Dear Zadie Smith:
Well, this isn’t a difficult thing to write. Because the kind of sanctimonious attitude you espouse with your open letter really doesn’t tell us the whole story.* Really, what happened here? Did you actually read all of the entries? Or did you shoot them down on sight because the first sentence wasn’t some florid specimen of “originality?” You know, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” wasn’t exactly the kind of sentence I’d write home about. (And neither, for that matter, was Forster’s original line.) But I gave On Beauty a chance and stuck it out, despite its cheap reliance upon coincidence and a few implausible relationships, and I enjoyed it. But I gotta say that it took some hubris there to rewrite Howard’s End. Almost as cocky as Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho shot-for-shot. But then you’re Zadie Smith. And, hey, it won you the Orange Prize and got you on the Booker shortlist. And I’m just some crazed blogger who writes on a medium that you won’t deign to capitalize.
Anyway, this isn’t about your novels, which I think are fantastic. This is about something else. I don’t have a prize to hand out. I’m just a guy who likes literature. And I too look for quality and am known to masticate upon wretched manuscripts when the cupboards aren’t stocked with trusty tins and I feel a pressing need to be tortured by a dentist. But if you honestly believe that not one manuscript out of hundreds was worth something, then just what the sam hill were you doing judging a contest anyway? I mean, I thought that I was Mr. Crankypants. But you take the cake! And apparently you want others to eat it too.
So let’s conduct ourselves a little basic math here. There were 800 stories in this contest. And let’s say that the average length of each story was roughly ten pages a piece. So we’ve got ourselves 8,000 pages total. That’s a lot of reading material, I know. But let’s be utterly brutal and cut it down to 1%. That’s eighty pages left. Or eight stories out of 600. If you want to say .05%, that’s four stories. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, in your hard-pressed quest for “quality” could cop to .05% of all the material coming in being worth something. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, could count one sentence in that crop as amazing.
So you and the judges don’t want to read all the other crap that comes in. Okay, that’s cool. But surely you understand that when you sign on to judge a reading contest, inevitably, you’re going to have to wade through a morass to get to the really good stuff. This is, incidentally, what an editor of a literary journal has to do. And, by editor, we’re not talking about asking top talent, who could write amazing things in their sleep if they had to, to submit stories for The Book of Other People. We’re not talking about having Dave Eggers email you some article that you simply say yes to for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We’re talking about real editing by aspiring writers, good and bad, who want to be published. The kind of pull-up-your-dungarees-and-wade-into-the-septic-tank hard labor that involves vertiginous slush piles. Oh, they’re nightmarish. But if you’re a glass-is-half-full kind of person and you have even a remote love of literature, you’ll know that every now and then, something good comes through. And it makes the job worthwhile. Do you think you’re exempt from this basic vocational reality because you’re Zadie Smith?
And incidentally, who are you to complain about “pseudo-literary fictio-tainment” when your dear husband offered just that with Utterly Monkey? Not that I have any problem with “pseudo-literary” offerings. But I’m just saying.
Really, Zadie honey, you’re in your thirties now. You really should know better than this. Particularly after all the trouble you got into by declaring England “a disgusting place.” (Aha! A common theme here!) But if this is really one of those cases where you vant to be alone, then please, just stay away from journalists and judging reading contests and concentrate your attentions on what you’re really good at: writing novels.
* — The “whole story” was, incidentally, relayed by Bilal Ghafoor — if indeed this is the “whole story” and not just another case of CYA.
© 2008, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.