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.


  1. I just kept thinking of those three editors on the short-list committee, reading and reading and sorting through the piles to find 10 stories good enough for Smith to look at. Kind of the epitome of a thankless job.

    How about this for a heartbreaker: “When Zadie received the short list, she immediately saw the flaws in the stories that we had hummed and hawed over.” What fools we mortals be!

  2. Thank you for introducing me to Charles Bock. I’m planning to buy “Beautiful Children” on my lunch break and I’m really excited. Please specify who it is you’re talking about before the third paragraph of your entries, though!

  3. Rather than effectively saying “Sorry, not good enough” to all of the shortlisted writers, Smith really owes each of them a detailed critique of their stories.

  4. From the article: “Bock worked for 11 years on ‘Beautiful Children’ and lived for most of that time in a tiny one-bedroom Gramercy Park-area apartment.”

    So, 11, not nine as you say. Unless he said nine to you in your interview and he said 11 to the newspaper guy.

    Also, channeling my hero B.R. Myers — the sentence quoted in the New York Times article sounds like a hot mess.

  5. Um, didn’t Keroac spend years rewriting On The Road to get it in publishable form? If memory serves, didn’t Salinger spend like 14 years or something on Catcher in the Rye? Edward P Jones thought about the Known World for nine years before writing it. The Corrections took a decade. Andres Dubus III once took seven years to write a very short short story. Writers as non glittery as Terese Svoboda, who spent 16 years on her first novel, take time and effort to get their work right. This does not mean that during that time there were not moments of “urgency” or iprovizational magic. It means that sometimes it takes a while. It is the art of fiction, not, say, a blog.

  6. A reasonable excoriation, welcome by the recipient or not, requires that the critic read the sentences. Or at least read the pages and not skim the stack while watching a DVD and/or chatting on a cell. A careful reading requires time and, perhaps even more to be doled out only to the outstanding few, serious consideration.
    What a good friend you must be, and what a fine teacher, whether your personal judgment proves right or wrong.

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