I’m cradling a cup of PG Tips while the snout of a black Lab rests on my knee, and for the first time in a week the knot in my right shoulder is waning. I’ve been mired in book review deadlines and undergraduate composition essays, with a few other assignments pecking at me as well, meaning I’ve been working day and night, taking breaks to walk Olive (the Lab I’m dog sitting) and concoct dubious dinners from my supplies and the remnants in my borrowed kitchen. And when I have followed the magnet’s pull to bed, I’ve pressed on—read a few pages of another book I must review soon, but soon obeyed, as all overworked minds must, the threads of my personal life that need to be considered, until sleep crept into my consciousness.
Today, my biggest deadline behind me, it’s time to emerge. So I’ve been catching up on the world through my usual passageways: the Advertiser, Pacific Business News, the Times, various email newsletters and media links, and a few blogs. I would be impossible to miss the buzz about Zadie Smith’s article “Fail Better” published on 1/13 in the Guardian, offering her analysis about novel writing, criticism and failure.
I was living in England around the time of Smith’s zoom to literary wunderkind status, and as all writers with a novel-in-progress would likely feel, I was both enlivened by and envious of the reality of her success. I read White Teeth and thoroughly enjoyed it, even the oft remarked upon drawn-out end. Contrary to the critics, I thought Autograph Man was even better.
Yet there is something that unnerves me about Smith’s writing, and I feel it even when I read “Fail Better.” It’s a tone of superiority, or a shape of writerly-than-thou-ness, that goes beyond mere confidence and her obvious intelligence. I suppose being lauded in her twenties by Salman Rushdie, and being continually sought after by publishers and reporters, might provide the justification to write in any way she chooses, even as if instructing underlings.
As a novelist and a critic, I am nonetheless intrigued by her premise and her means of inquiry, enough to slough off the haughty stance that sometimes bristles from the page:
“…to suggest that somewhere between a critic’s necessary superficiality and a writer’s natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost. It is very hard to get writers to speak frankly about their own work, particularly in a literary market where they are required to be not only writers, but also hucksters selling product….In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work.”
I’m not sure, however, that I agree that the critic’s evaluation is not aligned with the writer’s own. In a recent review of Christoph Peter’s novel “The Fabric of Night,” I noted the book’s structure and its effect:
“Through circular recollections, accounts and confessions, Peters eventually reconstructs a whole, but one to which it is extremely difficult to hang on.”
Given her article, it seems plausible to apply Smith’ argument to Peters–that he wouldn’t himself question whether this structure would alienate the reader, or simply whether it would be understandable. But it’s difficult to believe that. If he never asked himself what I consider to be the simplest of questions—never worried about the clarity of his ideas even in part—then what questions did he ask?
A book is a conversation, first between writer and story, then between writer and reader. As Smith says “A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal.” And a critic is just another reader, albeit one bent on evaluation as well as enjoyment. What critic doesn’t want what any reader wants—a well-crafted, thoroughly exciting and enjoyable story? I suppose what is at issue to Smith is the active or passive nature of enjoyment. Since I don’t view reading as passive, I of course derive enjoyment from a work that makes me think, demands my questions and a shift in my path, that beckons me into another world and perspective without undue confusion or simplistic device.
In as much as it’s possible for anyone to be completely honest and utterly insightful, in my reviews I do aim for honest assessment, honoring the book’s intentions and offering my insight into context, structure, character, aim, and ultimate effect. If Smith believes that “a reader must have talent” then one shouldn’t be so quick to assume that a critic doesn’t. If so, then we’re failing all around.