Zadie Smith in the Caves: yea even still

Posted on November 8, 2011


IN the Paris Review’s very pleasant interview with E.M. Forster, Forster says this peculiar bit:  “I have always found writing pleasant and don’t understand what people mean by ‘throes of creation.’ I’ve enjoyed it, but believe that in some ways it is good. Whether it will last, I have no idea.”

This to me seems a rather unconventional sentiment because how often does one meet a writer that doesn’t complain about but even enjoys writing? Not very often. Zadie Smith is our preeminent example of the complaining writer, only because her complaints, are so lucid, eloquent and enjoyable that one almost forgets she is complaining. Please read her essay Fail Better here.

Zadie Smith refers to the novel-as-seen by its author, as A Map of Disappointments. The writer looks back at the work which she has slaved over and confesses that is not what she meant at all. She says in yet a different essay, That Crafty Feeling, “after each book is done you look forward to hating it(and you never have to wait long).” The writer is haunted and tormented by the Idea of the Perfect Novel. According to her theory, most novels are failed novels. There are of course, she claims, a few great novels that weren’t failures: those are perfect novels, but she does not tell us which ones they are.

That all seems per usual. For we all know, that faced with the glowing laptop letters beneath our fingers, there is the very real possibility that if one hits the right keys, and hits them in the right order, beautiful, trenchant, heart bruising prose will appear; in fact we may even just well write THE TRUTH and perhaps even blunder into an actual example of LITERATURE. It’s only a few key strokes away! Please see Jorge Luis Borges short story The Library of Babel, for a more parabolic description of this same madness.

But that possibility is enough to drive anyone mad. Enough to make anyone hate what they’ve written. That’s Ms. Smith’s problem. She expects too much of herself. Hers is an intellect that’s been robbed of humility by fame. Having published an award winning, brilliant novel so young and to such outrageous praise and adulation, it is as if she lives now in a tomb of expectation, expectations she has, but also that of the cruel fickle world. By these terms she is bound to fail.

An old story goes, that Cervantes wrote a number of bad “LITERARY” pastoral dramas that received little welcome and that he himself despised. Then merely on the pretext of making fun of chivalric fantastical literature, he wrote Don Quixote, which is now roundly considered one of the greatest novels of all time. The point is, Cervantes didn’t mean to write a great novel. He had no expectations whatsoever, because he was on a lark.

Likewise, certain scholars-not-here-cited, make the interesting claim, that Shakespeare’s true career was that of a business man; his sole aim was to promote the business of his theatre. The plays then were incidental. He didn’t really care about WRITING and LITERATURE, he only meant to supply scripts for his business and just happened to be quite good at it.

What exactly is going on here?