The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Who deserves the ‘F’

Posted on: January 22, 2007

I’ve come across some interesting pieces on writing recently. Zadie Smith’s two-part piece on “Failing Better” in reading and writing in the Guardian provoked much discussion. Many seemed to think that her first piece was little more than a bad effort at huckstering the high value of her novels as she lay the charge of intellectual laziness at her detractors. I don’t see any evidence of this in the article. Basically her reading philosophy is one of active participation and an (questionable) equal partnership with the writer in realising the potential of the novel. No where do I spy her giving authors an easy way out of the “two-way” street analogy by placing all of a novel’s failure on readers. (They aren’t even mentioned until near the end.) I can only surmise that the (apparent) media fixation with Zadie Smith in England has hopelessly tainted any reception of her literary comment.

I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that readers can fail novels. A day or so ago I read a blogger’s post on Lolita in which she nonsensically advised that it must be read for pure emotion because her previous attempts at an analytical approach had failed. (Why this artificial separation of emotion and intellect? Why was she trying to ‘dissect’ the novel in the first place, why didn’t she just read the damn thing?) Then she contradicted herself by engaging in some clumsy reasoning of Lolita’s moral culpability in her abusive relationship with Humbert because at 15 she (the blogger) used to tease truck drivers. (That is what happens when you read for “pure emotional value”.)

Anyone who takes a utilitarian approach to fiction has already failed the novel, as far as I’m concerned. Smith pinned this when describing those readers who “want a novel to be the “last word” on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us “how it is”.” Orpheus, in a comment on his blog, mentioned that many people don’t consider Pamuk to be “representative” of Turkey or Turkish literature. I think that’s excellent. It’s not his duty to represent anything but himself and his ideas. It would be impossible for any writer’s country to not influence his art to varying extents and, that being the case, is enough for me. This is what I was trying to express in Brother Man I because it seems as if any kind of West Indian literature is immediately placed into the post-colonial box and every word is filtered through it; the work’s quality is judged through how well it expresses and supports Caribbean (black) ideals. So, you know, Derek Walcott isn’t all that because he writes in English too much (the White Man’s language!) and borrows their Greek epic forms–what does have to do with us? (Those limiting, oppressive boxes.) The danger of this, of course, is that once the artist is deemed politically “irrelevant” he is tossed to the side which is, apparently what happened to Roger Mais.

Readers can fail literature. We’re human, imperfect, the conclusion seems obvious.

So I don’t find much fault with most of Smith’s reasoning but there were things here and there that niggled. The implication that universities are responsible for the “system readers”, as she describes them, seems misplaced. Yes, literature is covered in theory at that stage, but do professors actually teach people to approach general reading by first thinking of which category it falls under? If the student is nothing but a sponge with no urge to actively do some close reading on his own, to formulate his own ideas, based on his readings is that largely the professor’s fault? It seems as if more and more of the burden for teaching basic critical thinking skills and close reading, all that high school stuff, is being pushed into the tertiary sphere. The general passivity of the public at large to engage critically with…well anything from the news, to credit card applications, to Kite Runner is part of a long-time trend, one not special to or rooted in theory robots trumping down the halls of academe.

I also thought that her tone in the second piece, “Read Better”, was more didactic and therefore vaguely off-putting. No longer was she an author stimulating a discussion but a moral teacher come to tell the flock what they must do to improve themselves and the literary fraternity. Eh. She tried to do a switch near the end by making it all “personal” and “just me” but it didn’t work. For all that it was still worth the read.

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5 Responses to "Who deserves the ‘F’"

Interesting post — I agree with you fully about the danger of placing authors in a box and expecting them to produce only a certain kind of writing about certain subjects. Much too simplistic and limiting.

Yes, it’s one of biggest pet peeves exactly because it’s so limiting to both readers and writers or any creator and consumer of art.

I’m only a dwarf of small brain but it seems to me that identity politics are as limiting and potentially dangerous in fiction as they are in real life. If a novel isn’t universal, what’s the point?

I’ve been hearing about these Zadie Smith articles–I need to read them. I’m curious about what she has to say about readers. I’m not always a critical reader and probably less so when I write about what I have read–maybe I am failing literature…

Gimli dwarves’ brains may be small but they’re hardy and given much use: I agree with you completely.

Danielle I don’t think that not always being a “critical reader” means that one is “failing literature”. IMO, a lot of people seem to think that to be “analytical” you have to be diving for themes, and looking for allegory and blah blah blah. Reading is, by my definition, an engagement with the reading material and each novel demanding different things from the reader.

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