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First EvoLit Paper, Specifying the Self in Smith and Mayr

marquisedemerteuil's picture

Specifying the Self: Zadie Smith’s Concept in Ernst Mayr’s Writing

Gaby Kogut

Biology/English 223: Evolution/Stories/Diversity


In her essay, “Fail Better,” Zadie Smith describes what she sees as the qualities of and purposes for the novel. She theorizes the novel as an author’s attempt to describe his unique “self” and believes that since the author can never fully do that, the masterworks in the literary cannon are excellent failures, instead of successful novels. I would like to apply her ideas to Ernst Mayr’s novel on science, What Evolution Is, and examine how well her ideas hold up. I have two arguments against her conception of self, one that applies to how the self comes through a novel’s content and the other relates to the self in a novel’s style. My reading of Mayr’s content and style prove my arguments against Smith.

I am applying the ideas of a fiction writer to the writing of a scientist, and Smith distinguishes between science and literature in her essay. For her, science is “objective” and literature is, if it is good, an expression of the author’s subjectivity or personality, since “writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate” (3). When Smith writes, “objective science,” (3) it is impossible to know exactly to what she is referring. Is she considering laboratory experiments and reports, or does she include books on science for non-scientists? Mayr’s book falls in the latter category. I feel that Mayr has written a novel in which the main character is Darwinian evolution. He describes the character’s traits when he summarizes sections of On the Origin of Species, references the character’s history when he discusses Darwin’s influences and the theories that preceded his, and he chronicles the character’s development as he charts the new support for Darwinian evolution that genetics brings and examines evolution’s affect on science today. Therefore, I believe that Smith’s ideas apply to Mayr’s novel as well as they apply to any fictional one that does not claim to possess scientific “facts” or theories.

That the self is the crux of any novel, and is the sole reason a novel has quality or does not, is Smith’s main argument in “Fail Better.” She does not explain precisely what this “self” is because she sees the self as a complex essence that cannot fully be captured by any writer or reader. In response to T.S.Eliot’s claim that writing should not reveal any personal information about the author’s self, she contradicts Eliot by providing a different definition from his own. For him, Smith posits, the self “amounts to simply the autobiographical facts of one’s life,” but she refers to this view as a “narrow vision” (3). She provides the definition that self, or personality, is “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” (3). Smith does not give a strict definition of the self because she feels that this essence of being, or “being active,” transcends the rigid concept of a definition (4).

I have two separate, practically opposite arguments that counter Smith’s definition, one in reference to the content of a novel, the other about a novel’s style. Her way of viewing the self is so vague that it sounds to me as if any book’s content will fit into it; what book does not show “our way of being active”? Yet Smith also argues that that better literature conveys more of the author’s self than inferior writing, postulating that “the development…of self has some part to play in literary success or failure” (3). If the self is simply our way of being, how can any author not present a self, and how can a book be judged as presenting a more honest self than another book does? By this logic, all literature conveys a self equally well, in which case a superior author’s unique self means nothing.

From the point of view of style, Smith would argue that language can either hide or illuminate the author’s selfhood. This argument is problematic, too, because of the way language works. When anyone writes, he or she uses established patterns of language to convey a point. This language was composed before their birth, is used by many other people, and in a sense they borrow it. Why would an Anglophone expression like “she rummaged through her purse” (4) be less honest than any other expression in the English language? By this logic, no literary work can possibly convey a self.

Now that my arguments against Smith’s ideas are clear, I would like to turn to Mayr’s writing. His novel seems to corroborate Smith’s argument because an idea of who Mayr is as a scientist comes through in his prose. He presents a philosophy on science when we writes: “We still treasure these [creation stories] as part of our cultural heritage, but we turn to science when we want to learn the real truth about the history of the world” (5). Mayr believes that an empirical truth exists and sees science as the only pathway to that “real truth.” In this vein, he writes toward the end of the book: “Evolution is thus a plain fact, not a conjecture or assumption” (284). One can infer that he is a scientist because he feels it is noble and even essential to discover the truth about the world. The beginning of his quotation, while clearly intending to respect creation stories, is actually demeaning to them because he places them below the truth of science. He seems to only speak of them positively, referring to them “as part of our cultural heritage,” so as not to offend people who believes in them, but his writing subtly implies that he sees them as primitive.

So is Zadie Smith right then? No, because the traits I can find in Mayr are not unique to him. I am sure that many other scientists have seen science as “truth” and have felt that creation stories are inferior to “facts.” Also, my ideas that Mayr is being condescending toward creation stories and is mentioning them in a positive light to please his readers are my interpretations of his words, not a reflection of his unique self. I have extrapolated meanings I felt were in his words; I have not gained insight into this man. Furthermore, Mayr writes in a dry style explaining what he believes to be fact. Any sentence in the book proves my point, but none better than the straight-forward, uncharismatic title, “What Evolution Is.” This is a style many scientists can adopt when they wish to write for non-scientists, a style of verbal eloquence and clarity with no animation. Therefore, Mayr’s unique “self,” according to Smith’s vague definition, does not come through “What Evolution Is,” neither through content nor through style.

My conclusions from reading Mayr echo both of the arguments I propose against Smith. First, I argue that her definition of the self is so vague that any author’s prose fits it, which means that the best authors do not produce the most compelling, truthful depictions of their selves. “What Evolution Is” does give me some idea of who Ernst Mayr is, but not enough of an idea for me to understand his unique self, his “way of being active.” Second, I propose that all authors use stylistic conventions of language, and therefore language obscures the self rather than clarifying it. Mayr writes in a particular style characteristic of scientific prose that is comprehensible for non-scientists. Mayr is borrowing language, not depicting a self. Since I consider Mayr’s book to be, in a sense, a novel like a fictional one, and Smith discusses fiction in her essays, Mayr is one of many authors who can be used to demonstrate the philosophical problems inherent in Smith’s theories about how literature conveys a self.


Note: I use the terms “theory” and “to prove” in my essay in a strictly humanist sense, “theory” to mean, “a body of ideas about a subject” (Smith’s theory on the self in literature) and “to prove” meaning “to cement my ideas further” (my analysis of Mayr proves my argument against Smith.)

Note 2: For my Smith citation, I used the numbers that are on the handout that was provided in class.


Works Cited

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001.

Smith, Zadie. “Fail Better.” The Guardian 13 January 2007: 1-6.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Failing better?

I'm intrigued, to put it mildly, and like very much the idea of using Mayr's book as a test case of Zadie Smith's "qualities and purposes for the novel". Accepting, for the moment, the arguments you make for doing so, I am interested as well in your two part critique of Smith, having to do on the one hand with "content" and the other with "style". You do indeed, it seems to me, establish that both the "content" and the "style" of Mayr's book reflect the author's "selfhood" (ie one can read from them features of the author as a distinctive individual). What is then at issue is whether what they reveal is a "unique" self (as opposed to characteristics that can also be found in other people), and whether language is actually capable of conveying a distinctive self given that it depends on "stylistic conventions" and therefore "obscures the self rather than clarifying it".

My guess is that Smith's response would, like your paper, relate most immediately to Mayr's book and, more broadly, to the "philosophical problems" you see as "inherent in Smith's theories about how literature conveys a self". As to the former, I suspect Smith would contend that Mayr's book does not in fact qualify as one of the "masterworks in the literary canon", ie that it is a "failure" indeed but not an "excellent failure" and so doesn't provide a particularly apt test case for her primary point: that even the best writing "fails". Her arguments on this score might well parallel one of yours: that Mayr is more stylized and hence less revealing than the authors of may more excellent failures. This might be an apt critique of much of the writing of scientists, who in both content and style seek to describe the generic rather than the specific?

On the more general level, my guess is that Smith would be happy to agree that no one is "unique" in the sense of consisting of characteristics none of which are held in common with any other person, that the distinctiveness normally exists largely in the mix of characteristics, any one of which might be found in someone else. The better failures reveal more of the characteristics, and hence of the distinctive blend. Here too the inclination of the "scientist" to focus more on the generic rather than the specific/personal may predispose them to less magnificent failures. I suspect Smith would also agree with you that language is necessarily an impediment to the exposure of the "unique" self (that being in fact a major part of her argument that even the best writing "fails"), but that doesn't in fact say that it can't be used in ways that are less or more revealing of the unique self. In short, even if the "unique" self has overlaps with others and cannot be fully revealed by language, the notion of writing always failing but being capable of "failing better" is still a viable suggestion.

I think I'm on Smith's side (at least insofar as I've been able to channel her) on this one. It will though be interesting to see how this line of thinking plays out with other books we're reading in this course, in what ways it helps or not to provide a common foundation for thinking of science and literature for example. Are we serious in blurring the border between Mayr like things and novels?