Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Honourable Failure

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.

This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.

What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston's capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland's strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert's faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.
This from Zadie Smith's fascinating (but be warned, pretty demanding) essay in the Guardian today in which she ponders what makes a good writer, the duty of the novelist and why novelists are always bound to fail. There's much food for thought here and I'm off to read it a second, third, morth time. I reckon it's worth it.

And there's more to come next week.

It's interesting, by the way, that Zadie, just like John Sutherland in the extract I posted the other day, reckons reading a novel to be every bit as much a challenge as writing one.

For a long time reading was felt to be a "passive" activity. I know that educationalists are now talking much more about reading as a creative activity ... as they should. But as difficult as???


Burhan said...

i really loved zadie smith's piece. summarizes and brings to fore, or at least to the Guardian Unlimited readership, much of the major theories and philosophies about creativity and about writing that had been around for the past fifty years.

Coincidentally many of the themes in zadie's essay are related to what i hope will be the main topic of my doctoral thesis -- thanks Sharon! Now if only zadie provided a bibliography...

I liked the section "The craft that defies craftsmanship." There's something slightly pejorative, almost insulting, to call a novel 'well-written' or 'well-crafted'.

btw, zadie also said something about the need to make her work less crafty and more 'messy' in:

bibliobibuli said...

burhan - thanks. i know that most readers of this blog won't be interested in this article or find it too ... what? academic? ... i found it really exciting as it seems to me she is articulating ideas i haven't heard discussed by novelists before. the piece combines great self-awareness with impressive scholarship and there's scarcely a section of this piece that isn't worth deeper discussion. i do hope that other novelists will step up to the plate and respond to it. but just wonder how honest any of them would dare to be ("i am disappointed in my novel now currently on the booker shortlist because ..."). although i have heard other novelist e.g. anita desai express a sense of sadness and disappointment when they relinquish their novel to the publisher knowing they haven't quite achieved the novel that was in their head.

Burhan said...

i took a class under anita desai a few years ago and that sounds like something she would have said. i remember she once said something to the effect that she works on a novel until she cannot work on it anymore. a work is never completed, only abandoned.

actually most of what zadie wrote had already been taken up and explored fifty years ago by several european literary theorists, like sartre, jacqes derrida and, in particular, maurice blanchot (whom to me is, along with walter benjamin, the greatest literary critic of the past 100 years). what i find strange is that none of these had spilled into american and british literature. i wonder...

bibliobibuli said...

i think anita desai said almost exactly that at bali, and i was impressed by her honesty

all them's stuff i haven't read burhan. i got great big gaps in my head. please knock up an essential reading list for me.

Burhan said...

Hard to say what would be a good introduction. Heidegger was probably one of the earliest to introduce the basic framework with his essays ("Poetry, Language, Thought"). Sartre then used his fame to popularize the program of thinking about the process of literary creation. But I recommend that you start by familiarizing yourself with a few of Maurice Blanchot's collections of literary criticism, and then quickly move on to 'The Space of Literature' -- I believe you can get them at Borders Times Square (I'd lend you mine but I'm still using them at the moment). There's also Jacques Derrida's "Writing and Difference", but everything by him is notoriously difficult to read. Zadie also mentioned Roland Barthes: I have not read much of his work, but I do know he avoids the typical dense prose.

If you're looking for someone who's not, you know, DEAD, you could try the literary essays of Helene Cixous.

Jane Sunshine said...

Aiyah. So complicated to bring in Sartre, Derrida et al. I am just a regular Minah who likes her bookslah (though I agree with Burhan entirely).

bibliobibuli said...

mnay thanks ... will go look

Madcap Machinist said...

Barthes is a pleasure to read. Try "The Pleasures of the Text" and his journo essays in "Mythologies"--I still watch wrestling through his eyes; the only way to watch wrestling IMHO.

"Mythologies" can be found at Border's the Curve (last seen three weeks ago). "Pleasures" I read at uni library; search at Amazon suggests that it's rare so I guess I'm one of Zadie's 'fortunate readers'.

Heidegger is really dense though hahaha I think I spent too much time on him while understanding very little. Maybe in a few more years... but he's undoubtably very influential in the field (in Europe, at least)... just... very difficult :-(

For regular readers I guess the "Critical Studies Reader" will provide a useful overview. If someone will suggest a better reading guide I will go and check it out.

Before anyone confuses me for an academic, I should say that I only read these incidentally for the hell of it, being a non-discriminating reader, so thanks Burhan for recommending Blanchot.

As for Zadie's essay... very interesting indeed. Tickled also because David Foster Wallace is a long-time favourite-- and on that note I guess I can see her point; DFW certainly demands some very active reading on our end.

Anonymous said...

That's true isn't it ? that's what I mean, no one wants to fail the reader these days so all the stuff you get is very soulless. There's no heart in literature any more. No one creates characters as enduring as Tom Sawyer or Wendy. Imagine how much of a success it is, I can just mention one name, "Wendy", and immediately you know who I mean. Who else has that sort of immortality ? or Dickens' Scrooge even. Or Holmes (not Katie !) or any number of immortal characters.

Wish I could afford Zadie Smith :P but what can't be cured.. :P

And she's right, too. I've seen it put another way, someone once said, the moment you take your writing seriously is the day you start losing sales. The day you stop to think about what it is you're actually writing about and why, that's the day you jump the shark. That's the difference, that's why there are no enduring charcters these days, it's you have not the time and luxury to craft the perfect novel. At one point, you will have to turn it in, because if you had your way, you'd have taken all your life to write one novel, and it'd still not be done. THAT is why all writers feel a sense of failure, it's because a novel is never really and truly "finished" -- at one point it's just stopped and turned in. You regret a lot after that, you could have said this better, that better, rewrote this, shouldn't have put that in, that was wrong etc. And then you DO feel a sene of failure because all novels are essentially failures because there'll never be enough time to actually FINISH one. At some point you gotta stop and hand it in, and yes it DOES haunt you all of your life, that's why a lot of people I know can't stand to read their own novels, because they see all of the imperfections.

"If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that's because there were only a few."

Never a truer word. I've read most of them too :P

Madcap Machinist said...

ah, aside: I went on a date with girl called Wendy once, here in KL, and she's never heard of Peter Pan!

How is that possible?

Anonymous said...

Seriosly MM ? that's scary.. there were at least two movies out, and several books. That's probably just the exception that proves the rule. I suppose in most of the English-speaking and reading world, I don't think anyone would not have heard of her :)

Not sure about Heidegger though, but Smith is right again when she says people like him are not ever going to sell thse days :P

Madcap Machinist said...

... Or could be she's just sick of umpteen years of ribald jokes about lost boys... In any case she was not a reader and the interview ended there.

I think it's rather defeatist to think that there are no truly great novels out there. The ideal reader may not exist, but we are all the same on some level. The ideal novel already exists: it is the world. The world is our project. My ideal writer, of course, is someone who can put that in words that sing and weep; and I will consider that great.

Writer Milan Kundera, in Testaments Betrayed (which is actually a great companion to Zadie's essay; in fact I think now it's part of the same choir), recalls his childhood music teacher suddenly saying to him, like handing out a treat, "There are many surprisingly weak passages in Beethoven. But it is the weak passages that bring out the strong ones. It's like a lawn -- if it weren't there, we couldn't enjoy the beautiful tree on it."

So, here's a toast to more honorable failures!

Sufian said...

Readers fail writers? Writers fail readers?


bibliobibuli said...

machinist - v. nicely said - love the kundera quote

sufian - i failed orhan pamuk i think ... you didn't

Subashini said...

gayatri spivak is another one whom you might want to try, and she is also happily still alive. she is very much influenced by derrida (and in fact her translation of on grammatology is the definitive version, i believe). however, she is exhausting to read (as is derrida - i have never read a book of his from start to end; it's all dribs and drabs).

but i agree, roland barthes is a pleasure to read. mythologies is a good place to start... and will send you happily off 'mythologising' on various aspects of contemporary malaysian life. we are ripe for theorising. someone just has to do it. *grin* an essay of his that i found intriguing is "the death of the author." i believe you might be able to read it in its entirety online..

in any case, i found zadie smith's essay to be thoughful and quietly passionate. her novels have been less than perfect; they are huge, sprawling... and an absolute mess (but a very well-ordered mess, in a sense) but my god, i can lose myself in her books like i rarely can with any other contemporary author's works. i WANT to know her characters, hang out with them for a bit... and i think it's interesting that she mentions that readers can fail a book. i used to pooh pooh that notion until i attempted to read joyce. i read portrait of an artist as a young man when i was younger, thought, "silly old man from ireland, what's he ranting about..." until i reread it again two years ago and forced myself to read it with effort. and i was absorbed by it, was extremely moved by some bits. books are like people; you have to alter your attitude a little when you approach a different one.

sympozium said...

Why do academics have to complicate things? To feel their salaries are justified? To justify to themselves that what they are doing is useful?

bibliobibuli said...

books are like people; you have to alter your attitude a little when you approach a different one. i like this, subashini! very true

sympozium - sometimes i think so. (i'm cynical ... and ambivalent ... as i've said before) but did find zadie's article interesting. you?

Anonymous said...

"silly old man from ireland, what's he ranting about..." OMG that's the most beautiful book ever :) the imagery is just incredible. One day I'll even have time to finish it :)

"Why do academics have to complicate things? To feel their salaries are justified? To justify to themselves that what they are doing is useful?"

In a word, yes. Otherwise why would they have a reason to exist ? :)