Conscience and Integrity

He was a passionate devotee of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and many others who he sensed were writing the Great American Novel. He made acquaintances with a few of his heroes, attending workshops and the like. And he spent eleven years working on his novel. Because he needed his novel to be perfect. To his mind, this was the only way he could live up.

He didn’t realize that great novels — and indeed great art — often happen by accident. By routine. By turning around work and getting better at what you do. Even the best ball players can’t hit a homerun every time. He caused himself and a number of other people close to him some grief. It’s all there in Chip McGrath’s article. And it will all be there in a forthcoming installment of The Bat Segundo Show.

I bring Charles Bock up in light of Carrie Frye and David Ulin’s responses to the Zadie Smith controversy. Both suggest that Zadie Smith’s decision was exacted with, respectively, conscience and integrity. Anyone who writes knows that writing can be a tough and unrelenting business. That you’re going to get “no” (or, more often, no reply at all) more often than you get “yes.” Which is why it’s important to keep on writing and not let anyone stand in your way.

Now it’s certainly important to demand the best out of people, no matter how small the stakes. When friends and acquaintances offer me their manuscripts, they know damn well that I’m going to be hard and ruthless with their words. Writing is too important to be taken for granted.

But I believe that it’s also important to be encouraging with people who have the basic nuts and bolts. To leave some wiggle room for another writer to work out a problem and to find her voice in her own way. To encourage a writer, particularly a good one, to carry on writing, however difficult the process, however much the writer’s writing may not speak to you, and whatever the extant fallacies you perceive. The only way that a writer can get better at writing is to look that white whale right in the eye. To produce without fear of judgment and without fear of failure, but with an upturned ear. Judgment and failure come with the territory.

A wholesale dismissal of a manuscript without reason is less helpful than an honest and reasonable excoriation, which might provide the writer some clues on how to get better or where the writer went wrong with one person. Writing, like many things in life, benefits from failure as well as success. So I can find little conscience and integrity to Zadie Smith’s actions. Had she bothered to highlight the deficiencies of these manuscripts using very specific examples — and, for that matter, had the print people damning blogs used very specific examples — we might be having a pugnacious but ultimately well-intentioned discussion. But Zadie Smith, lest we forget, is just one voice. She is not the final arbiter of taste. The very idea that art must be perfect fails to take Michelangelo’s maxim into account: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.”

Casablanca, you may recall, was just another studio picture. Picasso was frighteningly prolific. On the Road was written in three weeks. Dostoevsky quite famously wrote his novella, “The Gambler,” because he had to meet a crazed deadline in order to meet his debts.

The Charles Bocks of our world are left to sweat when they might benefit from writing with a sense of urgency. They continue in this way because instead of being true to their voices, they feel the need to adhere to some ridiculously high standard proscribed by others. When the high standards should come primarily from the artist, guided in large part by an intuitive subconscious.

So what role then is the critic or the judge? I think Mencken was pretty close:

A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.