A Guardian essay by Zadie Smith called “Fail Better” considers what writers try to do when they write and what readers should be doing in response. She says “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,” and she tries to remedy the loss. You probably won’t agree with everything she says, but if you’re at all interested in the subject you should find it a fascinating read, and it makes me (as it does Anatoly, from whom I got the link) want to read some of her fiction. (The title of the essay, by the way, is from Beckett.)


  1. Don’t read “White Teeth”, that’s all I can say.
    She has a way with words and I’m sure she knows it, because like one of those annoying children who have discovered they do something better than others do the same thing, she just doesn’t stop!
    Then again, maybe read the first 100 pages of “White Teeth” and leave the rest go unread without pangs of guilt.

  2. Greetings, Venerable Hat!
    I adore Zadie’s critical intelligence, I fawn over her interviews, I have opinions about her body so favorable that both her husband and my wife would be dismayed, and I can’t stand her fiction.
    As a novelist, she’s a hysterical realist of the first order. I think when she grows up, and finds a way to wriggle out of the spotlight, she might go on to write some extraordinary books. She certainly has what it takes: stamina, critical fierceness, imagination, and doubt.

  3. For legal reasons, I amend that to read, “her body of critical writings.”
    Heh heh.

  4. I can’t help but feel that this is just recycled romanticism. “Many of the very best novels are compendia, encyclopedias of the whole spiritual life of a brilliant individual,” as Schlegel put it. Worthy sentiments, though, and very Britishly put. Hear hear!

  5. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
    Excellent quote. But do you know which Beckett work it is from?
    It sounds like something out of Molloy or Malone Dies, but then again, it’s such a common theme in his works that it could have been from anything (except possibly Act without words)

  6. ‘White Teeth’ was one of those works I stop reading when I come across a total implausibility: a Bengali Muslim serving in a WWII tank crew with an Englishman.
    In the British forces whites served with whites. In Imperial forces e.g. the Indian Army whites commanded non-whites. The Indian Army paradigm of ‘martial’ and ‘non-martial’ races permitted no Bengali to serve in any combat unit.
    The two main characters could not have met as they did.

  7. Siganus Sutor says

    From the Guardian article: “Maybe Clive even teaches novels”. Teaches novels? Teaches writing, maybe, but “teaching novels” sounds extraordinary…
    Even writing would look odd enough. Some cannot but remain sceptical of, say, “courses in creative writing”, as if there was some kind of magic formula to be used in order to reach a certain result.
    Zadie Smith is probably right when she says that “knowing the tricks” might not be sufficient to become a decent writer. For instance you have critics who write good, sharp, mordant articles but who are tasteless (as well as toothless?) when they write their own books. Here I especially think of Académie française member Angelo Rinaldi, who is excellent when he turns out vitriolic reviews in the literary section of ± right-leaning daily Le Figaro but whose novels are deemed insipid by many readers.
    Antonios: Don’t read “White Teeth”, that’s all I can say.
    My wife got it as a present. She gave it a try but couldn’t finish it. Since then it has remained untouched on the bookshelf. One day maybe… after I’ve succeeded in reading Ada

  8. I get a subtext from that article that good writing is to be found in novels and other sources for it are not to be take seriously. Which is probably a common attitude in the English-lit set, but it’s wrong and limiting. I enjoy the writing of W. Richard Stevens or Kirk McKusick a good deal more than I do that of Hemingway; this particular judgement is very subjective, but not any more invalid than preferring one writer of novels to another.

  9. I get a subtext from that article that good writing is to be found in novels and other sources for it are not to be take seriously
    That may not be unrelated to the fact that she’s a novelist. I long ago gave up any expectation of people involved in the arts being able to look with any approximation of objectivity at the art they’re involved in. A drummer will always prefer a recording with a good drum solo to one without.

  10. Still, the hegemony of the novelists is distasteful. A strong expression of it is the Booker horse race in which the faintest whiff of experimental writing–Iain Sinclair, W.G. Sebald, John Berger not to mention the real experimentalists–is grounds for disqualification. Experimentation is only permitted if it’s within the boundaries set by Joyce and Woolf, standards that, remarkable as they are, are getting on a hundred years now.
    I read quite a bit of the British literary press, and it’s frankly annoying that they take “writer” to mean “novelist.” The literary book trade is a big part of popular culture there, and that seems to be for the worse. Zadie complains that most people go to novels to have their world-views confirmed, and I’d say she’s about right.

  11. A drummer will always prefer a recording with a good drum solo to one without.
    Only if he is the drummer.
    “What do you call a guy who spends all his time hanging around musicians?”

  12. But do you know which Beckett work it is from?
    Worstward Ho (1984).

  13. Just to say I had to abandon ‘White Teeth’ too, after twenty pages or so. It didn’t seem to be about anything, it was just a collection of jokes.

  14. I’m losing my desire to read White Teeth for some reason…

  15. It was a highly praised book, Hat. What you’ve got here is a self-selected posse of curmudgeons (What is the collective noun for curmudgeons anyway? Bevy? Murder?). Then again, they’ve self-selected to your website, so maybe they’re on to something.
    If you can stand the talkiness, it’s supposed to be quite a funny book. Most British critics were choked with excitement when the book came out, so the following dissenting voice was notable:
    “This kind of precocity in so young a writer has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford et al), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old.”
    The reviewer was anonymous, but it later turned out to be one Zadie Smith. Did I mention that I love her critical instincts?

  16. A collection of jokes? I might read it.

  17. “What is the collective noun for curmudgeons anyway?”
    A grumble of curmudgeons, clearly.

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    Hmmm… the rhubarb* grumble… how sweet memories…
    * something to do with barbarians

  19. “A grumble of curmudgeons, clearly.”
    Except when they’re British, in which case it’s a whinge.
    Someone call the OED.

  20. I meant a collection of people who are supposed to be funny.
    Teju, that is unfair. Languagehat has the fewest curmudgeon commenters of anyone. I reserve the right to exclude myself from the non-curmudgeons. The book was indeed highly praised in Britain, and I brought a copy from England for a German friend who wanted it, hence my attempt to start it. Someone must like it a lot, though!

  21. I don’t know the correct collective noun for curmudgeons, but in a comment about the banking industry on Making Light recently, Charlie Stross noted that the collective noun for bankers is “wunch.”

  22. Curmudgeons, like cranks, are despised by the LH coterie.

  23. Yes, if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s curmudgeons. Now get off my lawn, you damn kids!

  24. The presumption that only novelists write well is no worse than the presumption that everyone who writes long works of fiction is writing novels.

  25. Don’t read “White Teeth”, that’s all I can say.

    I read it (a decade later) and loved it. Go figure.

  26. And I note (maliciously) that Teju has become a novelist.

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