is among the most moving literature ive ever read, when she talks about existential angst, humanity lost in the cosmos, that sort of thing. but i KNEW there was something about her i found annoying, and it was indeed the bird-brain she has, the tediousness of her natural world obsessions and digressions. she doesn't tell any STORIES when she does it, so it falls flat. in nay case, i cant blame the malcontent writer here for taking up the challenge . it was a bit too long, but witty here and there and engaging with an authenticity.