Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Beyond ambition: on literary success

There it is again: 'On Beauty is arguably [Zadie Smith's] most ambitious novel.'

The Telegraph says it's ambitious because it features "two middle-class, mixed-race and black families, one based in an American east coast university town and the other in London" while The Scotsman's unnamed reviewer says it "squeezes a great deal of contemporary life between two covers. It is packed with tangents on the iPod, the seepage of pornography into sex life, the fashion imperatives of hip hop, and glimpses of life in America under Bush."

Given this, how can we measure its success?

Clearly it’s not the same as other ambitions. If a mountaineer plans to climb several unconquered peaks, he is ambitious. And if he climbs them, he has succeeded. But what about a novel?

Does it depend on believability? The Scotsman says the book’s characters are convincing, so it seems she has succeeded there. But how do we measure believability? Is there a scale running from Not Believable to This Character is Now a Real Person? One would have to rely on bad faith to rely on such deliberations.

Really, literary success is as nebulous as Smith’s title subject: beauty.

The Scotsman says the theoretical questions 'raised but mostly dropped’ by the book (“What is beauty? Who is beautiful? What is beauty worth?”) are best approached through storytelling. At least, there it doesn’t feel 'tacked on'. So in that sense, Smith has failed. The essence of beauty is known only as a tangent to the narrative, much like ‘life in America under Bush’, which is only glimpsed.

So perhaps there’s good reason why the big questions are ‘mostly dropped’. A clue comes in The Scotsman’s summary of what it considers the most successful character, Levi:

Raised with underprivileged skin in a posh setting, he feels born into the wrong body. And so he quits his job at a record store to sell DVDs with Haitian street workers in Boston. Affecting a 'gangsta' limp, he claims to be from Roxbury, but his more authentically downtrodden colleagues see right through him. Smith has great fun lambasting Levi and his type for fetishising actual pain - but there is an edge of sadness in her cackle. What kind of country lures people to its shores with a promise and a dream, only to say success makes you inauthentic? What is the point of a university system that teaches students to make pets out of the downtrodden?

Levi might stand for those who cannot accept literature’s distance from the world; the same people who assume authenticity depends on a non-literary proximity. Levi’s literary equivalents would be those who, for instance, fetishise the work of writers like Azar Nafisi as it reflects on life under Islamic totalitarianism, and deny the implications of her willing proximity to those who cultivated such terror in Iran by supporting the Shah's police state and Saddam's invasion.

There is an inherent contradiction in writing that romantics cannot bear, and so increase their own proximity to what they profess to oppose. For them, literary success equals the annihilation of literature just as, in politics, 'freedom' depends on maintaining a system of terror around the world.

No wonder there's an 'edge of sadness' in Zadie Smith's cackle.

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