Friday, February 8, 2008

We're Not Worthy!

So what do you think -- is it just snobby of Zadie Smith to refuse to award the Willesden Herald fiction prize, as Ed Champion claims here? Or do we writers deserve the cold water splashed in our faces for being so decidedly unbrilliant in our production of "fictio-tainment"?

Though I can certainly imagine reading 800 short stories and not being crazy about any of them, I do find it a little bit ungenerous of Smith to withhold the money and attention from some unknown struggling writer who'd overjoyed to have 1/10 of Smith's career. She could really have made someone's day -- someone's decade. I can't imagine having the nuts to look down from my comfy throne as doyenne of the literary best-seller and deem every one of the masses unworthy that little prize -- which I'd never even heard of.

But maybe that's why I'm not a doyenne. I'm mushy-hearted, mushy-brained -- mushy everythinged. To be a Zadie Smith you have to be as tough and confident and brilliant and uncompromising as a diamond.

Or maybe the stories were just really, really bad. Just stinko. Maybe they were so terrible she couldn't in good conscience attach her name to any of them.

But you know what -- it's rare to be good these days, and extremely rare to be brilliant. Maybe that sounds like nonsense and I can't really explain what I mean. It's just a feeling I have that, right now, all writers are working against a kind of invisible cultural riptide. Perhaps Smith is right to try and shake the situation up.

19 comments:

5 Red Pandas said...

As I read the daughter in On Beauty, she was a bit pretentious and had literary aspirations, for possibly the wrong reasons. What do you make of Smith's having her brag about having a story in Salon, and waiting for a response from Open City. As I read it, I felt that Smith was sniffing her nose a bit at her character, almost in an unkind way. It made me feel uncomfortable, as if she was subtly implying that she'd never had to stoop so low before her career took off, fully formed. That's what I got from the book, even though I enjoyed it. I wasn't sure what to make of it, and I thought of it again when the whole thing about not awarding the prize came out.

On another tangent... Bah. Open City was the first place I submitted to, and I've never heard back from them at all. That was more than 21 months ago. I don't mind rejections, as long as they show up on my doorstep.

P.S.- Rhian, I am feeling better, thank you for asking!

I read a few blog posts today begging us not to backlash against Charles Bock. I maintain that the NYT profile was extremely off putting, and mostly responsible for why people object to how he's being marketed, rather than simply objecting to his being marketed.

Mr. Saflo said...

Good to see Ed Champion handled this one with his usual tact and maturity.

TIV: the individual voice said...

Putting down others is one famous way of elevating yourself for having impeccably high standards. It's an old and lazy sleight of hand and Smith has managed to pull it off beautifully, making 800 people want to go hang themselves in one fell swoop. People like her keep people like me in business (not the rope business, the mental health business).

Anonymous said...

Well, I could have done without the grief but I cant really hold it against her. When the final judge of the contest you were silly enough to enter decides she didn-t like what the preliminary judges passed on to her, well, that-s it, I guess. It-s not an objective science.

jrlennon said...

I love Zadie Smith, but I think this was small of her. It doesn't matter if all the stories were shit--just pick the least bad one. These people all paid actual money to enter the damned contest with the expectation that they had a chance of winning it.

I have turned down requests to judge contests for this precise reason--that I would end up feeling bad about awarding work I didn't like. If you take the job, you give the award. If you think you might be uncomfortable with this, don't take the job.

The fallacy at work here is the idea that a contest should be some kind of actual arbiter of quality, when in fact there is no award in the history of literature that has served as any kind of objective measure or excellence. There are certainly good times to assert one's critical acumen--while writing a book review, for instance. But not while judging a contest. If you're willing to withold an award completely, then you don't have faith in the contest system. And if you don't have faith in that system, you have no business accepting the work.

Pete said...

Just to clarify: Queen Zadie didn't read all 800-plus entries, just the shortlisted stories selected by the three preliminary judges, so don't feel too sorry for her. Perhaps she felt none of the stories measured up to her own lofty personal standards. And perhaps literary contests would be wise to select final judges who have a little humility and not such an exalted opinion of themselves.

Anonymous said...

True enough, but there was no entry fee for the Willesden contest. Which is where Zadie Smith is from, I think.

jrlennon said...

Ah, I didn't realize there was no entry fee...I looked for that info on the blog and couldn't find it. That changes my opinion considerably--I assumed it was the entrants' money that was being held back from them, and consequently donated to charity.

I believe that, if it were me, I would have asked the committee to go back and find ten stories they could stand to pass to the final round, and then I would have held my nose and picked one. But given that it was free to enter, I have no idea why Ed Champion is so bent out of shape. It IS a bit snobby to withhold the prize, but I sympathize with Smith a little now.

Kevin said...

She didn-t like any of the stories on the shortlist and that was that. Nothing much you can do - from her point of view, that is -about not wanting to reward a story you don-t really like with ten thousand dollars. Other than to say no one wins.

It really did suck though. My story was on the shortlist. Maybe it wasnt worth ten thousand, but then, what story is? When you really think about it.

I love the blog, by the way. Actually, it-s the only one I read with any regularity. I grew up not far from Ithaca. Not that that has to do with anything.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why but I'd like to hear Skoog's thoughts on this. Maybe because he always stuck me as unpredictibly irreverant.

Anonymous said...

struck me

rmellis said...

I sometimes feel that Skoog doesn't have opinions about normal things... he just has opinions about rare and lovely Skoogy things...

rmellis said...

tiv -- I hope people aren't too dismayed by this, especially you, Kevin. (Your story must be good if you like our blog...;)) Not winning is one thing, but being made an example of is another.

Kevin said...

People were dismayed, of course, but that's the way it goes. But it really did feel - and I'm just talking about how it felt and not about the way the judges went about the contest, which seemed fair enough, if slightly strange - like a weird and perverse form of punishment.

Of course, after I got the bad news - accompanied by the big encouraging discouring somehow snobily ignorant but heartfelt statement on what the hell was going on - I sat down right away and read my story, liked it, changed a bit here and there, and sent it somewhere else. What else can you do? Unless the story is crap.

Kevin said...

And when I'm not spouting off - sorry, novice to this blogging thing - I might as well say, breaking the rules perhaps - that I read JRL's Pieces For the Left Hand recently (again) and thought it, well, about as good as things get.

jrlennon said...

Thanks a lot, Kevin! I appreciate your seeking out that book...

AliciaABeale said...

Smith did what she felt was in her best conscience. I think she doesn't quite understand beginner fiction. She shouldn't expect perfection from starting writers and at the same time say she wants to seek fresh faces. Well if you want polished well-crafted fiction with a professional gloss, you'd get something like The Book of Other People which doesn't have any new(debut) writers at all.

I quite like Zadie Smith. Her novels, except most of White Teeth, haven't thrilled, but she remembered my name at a book signing from the last time she signed a book for me. I don't think she's snobby; I just think her decision making struggles under the spotlight that she's been under for the last eight years like Britney Spears but without the breakdown, drugs or K-Fed(well um Utterly Monkey hmmm).

Samuel Edmonson said...

Rhian,

I'd love to hear more about that invisible cultural riptide that you think all writers are working against right now -- I really think you're on to something.

I've heard this before, but not expressed that way. I've felt it. Something's pushing one way and I think it's working against good writing, which wants to go the other.

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that out of 800 entries, not one was good. The odds are against it.

I also read White Teeth and couldn't get through it - a very boring book.