Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing the real thing: on Zadie Smith's essay on novel nausea

Samuel Johnson's definition of "the essay" is a good place for Zadie Smith to begin. She uses it in an introduction to her new book of essays. The opposition presented is between the well-made work and the messy real: one being unreal and anaemic, the other being full of life's "truthiness" – itself a messy word – which Johnson's quotation reveals was once applied to the essay and to which Smith appeals as an apologia for the essays to come. I have sympathy with this and do not want to pick apart her essay – despite my many quibbles and queries – because I found it a relief to follow a prominent mainstream literary figure follow her own nose (or James Wood's according to Andrew Seal) like this rather than parading the populist canards one sees every week in the broadsheets' literary pages. She is evidently struggling to find the right form for her own work following the early success of White Teeth, and such struggles tend to produce more interesting work than that of someone who churns out basically the same formally unchallenging novel each year to the delight of middlebrows everywhere (except Stockholm).

One of the canards is of course that Philip Roth is unjustly overlooked for the Nobel Prize, while another is that genre fiction is looked down upon and does not receive the "recognition" it deserves. Yet in Zadie Smith's essay I find the genre versus literary fiction debate continuing in other words and thereby offering more hopeful directions for authors seeking an audience without compromise. She expresses both love and impatience with the Novel, seeking to break free of the familiar gestures and crafted perfection in order to find authenticity. However, the opposition of formal perfection and messiness – which is the argument of David Shields' book discussed in the essay – tends to conceal the individual choices artists have to make and replaces them with generic forms that mean something only to a consumer; in this case, messy or formal novels. These could easily be replaced by genre and literary fiction. Samuel Johnson can help here too.

His famous impatience with Milton's decision to express grief at the death of a friend in the form of a pastoral elegy deserves to be still better known.
Lycidas is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fawns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.
Johnson isn't saying Milton didn't experience grief, nor that his craft is in question, but that the unreflective use of genre betrays the inspiration of the work; as Smith puts it, the form "traduces reality". The debate then should be not be about genre and literary fiction but that which traduces the explicit inspiration of the work.

Late in the essay she refers to JM Coetzee's post-Nobel writing in negative terms and seems to believe he has eschewed the imaginative novel in favour of the "essayistic and self-referential". Yet these novels are great examples of inspiration taking priority over generic repetition. In Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year there is less fiction and more grief.  Both investigate the relation between writing and life, between writing and truthfulness, which both lead to the adoption of adventurous forms; not for the sake of adventure but in order to follow the logic of the inspiration (e.g. what it means to have singular opinions in a plural universe). It's a great thing that, rather than generating more novels out of writerly mastery (more Disgrace), Coetzee has continued to challenge himself and the form of the novel. It's also revealing that Smith sees the products of this seeking as "anaemic", as if choosing to write about the favelas of Rio would be somehow more real than writing about an aging Australian novelist. All writing, by virtue of being writing, whether it is formally perfect or messy, already submits to a unity independent of the physical world, even if it is only that of the book itself (this is why "book" has such an aura; the hope of containment). The writer who seeks to erase the well-craftedness of novels by producing a book such as David Shields' Reality Hunger is still appealing to a Platonic realm. Coetzee is aware of the irony and it is partly out of this that his novels emerge. His novels keep the wound of their isolation open.

In contrast, Smith praises The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek as a novel that presumably – despite its bloodletting – is not anaemic. Like Coetzee, Jelinek has also won the Nobel, but that's about all they have in common. In a piece about the Prize, Gabriel Josipovici comments on this particular award and reveals the important distinction:
The Nobel committee made the point that, in awarding [Jelinek] the prize, they were honouring a radical tradition of Austrian writing, and specifically mentioned Bernhard. But that is typical of the misleading generalisations committees are prone to make. Bernhard has nothing in common with Jelinek except a hatred of post-war Austria. His masters are Montaigne and Beckett, not [Jelinek's] Bataille and Adorno. His greatness stems from his ability to give voice to a wide variety of marginal figures, to harness comedy and vitriol, and to accept that he, too, is implicated in his own criticism, like another of his masters, Kafka ("In your quarrel with the world, back the world"). For Jelinek, as for Adorno, on the other hand, all are rotten and guilty — except the observer/writer.
This last point then is crucial. Coetzee, like Bernhard, implicates the observer in his investigations. It takes imagination to do that; perfection and messiness are beside the point.

In mitigation, Smith also mentions the Austrian who should have won the Nobel instead of Jelinek but now never will. She approves of the "sophisticated, beautiful and aphoristic side roads" that include Peter Handke's journals collected as The Weight of the World. On page 16 of this book, Handke sums up the anxiety, the pressure and the wonder of writing in the world:
Tense, unnerved, and close to madness before writing – and when I read what I've written it looks so calm.
In this one moment, in one apparently offhand diary entry, Handke opens a vertiginous space in which the process of stating how one feels and then reading it reverses everything. The sentence is already perfect. He doesn't add to it. This isn't a side road, this is the real thing. Perhaps with Zadie Smith on its side, writing like this will no longer be consigned to the wilderness.

UPDATE: My review of Reality Hunger has now been posted.


  1. I wish I had such faith in Smith, but it seems that she will be a long time in sorting out her influences and her models. There is not just a arbitrariness to her references, but an aimlessness, as if she can only ever collect ideas and designs, but won't be able to put them in any kind of order, or to shake out those (like Wood) which probably limit her.

    But this is a wonderful post--thank you.

  2. Having been a curious resident of Vienna, Austria for 10 years I am finely tuned-in to where Austrian writers are coming from. I am in complete agreement with the analysis in the last 6 paragraphs of the above post.

  3. Anonymous3:19 pm

    I guessed you'd write something about this. I wanted to on my blog but knew you would do a better job & so didn't dare. This is great, and more to think about. Thank you.
    Andrew: I don't mind Smith's aimlessness. I quite enjoy her candour which, for me, is an important quality.

  4. Anonymous9:54 am

    Thinking on a little, and reading the blographia literaria link you gave us, I wonder if Smith is, herself, at the crunch point of her writing life where she must decide whether to take risks (something you write about very well on this blog) or whether to plod along the same safe route she has tread thus far. I'd be surprised if she leaps for anything but the latter, because it takes such huge courage to take risks when writing. I'm not convinced she has the guts. But we could be proved wrong there.
    Meanwhile, your Josipovici quote is really timely here. This is what cuts Beckett and Kafka and, in some instances, Coetzee out of the crowd. It is why, for me, Life & Times of Michael K is Coetzee's best book and seems so fundamentally inspired by Beckett.
    Could we not all meet at Nina Power's Beckett talk this afternoon, then go to a pub & continue the conversation there?! I'd really like to talk more about Diary of a Bad Year, which I disliked almost from start to finish despite loving the structure.

  5. Anonymous9:39 pm

    Very good, but do you really consider Zadie Smith a prominant literary figure? She just darns her own socks; the discussion of this distinction never produces but an subordinate instance of one side of it (usually the fiction, in the form of whining, side). Except in your case, Stephen, where it seems you are perpetually on edge. I especially like the Johnson on Milton quote. Is there a more annoying word than "traduce"? (Though I think I did use it once in BLACK MIRRORS)

  6. Lloyd, she's prominent in that she has sold a lot of literary novels, appears in the newspaper literary pages all the time and has written long reviews in the NYRB. That's fairly prominent. I haven't read her fiction so it's not a value judgement in that sense.

    I don't really understand your middle two sentences but more annoying words for me are: "parse", "trope" and "app".

    Savageclown: I'm not sure if Smith needs courage or rather if she'll be aware that it's courage she's mining. When one is writing the real thing, it just seems right. Her editor though may need a whip and a chair when she meets with the marketing dept.

  7. Anonymous9:53 am

    Not sure about that. Taking risks in writing involves courage, even if when you reach that point 'it just seems right'.

    (Not sure Josipovici is right - in the linked piece - that Berger refused the Booker. I thought he accepted it and then gave half the cash to the Black Panthers.)

  8. Anonymous4:55 pm

    wonderful post! this is the most insightful commentary i've yet read concerning zadie's very welcome article. bravo!

  9. Thanks popserial. Good to get a link to your site too. I got a copy of Reality Hunger today and, after reading a dozen pages, am already agitated, in an almost good way.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.