Saturday, January 20, 2007

my fair zadie

I wanted to dislike Zadie Smith’s piece in the Guardian, “Fail Better.” She begins with a device I loathe—a parable of a hypothetical character--then endows him with qualities of her literary peers, a tactic that forewarns a lack of self-reflexive criticism. She takes a pot shot at lit theory—“those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built”—suggesting that theorists perceive such works as “houses of words” (echoing, perhaps unwittingly, Jameson’s critique of the “prison house of language”). The subtitle alludes to things like “duty” and the “self,” which promised to irritate my aversions to humanist backlash.

But the piece is really…good.

The moralizing tale that opens the story is an account of an over-intellectualized wannabe writer (“Clive”) who, in pursuit of his first novel, betrays his "self," or his ideas and intentions. Writing fiction, it turns out, is, well, hard: The conveyance of one’s mental notions (ideas) and experiences (material perceptions) necessitates a technical skill that Clive doesn’t have. Fumbling for a solution, he patches the suture between the grandiose concepts of his “platonic novel” and his literal abilities with theoretical pretenses—things like heavy handed symbolism. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds, Clive is “satisfied and vindicated,” and Smith implicates all players in the economy of artistic production—writer, publisher, and reader—as participants in the hypocrisy of literary success.

A bit tangentially, she then proffers her own definition of authentically good fiction: “the refinement of a consciousness.” This concept emerges from a critique of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that bastion of New Criticism that called for the segregation of personality/intention and literary value, locating the latter in one’s expression of literary ancestry.

Smith, while acknowledging the influence of culture and history upon the text, argues that the writer, too, inflicts his or her influence upon the “tradition.” For her, the tradition and the individual talent are dialectical; “the self,” she writes, “is like platinum—it leaves traces all over the place.”

In Zadie's eyes, “literary failure” isn’t produced by inauthenticity in the representational sense, or even in the ascription of genre—in lieu of contemporary culture’s obsession with the bounds between biography and fiction and non-fiction, this poses a fascinating challenge to the significance of such labels—but rather in writing that betrays the self. The “duty” she alludes to isn’t the need to entertain, to mimeograph reality, or to present complex or political ideas, but to “express accurately (the writer’s) way of being in the world.” Thus, the 8th grader who writes a shitty, emo poem about his feelings and posts it on myspace fails better than, say, the Houellebecqs of the world.

Which is not to say that literary valuations exist on a “free to be you and me” spectrum of textual relativism: Smith argues that the determination of this authenticity—the ability of the writer to earnestly convey his perceptions and thoughts, others’ existences, his own subjective truth—necessitates a reader attuned to ideational theatrics and true verbal brilliance. Herein, I believe, exists the transformative power of great literature: The earnest conveyance of a singular existence can fire up the sympathetic imagination, transmitting ideas and beliefs more successfully than any other form of representation. Now that's communication.


i know i'm whatever said...

Two comments:
1) I agree with your statement about the "sympathetic imagination" of the reader, although at the same time its best example would have to be in Proust (who hasn't dated some latter-day incarnation of some Proust character?), who ironically is at every effort to foreclose second-party interpretation (not only by elaboration and thus crowding-out of the reader, but you realize your inevitable readerly mistakes hundreds of pages on).

2)I find "War and Peace" actually succeeds in foreclosing the reader's sympathetic imagination, hence the 70 page essay on history which comprises the book's "epilogue."

The Chaunce said...

One comment:

1) In spite of how attractive Zadie Smith is, I can't finish On Beauty beacuse I really don't like it and her style really bothers me at times.

The Chaunce said...
This comment has been removed by the author.