On Beauty and Being Just Good Enough

Zadie Smith indicts herself for the failure that characterizes almost all writing:

Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry – we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing – great writing forces you to submit to its vision.

Having just completed her latest novel, On Beauty, I must admit that I feel a little dismissive of any writer who can produce such a story and still call her work second rate. It was fantastic, and I’ve not the words or skill to denigrate it as she does. But of course, self-immolation is not her goal; she merely wants to point to a fleeting feeling of inadequacy when her achievements are compared with Henry James or Jane Austen. Indeed, by admitting her second-rateness, she’s really boasting a sense of perspective, and giving us a promise: she’ll try harder next time. What is she trying so hard to accomplish?

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment – once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in – what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception.

I’ve heard this before, from Martin Heidegger and Harold Bloom and Richard Rorty: the strong poet makes his world anew, forces or channels or invents a world that is strange and different and characteristically his own, but which everyone else must now inhabit, knowing they have been bested. Here’s what she’s not saying: poets share the task of making the world with lesser luminaries, and it’s the height of elitism (though understandable, given her talent) to imply otherwise. I feel a bit like her theory-obsessed, joyless Howard Belsey pointing it out, because I did love her novel (I like the tomato,) but it’s too often ignored by verbose visionaries. Poets (especially prose poets like Virginia Woolf) get most of the credit, because they are the ones who sign their names to the stanzas and stories that depict the work of craftsmen and designers, who are artists without pretension. Poets and story-tellers are truly second-rate to those who make our physical environment and change the way that we see the world: they only narrate the changes in sight and geography and taste engineered by the nameless, ignored artisans of our lived experience.

But Smith isn’t interested in that sort of humility. She’d rather point out the distance between herself and Proust, apparently in order to imply that Marcel is losing his lead. Who am I to judge? I’ll be right there at the finish, cheering her on.

Second Opinions