I spent part of my Sunday afternoon reading Zadie Smith's Guardian article, Fail Better, which was mentioned other places a few times last week. According to Smith's website, she was working on a nonfiction book on writing called Fail Better that was supposed to have been published last year, though I can't find any evidence of that actually happening.
I hate to sound shallow, but the article is long and densely packed with thought- provoking material. She referred to Kierkegaard, which is always the equivalent of a "Warning: Deep Water" sign for me. I feel as if I should receive college credit for having read this thing.
Which is not to say it was bad.
Smith's article was published in two parts, the first dealing primarily with writing failure and the second with reading failure. Writing failure occurs because books rarely come out the way authors intend because authors, themselves, intrude. Smith describes writing as a "craft that defies craftsmanship." "...craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great." "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 a rogue element somewhere--for convenience's sake we'll call it the self..."
I don't agree that skilled writers rarely write good books. But I certainly understand and agree with what she means by a rogue element. You can have all kinds of literary skills, you can have a marvelous idea, you can have a plan...but there's that rogue element that makes it so very difficult to bring everything together and make the finished product the gem you envisioned.
I also wonder if cabinetmakers wouldn't say the same thing.
Then it came time to talk about reading failure. A paragraph on whether or not writers have duties ends with "In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable--anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers." And in a section on reading Smith says, "This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller--it's annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognize as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key."
Everything she says is true, of course. I also agree that "if you read with [the] wideness and flexibility..., with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible, you will find fiction opening up before you."
Nonetheless, I felt there was a judgmental tone to Smith's piece, especially regarding readers. This is the kind of thing that makes readers of, say, genre fiction feel looked down upon. Yes, it is too bad that some people limit themselves only to certain kinds of reading, including literature with a big L, for that matter. They are missing out on a lot of experience.
But we're all free to enjoy reading any way we want. Reading really is a democratic activity. Power to the people and all that.
Check out Monica's post on this article at Educating Alice. She had a much more positive take on it.