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  • Failures in Writing and Reading: On Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better”
  • Bruce B. Suttle


Zadie Smith, in her essay “Fail better,”1 posits “that somewhere between a critic’s necessary superficiality and a writer’s natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost.” She follows with the fascinating question she would ask writers: “Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing?” Her general observation is that “to writers writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character”—yet there is a pretense to the contrary, a public squeamishness about the connection between character and writing. Though rarely admitted, honesty dictates that “our fictions are not as disconnected from ourselves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend.” What interests Smith is “the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.”

While Smith has much more to offer on this topic, I want to stop and examine the assumptions and implications of her thesis at this point. Granting the connection between selves and novels, we are to conceive that the failures in a novel are, represent, failures in a writer’s character—not in his skill or talent, not in his imaginative ability, but in himself? To ask writers for their “map of disappointments” seems to presume that writers are more likely than others to have achieved the Socratic goal of knowing thyself; which assumes a concept of self as an essentially independent being with an identity that is retained as its attributes (are subject to) change.

I have doubts in this regard, for it seems more accurate to conceive of good writers as having more selves than others. I don’t mean the [End Page 483] common characteristic of the difference between one’s father-self and one’s competitive-self, lover-self and solitary-self, amateur-self and professional-self, or the difference between the friend of Pam-self and the friend of Hank-self. Rather, good writers, more exactly, are different writing selves. Despite originating and developing a work of fiction, the process is not one-directional, but a relationship. A good writer is affected by what he creates as much as the creation is an expression of who the writer is. And the is is an ever-evolving identity—the writer who starts the novel is not the writer who edits and ultimately reads it with disappointment. So for Smith to speak of failures in writing as failures in the writer’s character assumes a constancy of a writer’s identity—a thesis I do not believe can withstand close examination. Yet in her recent Changing My Mind she rejects her previous notion of a “multifaceted self” and is emphatic that “each man must be true to his selves, plural,” that the idea of “the unified singular self is an illusion.”2 I certainly concur.


Returning to the text we find Smith acknowledging that, on the contrary, writers no less than T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” have strongly voiced opposition to the notion of a connection between the poet and his poetry: “Poetry . . . is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Smith’s response is to fault Eliot for reducing the richness of personality to simple biographical facts. “Personality is much more than biographical detail, it’s our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities; it is our way of being active . . . . The self is not like platinum—it leaves traces all over the place.” David Shields, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, expresses what might complete Smith’s circle: “All writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.”3 As for Eliot’s denial of a connection between an artist and his creation, Smith retorts that “just because Eliot didn’t want to talk about it, doesn’t mean it...


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pp. 483-489
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