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Zadie Smith’s Fail Better

March 1, 2011

After obsessing for days about what makes a reader curious, I came across this 2007 essay by Zadie Smith, “Fail Better.”

It is the perfect counterpoint to the crafty tool-orientated way I’ve been thinking (how to cultivate uncertainty, which information to withhold so that you will want to keep reading my novel) because it is about style, in the largest, deepest sense. Style, in this case, as opposed to craft.

Smith has big opinions. It’s part of her style. She writes, in explaining why craft can only get a writer so far,  “A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones.” There is much to argue with in this statement, if taken literally, but I agree, to some large extent, with the truth behind the comparisons–that writers cannot craft their way to brilliance. The rest of the essay is a kind of unpacking of what, if not craft, accounts for a writer’s style.

Smith begins by explaining on a descriptive level what she means.

“A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner.”

“Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it’s our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities; it is our way of being active…”

A writer’s work is “inflected” with the writer’s character.

Peter Carey, in his Paris Review interview, makes a similar point. When asked whether there is something that ties all his novels together, Carey says, “There was a stage where I might have said, ‘the invention of my country,’ but I think that as time goes on it’s a much looser bundle. Those things are for other people to see, not for me. It’s a little bit like being asked, Why do you walk the way you do? How do you walk? You don’t really know.”

Carey’s notion of gait, how it is particular to each person and unknowable by the person, is, I think, very close in its descriptive meaning to Smith’s use of personality or character. However, Smith’s notion of character takes on an active, choice-focused component, at least that is what it sounds like in her hands. In the last quarter of her essay, Smith introduces the idea of a writer’s duty, and this is where, for me, it really gets interesting, and hard.

Smith posits that “writers fail us when [the writing] is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry…” Focusing more narrowly on language, she writes, “with a cliché you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.”

Followed to its logical extreme, Smith would be advocating that all writers be poets all the time because only in a poem can each word, each phrase, be interrogated to the extent that her statement implies. Again, however, if we take the essence of what she’s saying, it’s hard not to respect and want to embrace it. Every word I put on the page should be the word I have chosen. Every story I tell should be the most meaningful. Smith, in fact, goes on to say that “the very reason [she] write[s] is so that [she] might not sleepwalk through [her] entire life.” She moves with agility from the big picture, to the miniature, and back to the big, with its question of purpose.

What Smith advocates, instead of sleep-walking, is that each writer accurately and rigorously convey her particular world view. That the language a writer chooses “is the revelation of a consciousness,” and because each consciousness is different, all writing is different. Smith finds reason to celebrate the fact that every writer is (or should be) different from every other, every voice, every personality leaving its mark on a unique page.

At the same time, Smith acknowledges that for every writer, this truth is unknowable and therefore impossible. “Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception–given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self–truly takes genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one’s eyes water just thinking about it.” Thus her title, “Fail Better.” All we can do, writes Smith, is fail better.

Barry Lopez, in his lecture at the recent winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, exhorted his audience to always have ethical relationships–with  themselves, with the reader, and with language.  He went at it a bit more prescriptively, enumerating what a writer needs to do to maintain these ethical relationships (“a bow of respect for the material,” “a beautiful structure”) but I doubt Smith would have disagreed with much, if anything, that Lopez suggested.

These perspectives are so exciting. I feel as though I’ve found a beautiful new sweater; I’ve tried it on and paid for it and rushed home to pull off the tags and put it on. Feeling attractive and excited, I wear it out, but gradually, over the course of the day, I become uncomfortable, something, something about the sweater, isn’t right. It’s subtle. But it’s there. Then I realize: what I thought in the store to be super soft wool has just the tiniest scratch to it. My skin is irritated, in a mild but all-over way. And it makes me feel cranky, not beautiful. There is something in what Smith and Lopez are saying that makes me cranky.

A writer’s psychology, our stance not only toward the world, toward people and our words and material, but toward the very complicated confluence that allows us, or forces us, or invites us to write, to make sense of the world through writing: how much of this is a matter of choice? The layers that make up who I am, who I believe I am, who I act like I am, who I want to be, and how this is imprinted again and again on how and what I write, from the impulse, from the schedule or lack thereof, the opening up of my laptop, from typing the words, from the story I choose to tell, the characters I imagine, the words with which I express what I see, the way I feel about it, whether I give it to others to read, how I respond to what they say.

Yes, I can stop and ask myself whether the metaphor I used is a cliché, whether I intend to respect and trust the reader. But it seems to me that there’s something else going on, and it’s not only about intention or responsiveness, not only about taking on the duty of the writer. I want to do it, but can I? What part of who we are, of who I am, is fixed? What part can I bend, mold, influence, work at so that I can do what I want to do, write what I want to write, walk how I want to walk? I’m left with that question.

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