Fail. Fail again.

January 16, 2007

And while you are at it, read “Fail Better,” a recent column on what it means to be a writer and a reader by Zadie Smith in the Guardian. As most of my regular readers know, I have always admired Ms. Smith from a far and safe distance, having never read even White Teeth. Why? No good reason other than I’ve always thought I would be scared by her awesomeness and never able to write again. That and sometimes multicultural melange novel make me overly aware of my low and lowering schtick threshold. I have at times been too easily offput but the  sustained gyrating verbal energy that emanates from the daring writers who cross social and linguistic boundaries in a single sentence. It starts to rattle me like my un-Ritalin’d middle schoolers. Plus, Ms. Smith is so obviously brilliant in ways that I will never be that I fear massive depression. But I’m sure she didn’t intend that for anyone, and I’m sure that White Teeth is not schticky and I’m sure it is my loss that I have not read it yet, but these are all digressions from the point that I really enjoyed this piece and it made want to go home and fail for even more hours a day than I already do (actually not that many, but I’m working on it). She seems awfully down to earth for a brilliant person. It was a good thing for me to read, since I’ve been beating myself over the head with Eliot and escaping from personality in my writing of late, and I especially like these thoughts:

A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.

Reading this piece also brought back memories of my first reading assignment in English 2, the universal sophomore English class at my high school. It was the essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” by Vladimir Nabokov, which I remember reading once on my own and then again, aloud with two of my classmates, O and E. It was definitely a prospectus photo moment. O sat at the end of her bed with her back against the wall, me at the other end, and E sat on a big pillow on the floor. We all looked at each other excitedly every time Mr. N pulled a rapturous and meticulously crafted sentence out of his pen. We highlighted and paused from reading to discuss what we had read. E, despite being Polish, would often quote passages from Lolita and O would express her deep-seated desire to be a white-armed nymphet. I couldn’t say much at these times, I had not yet read Lolita. (I should have taken this as a hint–O has abandoned the classical piano training she received during high school, gotten some surgery, and is now a law student by day and Playboy model all the rest of the time. Seriously. She really is and if you are really curious I’ll send you the link to prove it.)

Anyway, both of these pieces make great reads about what it means to a writer and a reader from the perspective of a great writer.

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4 Responses to “Fail. Fail again.”

  1. LCB Says:

    Ah, Zadie. Proving yet again why she’s my fake girlfriend. (Yes, I have several.) Now she just needs to leave that Nick guy and remember that beautiful moment we had at Brookline Booksmith, when she signed my books and I watched in awed and terrified silence. She probably thought I was mute or suffering from some unfortunate social anxiety disease.

    As for White Teeth, it might be slightly schticky in places. I remember it being more zany. (A possibly moot distinction.)I’m a little wary of re-reading it, for fear it might be exposed as less than I remember it.

  2. AH Says:

    How do you manage to do all you do AND find neat, thought-provoking articles like this? Thanks for sharing!

  3. Liz Says:

    AH, my only secret is my RSS aggregator. Just activate your Google Reader and start clicking on RSS icons on blogs or on the address bar. That particular article came from the Guardian Books feed, and if you start subscribing to it you will start scooping me on hot stories like the one today about Ian McEwan’s brother was given away at birth. Yowza!

  4. letterfromyorkshire Says:

    Thoughtful, thought-provoking. I wish I could be bothered to finish Zadie Smith’s work. I don’t think I get it.Sprawling, unplotted and I don’t think I’m alone. That spine of White Teeth is very distinctive so it’s easy to tell how many have my friends bought it and didn’t read it.

    Anyway, thanks for the posts from another writer (British, older than you, book coming out on October 1)


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