Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Zadie Smith's Essay on Essays: Off with the Top of Her Head

Zadie Smith suffers from "novel-nausea."
A response in the form of cantankerism:
A new book by the American novelist-essayist David Shields (to be published here by Hamish Hamilton early next year) makes the case for irregularity. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call "truthiness" – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an "unbearably artificial world". He recommends instead that artists break "ever larger chunks of 'reality' into their work", via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It's a tribute to Shields's skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect "built" rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement.
I guess we're unfamiliar with Walter Benjamin
Generally speaking, there are few things more exciting to a certain kind of writing student than the news that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, "bourgeois" – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue). When your imagination fails you it's a relief to hear that it need no longer be part of a novelist's job description.
Generally speaking, there are few things less exciting to me than speaking with one of these people.
A bad novel is both an aesthetic and ethical affront to its readers, because it traduces reality, and does indeed make you hunger for a kind of writing that seems to speak truth directly. But I also feel, as someone who just finished a book of more or less lyrical essays, that underneath some of these high-minded objections, and complementary to them, there is another, deeper, psychological motivation, about which it is more difficult to be honest. In "The Modern Essay" Virginia Woolf is more astute on the subject, and far more frank. "There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay," she writes. "The essay must be pure – pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter." Well, yes, that's just it. An essay, she writes, "can be polished till every atom of its surface shines" – yes, that's it, again.
This paragraph-shard is the finest imitation of James Wood I have yet seen. Smith's internalization of Wood's voice has become surreal.

Okay, enough of that. More seriously, it is extraordinary that Smith seems to have basically forgotten the entirety of her argument in the essay from almost exactly one year ago on the "Two Paths for the Novel" (which I responded to here). The idea that novels aren't just one thing (the well-made novel) re-surfaces in this essay, but rather than the astringent certitude of the earlier essay's emphasis on two highly developed lines of descent (with rare but highly fruitful cross-pollination), she takes refuge in high generality: "the 'well-made novel' seems to me to be a kind of Platonic bogeyman."  She seems to have misplaced the whole "path"—what she referred to as "that skewed side road where we greet Georges Perec, Clarice Lispector, Maurice Blanchot, William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard"—which she traced to Tom McCarthy's Remainder. Or rather, it is nearly wholly absent—Ballard (and later Perec) makes a re-appearance, but look at how she introduces him:
Every now and then a writer renews your faith. I'm looking around my desk at this moment for books that have had this effect on me in the not-too-distant past: Bathroom and Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli, Number9Dream by David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love, Dennis Cooper's My Loose Thread, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, the collected short stories of JG Ballard.
Emphasis added, but not really too necessary: the whole essay reeks of this breeziness. This informal catalogue is echoed in the penultimate paragraph by another one: "Off the top of my head: David Markson's Reader's Block, Peter Handke's The Weight of the World, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, Georges Perec's Species of Spaces and Other Pieces and Kafka's own Blue Octavo Notebooks . . ."

This is, in fact, the problem: the whole essay reads as if it were written completely off the top of her head to the extent that it doesn't even take into consideration what she has written about before that might plausibly illuminate, substantiate, add depth to, or at the very least extend the points she is trying to make now. The current essay is so jittery and shallow that I can't even tell if it might actually be subtly trying to back away from the "Two Paths" essay—I suspect it is, but there isn't enough there to tell.

It is of course ironic on a meta-level that this all is occurring in a piece which asserts that what defines the essay is its perfectibility (cf. the V. Woolf quotes above). And Smith can write much better, more thoughtful essays, like the one on E. M. Forster. Again, I detect the influence of James Wood and his by-now-infamous self-trumpeting from the "Note on Footnotes and Dates" in How Fiction Works:
As a teenager I was very taken by the rather fancy note to Ford Madox Ford's The English Novel: "This book was written in New York, aboard the S.S. Patria, and in the port and neighbourhood of Marseilles during July and August 1927." I cannot claim any proximate glamour, nor a similar feat of library-less memory, but in the spirit of Ford, I can say that I have used only the books I actually own—the books at hand in my study—to produce this little volume.
I'd like to point out that the bit quoted doesn't actually deny that Ford might have consulted a book or two in preparing the study (unfortunately, The English Novel cannot be searched satisfactorily through Google Books, so I can't at the moment check the full reference).  But the larger point is that this kind of pointless braggadocio might be catching: "let me just pontificate about the historical development or current situation of the novel using what flies from the top of my head" might be heard coming from more and more supposed experts on literature.

Before someone points it out for me, let me address the obvious hypocrisy of a blogger (particularly this blogger, and particularly given the flippancy of my first few comments on her essay) calling out someone for off-the-cuff grand theorizing. Obviously, this activity is pursued frequently and, in some cases, fruitfully, particularly so in the already quite informal arena of blogging, where shorthand and generalizations may be (and should be) spurs to more sustained work or thought elsewhere. But there is an understanding—at least in how I try to think of it—that this off-the-cuffery is not a substitute for that later work and thought, nor that it is to be valorized in its own right. Writing a book about capital-F Fiction without making use of the bounty of the library that Wood's employer maintains (that would be Harvard, for those keeping score at home) is not some He-Man-of-Letters feat of prodigious intellect, it's a damn shame.

Maybe we could consider Smith's effort a blog post; maybe she delivers, as she did with the Forster essay, in the collection of essays she's publishing soon. I hope so, not just because I want to see writers like her resisting this pull toward dilettantism that Wood may have established but also because I think Smith, as with her fiction, is extraordinarily good when she concentrates. When it's "off the top of her head"—not so much.


Richard said...

Also, the essay is simply incoherent. I could take off-the-cuff if the damn thing made sense. She contradicts her argument from the "Two Paths" essay (which I think she is backing away from, unfortunately), but also her own statements in this piece. I don't think she knows what she thinks.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Writing a book about capital-F Fiction without making use of the bounty of the library that Wood's employer maintains (that would be Harvard, for those keeping score at home) is not some He-Man-of-Letters feat of prodigious intellect, it's a damn shame.

I couldn't agree more, not least because an awful lot of people are going to read Wood's book instead of, well, any other book on "capital-F fiction." Off-the-cuff stuff can be pretty insightful and reliable if it's the cuff to a really well-made sleeve--woven from, say, expertise and experience. But the implication in both Smith's and Wood's remarks seems to be that serious research produces only a hair shirt...and now I think that's as far as I should try to take this particular metaphor.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

I wrote about this at my blog as well. She is awfully good at getting us all to talk about her, isn't she?

Is Wood's postscript bragging, or a disclaimer about the titles he discusses? For both this essay and Wood's book, we are talking about writing intended, almost emphatically, for the general reader and not for lit students. One has to temper expectations.

Even by that standard, though, Smith's essay is poor.

Andrew Seal said...

It certainly does seem as if the title of her essay collection is uncomfortably appropriate.

I like that metaphor!

You raise a question that, once I started thinking about it, quickly ballooned, and now I think I'm going to have to write a separate post--darn you!

LML said...

I don't see any contradiction with the "Two Paths" essay, which to my mind was more guilty of over-generalizing than this one (only TWO paths???). In that essay, she was, as I remember it, talking about the (fairly tiresome) issue of authenticity. Here she is talking about the less resolved issue of the novel's present capacity to suspend disbelief and make people care about overtly fictional creations.

She's responding to a line of thought (Shields's) that isn't trivial, even when it fails to name-check Benjamin. Lots of fairly smart novelists (Coetzee, Naipaul, Sebald come to mind) seem to think that the contemporary novel should redeploy the stuff of memoir, essay, journalism, etc.--they either explicitly or implicitly dismiss novels featuring the construction of fully developed fictional characters, cause-effect plots, and so on. I don't think Smith has concluded this debate in thunder, but what she says is not ridiculous, either. At least, you haven't shown it to be ridiculous--you've just stated that it is.

Andrew Seal said...

LML, I actually don't think that the idea that "the contemporary novel should redeploy the stuff of memoir, essay, journalism, etc." is the least bit ridiculous--I am all for it.

What I find ridiculous is Smith's confusion or lack of conviction about why people are saying this and why she is (at least partially) agreeing. And when she defends the continued vitality of more traditional forms of novel-writing, again there seems to be a confusion or a lack of conviction about why some "well-made novels" are actually still kind of good--she can't seem to tell if they are good in spite of something or good because of something.

Smith's unwillingness to analyze anything about this whole complex of issues in any greater depth than the "top of her head" only exacerbates her basic confusion/lack of conviction; her apparent indifference to even her own previous thoughts about fairly closely related questions just seems to me like the nadir of argument.

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