Saturday, 15 July 2006

When I was teaching at Harvard, darlings...

In today's Grauniad, Zadie Smith writes about the "genesis" of her recent Booker-prize winning novel, On Beauty. Some quotes:

"Public accounts [of how a book begins] tend to have a fictional texture - this is not to say they're untrue, but they are writerly explanations, fished from the sea that is the book itself."

"The clues to the more personal elements of that process are in the writer's private past, the subconscious family romances that return you to the same ideas over and over. I'm too superstitious to unpick those..."

"The larger clues are on the shelves and piled up on the desk. In the case of On Beauty, these books were old favourites, because I was teaching them at Harvad. Nabakov, Forster, Kafka, Zora Neale Hurston, Paula Fox, John Updike, WG Sebald..."

"With a brazen ahistoricism I can't intellecutally defend..."

"When I was writing, I thought the comic tautology and sheer metaphysical weirdness of..."

"My sympathy is with old-fashioned existentialism; it is the struggle to 'be' that interests me when I write; to 'be' without mediation or self-delusion."

Bollocks, more like.

She goes on to quote (predictably) David Foster Wallace (she is clearly proud that she has read his tomb stone of a book that normal people file away on their shelves next to Ulysses - that is, if they are strong enough to hawk it home from the bookshop).

Smith wrote half a good book - the first half of White Teeth. The second half was utter crap; I can only speculate that this may have been the result of her getting a lucrative and infamous publishing deal halfway through writing it. The Autograph Man was utter tosh and I could only bear to read the first three chapters. Perhaps I should give On Beauty a chance, but pretentious writing like this only alienates me even more. Anyone can throw in a clever-sounding quote, see:

Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Something of which Smith would do well to take heed. Until then, she should be locked in a room with A.S. Byatt, the other chief Grauniad-favoured prolix bag of wind, and have a camera pointed at them with a direct feed to the world's living rooms so that we can all learn how to say very little in a large number of incredibly lengthy words (apart from the most frequent word you would hear from their mouths, which would, of course, be "I").


  1. um, why are you so down on her success? Also, the book she read, evidently, was a book that you are implying that you did not (or most people don't) read. Perhaps there were some hidden gems in it that you missed the first time. (I don't know, I never heard of it before you mentioned it.)

    In other words, your need to comment on her has compelled me to comment on you. She was describing ideas, but your attack was more personal and dismissive of ideas. I think you should respect ideas (and people) with a bit more kindness.

    Also, while many at Harvard are probably intellectual snobs and sloths (a condition that is mutually related) don't you think it a bit unfair to mock Harvard in the same breath? Whatever she is or isn't, that has nothing to do with Harvard. We are all individuals, not institutions.

    Now, if you took what Neitsche said in the context of her comments, what she was saying is that the award is meaningless. She doesn't want to be admired, she wants to be understood. In missing her point you proved her point.


  2. I'm not down on her success by any means; I am rather just bored of me-me-me pretentiousness in general these days. This is why I disagree with your point that she does not want to be admired: her style of prose is all *about* being admired, and it has very little to do with being understood. This style of show-boating prose is rife in the Guardian book pages - and within a certain brand of literature - these days; A.S. Byatt is another perpetrator of such pretentiousness (I loved her "Matisse Stories", but reading her articles in the Guardian always makes me wince).

    My attack was not on ideas, but rather upon their presentation. "The medium is the message", as Marshall McLuhan so well put it. But Kurt Vonnegut put it better: he said that a truly well-written book should be understandable by a fourteen year-old boy. It is this that I love about twentieth century American literature. And in fact, Zadie Smith is more than capable of writing beautiful, but unpretentious, prose, as she has demonstrated on numerous occasions; but she is also prone to this sort of waffling self-indulgence, more appropriate to a teenage diary than the pages of a broadsheet supplement.

    Was my post a "personal" and "unkind" "attack"? Yes, probably. But only because I wrote it in the aftermath of anger at reading the piece. I still think I am most angry at Ms Smith, though, because the first half of White Teeth was so good that I still feel let down by the teeth-grindingly awful latter-half.

    Incidentally, I did not mean to mock Harvard in any way whatsoever; if it came across that way, it was not my intention. I was merely mocking the writer's need to mention that she taught there. (In this, I fully admit to being a hypocrite: a friend of mine recently pointed out that during a conversation I had begun three sentences with the words, "While I was doing my PhD". And I never actually finished said PhD...)

    I think that many writers begin writing in the hope of being admired, and I don't think there's much wrong with that. What I dislike is this craving for admiration spilling over into polysyllabic hot air that infringes upon my Saturday morning reading. And don't even get me started on Salman Rushdie...

    All the best,

  3. LOL yes the me-me-me can wear you down, but that is the nature of advertising and false fame, which is what the awards represent. But people crucify the humble, too.

    Did Vonnegut really say that a book should be written for a 14 year-old? I guess that is a step up from the 8-year old standard of the daily newspaper. :-)

    What is obvious to the insightful person is crazy to the common person, that is part of what Vonnegut's work represent to me. He is absurd to say that since a fourteen year old will never make sense of what he writes.

    Anway, I always separate the idea from the person. Rushdie may be an idiot, but that doesn't mean his points are wrong, etc. Nor is anybody "right" because of who they are.

    As far as Harvard goes, they deserve a rebuke, they teach lies for $40,000 a year, but mocking adds nothing to a debate. I suspect that is closer to your compaint about the author. People are neither good nor bad by association, but people contantly try to make that claim. (Which is also why people who do nothing give awards to people who do something.)

    Since you almost got a PHd, now you will have to spend a fair amount of time unlearning all the lies you learned. (It took me a good twenty-five years, and all I have is a BA.)

    My apologies, too, because I think I misread parts of your original post.

    BTW, I think your software is great. (Jer sent me.) I really needed something better than his software, and Ulysses was missing some features; you seem to have it all.



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