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Is Zadie Smith's "Fail Better" a compelling way to view literature?

marquisedemerteuil's picture

Hey everyone! Marquise de Merteuil here, starting her evil letters. Just have one book keeping question. It's OK for me to post a blog entry as my forum writing for the week, right? My thoughts don't correspond to any existing thread, and I was thinking of creating a forum topic but just instinctively felt that "the blog" would be a more appropriate outlet. So people can comment on blogs, right? Because, as always, I would love to chat.

Since our course, "Evolution of Stories" is about the relationship between science and literature, we apply Prof. Grobstein's idea that science is a process "of getting it progressively less wrong" to Zadie Smith's idea that literature is the same thing, that classics are the best failures we have, since the author can never express "his true self." Or "soul" but somehow she feels in our society that word can't be said... But even in a course like this it is essential to keep in mind that literature is not just a discipline that can be connected to science, but its own rich field, and so I'd like to see if Smith's argument holds up from a literary point of view, or in other words if it describes literature in a compelling way.

In the middle of her essay, Smith discusses cliches. In a majestic show of humility, she accuses herself of often committing the sin of writing "she rummaged through her purse." Smith's view of the cliche is very narrow. I would see that phrase as hackneyed or tired, but I feel that cliches are not simply often-written sentences: they are ideas, and they are offensive. Cliched sentences evoke dull, simple ideas that have not been thought out. Cliches communicate through worn-out syntactical structures, but their sting is ideological. Here are some very good examples:

"Style is a writer's way of telling the truth."

"Writers are in the possession of 'selfhood' and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure."

"It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it simply, you have not told the truth."

"For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world."

"Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare."

"The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park."

Don't these quotations make "she rummaged through her purse" seem fresh and innovative? More importantly, haven't you read these quotations before? That's right, they're all from "Fail better."

Smith has a rather amorphous, undefined concept of "self" (or "soul") that is commonly held and loved by contemporary Americans. The self is some sort of essence that can be magically detected, yet, as the Zagajewski poem asserts, can never be conveyed in full, (as if we can know when half of a self is coming across, or three-quarters) and it automatically gives something "quality." Smith's ideas are vague, so instead of creating a logical argument as to why they apply to fiction, she writes them as cliches. What is the "self" and how would it come through a text when readers do not know the author? I do not think that Smith can assert that TS Eliot's personality comes through his writing in spite of himself. There is no intellectual basis for this. What parts of his writing would count as his "self" and which parts would not? Is his dislike of certain authors unique to him? Other people could feel the same way. Modernist and postmodernist authors propose that one person cannot understand another person's self because it is too removed from his or her own. I could say that one of my friends acts more one way and the other acts differently, but I do not know if their ways are acting, and more importantly, if their ways are "true" to themselves, I do not know what they really says about them. Perhaps our idea of "the self" is a cliche, an concept thrown around and not examined. "I can express myself through cooking" contestants on Top Chef say. But if Sam makes a ceviche, Ilan uses saffron and Marcel does a foam, do we really know about some fundamental essence particular to each of them? Paradoxically, if the self can be expressed, it must be through an outside method, through the making of a dish, the writing of a book. But the ingredients and the words people use have been used before. Barthes acknowledges this problem in "Le Plaisir du texte." Therefore I do not think the exterior expresses the interior; rather, the exterior is a betrayal of the unknowable interior. For this reason I do not believe that clothes, bought at department stores advertising to target markets, or bought at thrift stores advertising to young people who think they are cooler than target markets, can express any kind of personality.

Because of the unknowable quality of the writer, Barthes and Foucault gave authority back to the reader in the 1960s. Foucault expressed that the reader can interpret the text before him without considering other people, and since text can be interpreted differently by different people, once the text is written, out of the writers' hands, he becomes a reader, whose interpretation of his own discourse is no more authoritative than anyone else's. A writer's self cannot be grasped, but words can evoke multiple meanings. Smith is trying to give the text back to the writer; after all, she based on essay on anonymous comments writers gave her about their experiences writing fiction. She begins her essay with the tale of a writer. Her maxims (see above) have an authoritative ring, which is why I called them epigrams, as if to say that the writer's authority on literature cannot be questioned and need not be proven. She seems to be directly contradicting the French men by putting writing back in the hands out of which they pulled it. Smith's ideas reflect the American government: a conservative backlash. Yet Smith only references Barthes and Foucault's ideas by saying that some people, whom she calls "we" oddly enough, "like to think of fiction as the playground of language independent of its originator." This is clearly a superficial summary of a dynamic philosophical shift in literature. I will go so far as to say it is intellectually irresponsible. Smith needs to engage with her enemies, her predecessors; she spends time talking about TS Eliot and even more time pontificating, so why doesn't she explain what Barthes and Foucault really have to say and refute them? Then she decides that while most critics only discuss the practicalities of a novel, like its factual inaccuracies, three in particular are different: Virginia Woolf, Iris Murdoch, and our man Roland Barthes. This is a pretty strange grouping, considering that Barthes was the only one among them to have never written a fictional piece, and I can tell you from having studied his writings that he did NOT believe style to be "precisely an expression of personality, in its widest sense." If you have other ideas on Barthes, I would be curious to know. There are plenty of works I haven't read!

I am not quite sure why Smith is so interested in ethics. To me, an unethical act is one that severely and usually physically harms someone else, and it involves having contact with that person. For example, cheating twice on a nice husband strikes me as unethical, and staring at your infant child, deciding she's ugly, and basically not giving her love strikes me as unethical too. Writing something that does not meet Zadie Smith's standards of "truth" is not unethical. I think ethics has no place it writing -- why else would we write about murders but not commit them? In writing, it is possible to express desires and ideas that must be concealed in life. While we joke to make life bearable, novels can expose the true tragedy of living that we intentionally ignore during the day, and this is why depressing literature (French literature, haha) is my favorite.

I also find it inappropriate to see literature in terms of success or failure. I would agree with Prof. Grobstein that in science one can get it less right, but I would say that one of the beauties of literature is that there is no right. I just see varying opinions of books, and many people latch on to the classics. I like some of the classics, but not all of them. I don't understand why people love this Jane Austen woman. To me she's one of those ugly undying fads like leopard print. Smith, in my view, gives us some insight into the contemporary American psyche: we want to quantify everything. If we can't have success, we need to have better failures. She writes, "A novel is a two-way street [I think that's a cliche again] in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal." Well, how do you really know? Is it necessary to decide who is "labouring" more? As Dorothy Parker writes about the main character in Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth, "I cannot trust a character who expresses himself in terms of epigrams." (That quote is not quite verbatim.) And Parker makes a comment in this same review that is even more apt when applied to Smith's essay (again, not quite verbatim): "If Sinclair Lewis were reading Dodsworth to a friend and said, 'stop me if you've heard this' 200 pages need not have been written."


Since I argued from such a literary point of view, I'd just like to take this moment to say that, as you can probably tell, it is not natural to me to think about literature in relation to science, as I know so little about what science is. My view here is that Grobstein and Smith make a similar comment and this way of thinking applies to science but not to literature. However, I do not feel I can say that makes the two disciplines different. Back to Top Chef for some strange reason, I was on a message board and people were arguing about whether cooking is an art or a science. "Why does it need to be labeled as anything?"was my instinctive reply. So I am excited that I will learn to expand my horizons in this class. In creating parallels between science and literature, though, the idea needs to work for both; I think it is easy to take an idea that fits one and apply it to the other without examining how well it suits the other discipline. If I find a way of thinking I believe fits both fields, I'll let you know!


Serendip Visitor's picture

I agree with a lot of what

I agree with a lot of what you say. I never thought of literary works as failures at. all. and still see no reason to use labels such as success or failure -- why not just concentrate on what is there in the writing? When I first read Smith's essay, it occurred to me that she wrote it as a way to defend her own weeknesses as a novelist. But I could be wrong about that. Other writers of her generation are similarly self-deprecating and self-conscious, and I'm not sure what the point is. Either people respond to the literature or not, despite the labels one uses to judge them.

marquisedemerteuil's picture


thanks jen! yay, comment! i wouldn't go so far as to say "zadie smith has launched a provocative and dynamic exploration of..." etc. she didn't launch it -- this very debate has been around for centuries and i think foucault and barthes, among others, have tackled it in much more interesting and thorough ways than smith does in what i consider to be a pithy, conventional and mediocre essay. jen, you're so sweet you're giving smith too much credit. but then again, i'm a total jerk. i especially like the "failure as cultural jargon" point -- i think that's right on.


la marquise de merteuil

Jen's picture

Zadie Smith's "Fail Better"

Marquise de Merteuil's post really made me think about Zadie Smith's article, "Fail Better." I think that it has a lot of good points, to which I could really relate, but that it also has a few moments where Smith's argument is unconvincing.

I really like Zadie Smith’s point there is always a gap between what the writer intends to say and what the writer actually says. The vision of the work can be so much more satisfying, so much more complete, when it is still up in one’s head, and resides in the realm of abstract thoughts. Once a writer has to face the challenge of putting those thoughts, ideas, and feelings into words, often the result can be not so satisfying. As a writer, I have often found this to be the case. I’ll have what I think is a great idea for a poem, complete with intense feeling and what I think are great poetic thoughts, but once I see the final result in writing, I am sorely disappointed at my lack of eloquence and verbal prowess.

I also could really relate to Smith’s sentiments that when a writer writes honestly and truthfully, that writer is to some extent vulnerable, or exposed, because that person has taken such care to commit his/her innermost thoughts to paper. Once a writer's thoughts are on paper, he or she has surrendured those thoughts to the viewing and critique of the public, and has left him/herself no opportunity to engage in active discussion with the critics.

Also, Zadie Smith's claim that all writing, whether we consider it to be or not, is biographical, and that a writer's style is indicative of that writer's personality, is most interesting. On the one hand, I kind of agree with this, and on the other I definitely don't. To some extent, I think it is true that we can tell a lot about a writer's inner self by what he or she writes. After all, language developed in the first place as a way for people to communicate what they were thinking and feeling. Therefore, what we write has to reveal something about us. Also, I believe that a convincing piece of writing must have some grounding in a writer's actual experiences. Good description is essential to meaningful writing, and in order for a writer to describe something (whether that be a character, a setting, an object, a sound, etc.), he must have an image of that thing in his head. And, in order for someone to have an image of something, it must have entered his consciousness somehow, and I believe that the only way for things to enter our consciousness is for us to experience them. Even a fantasy writer, who creates a world that is "unrealistic" and at first glance, unrelated to the "real world," must draw upon his/her experiences to create a "launching off" point. Thus, I believe that because it is our own unique set of experiences that makes us who we are, and because writers must always draw upon their experiences they have had, that there must be some trace of a writer's personality/way of thinking/biography somewhere in his or her writing.

That having been said, Marquise de Mertieul provides a compelling balance to this debate, by arguing that a writer does not necessarily leave traces of himself in his writing. I like the way she supports her claim by taking a closer look at this idea of "self," and what exactly we mean when we say it. She makes a valid point that the "self" is something that is too abstract to fit neatly into the confines of words, clothing, food preferences (haha!) etc. She reminds us that while we always search to express ourselves through these mediums, there is no such thing as conveying our "self" to the world, because the "self" is something that is too abstract and undefinable; it cannot be "captured" or "depicted" in a paragraph, or in an outfit, etc. (Also, Marquise mentions that words have multiple meanings, which makes self-"expression" more difficult still).

Going back to Smith's claims, I believe Marquise's point that the self cannot be accurately represented by words sheds additional insight into Zadie Smith's frustration that it seems almost impossible for one to write completely honestly and truthfully, and to be understood by an audience. Why? Thoughts and feelings are infinite, and are changing, evolving, flowing, every single second. Words, on the other hand, are fixed; constant--and there are only so many words in a person's active vocabulary. This means that every time we try to articulate something, we are trying to find the best possible "fit" between our thoughts and a word. Yet, as we all know from trying on clothes in the store, while we may find clothes that "fit" us, they will never conform exactly to our body shape, because everyone is unique. (Haha, wow, that's corny!) Likewise, we will never find words that are "perfect fits" for our thoughts. As a result, there will always be a tension between the "shape" of the unarticulated ideas, thoughts, emotions, in someone's head/soul, and the "shape" that they take when put into words. This frustration is compounded by the fact that we live in a society that likes to stereotype and generalize, which further narrows a writer's selection of words for "successful" (whatever that word means) self-expression. In other words, a piece of writing that is too far off the "beaten path" will often be one that many people will not want to take the time to understand, let alone relate to.

Another point Marquise makes that I agree with is that ethics has no place in writing. I don't think that good writing is about telling the truth, or about promoting good morals. I think it is instead about creating a work that pushes humanity to open its eyes; to think; to really engage with the world in a new way. I think that a novel that promoted "bad morals" would actually make people sit up and think much moreso than a book that promoted good morals, because it would be so unusual. People would not just be able to passively read something like that and then carry on with their day.

With her claim that all the great canonical works of literature are really literary failures, I feel that Smith sells herself short as a writer. I think she is capable of making a more compelling claim about literature. Even though I think I used the words success and failure in my response, I find that to evaluate literature (or anything else for that matter) as a success or as a failure is superficial and unproductive. (I think I find myself caught in a trap of not being able to find better words to express my true thoughts). Failure especially is a word that bothers me. What is the point of saying "we've failed," or "you fail?" Is it meant as a reprimand? As an excuse to give up? As a warning, or as an insult? Whatever context in which this word is used, I feel that it triggers an unnecessary and unproductive sense of closed-mindedness and finality, which goes against my philosophy of life. As long as there is life, there is always another chance. And if there is always another chance, then why would we ever give up, or accept a negative situation as and end? I feel that "failure" is more a cultural jargon word than a word that should be used to discuss the nuanced and ever-evolving art form of literature.

Thus, to focus on literature again, what exactly is Zadie Smith trying to say when she says that all the canonical literary works are failures? They are all works that have clearly invited us not to give up; after all these years, we still read them, and we still ponder the ideas they present. I really am having a hard time putting my finger on what Smith means by "literary failures," and wonder if Smith would also have a hard time putting her finger on what this means, were she to consider the word "failure" outside of its cultural context. It seems to me that there must be some far better way of discussing literature than this.

In conclusion, I think Zadie Smith has launched a provocative and dynamic exploration of some fascinating philosophical, cultural, and linguistic issues. While I do not agree with everything she says in her article "fail better," I also appreciate the ways in which she challenges me to thoroughly consider and articulate why exactly it is I disagree with her. I am also grateful to Marquise de Mertieul for providing a critique of Smith's article in which she has thoroughly "read against the grain," and as a result has deepened and complicated each of Smith's main points in a most productive and engaging way.