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The myth of infallibility

Dispiriting as it may be, great authors are capable of writing bad books

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

“Zadie Smith Syndrome” was a term coined back in the 2000s — possibly by Private Eye but it may have been The Spectator — to describe a novel by an author whose celebrity is such that whatever flaws their book may possess are instantly reimagined as positive virtues.

 The merest glance around the newspaper arts sections of 2021 confirms that Zadie Smith Syndrome is still going strong

It derived from a Times Literary Supplement review of Ms Smith’s On Beauty — written, it scarcely needs saying, by an academic — which, having puzzled itself over various defects and inconsistencies, concluded with some bromides about the novel’s “most interesting ethical endeavour” being the way it could be seen “happily inhabiting its own apparent slightness”.

In plain English this meant: Quite frankly this novel is a disappointment. But as it comes from the pen of Zadie Smith I can only assume that she intended to write it this way, and therefore the usual congratulations are in order.

At its heart is a queer presumption of professional infallibility — the idea that once everybody has decided that x is a great writer then x must go on being a great writer whatever the evidence to the contrary, if only to spare the blushes of the tribe of assorted pundits and opinion-formers who decided x was a great writer in the first place.

It takes only the merest glance around the newspaper arts sections of 2021 to confirm that Zadie Smith Syndrome is still going strong, indeed that it has progressed to the point where virtually every literary celebrity is safe within its pinioning net.

The Secret Author was, for example, struck by several of the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, which attracted almost blanket coverage on its publication in October. The consensus seemed to be that, although Mr Franzen was wonderfully adept at sketching in the dynamics of his Chicagoan cast back in 1971, the prose in which he described their adventures was deadly dull.

Many agreed Jonathan Franzen’s new book to be tediously written, but it is still acclaimed as a Great American Novel

All this produced a curious paradox — a book which many agreed to be tediously written acclaimed as a Great American Novel merely because it had been produced by Jonathan Franzen.

The same principle seemed to apply to Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, published a month before. Wasn’t it interesting, one or two of the reviewers wondered, that Ms Rooney’s characters had so few distinguishing marks and that so many of their attributes (or lack of same) had to be inferred by the reader? Once again, a drawback that would have instantly been seized upon had it come from a novice was assumed to be a point in the novelist’s favour.

Naturally, the elements of the book-world demographic most to blame for Zadie Smith Syndrome are its book reviewers. But publishers are very nearly as guilty. Surely one of the many editors and executives who went through the manuscript of Crossroads when it first arrived at 4th Estate must have yearned for an enlivening phrase or two?

Sadly, there comes a time when best-selling senior writers are subject to such all-round veneration that checks of this kind are never administered. After all, would you like to ring a Nobel Prize-winner’s agent up and tell them that their client has written a turkey? Much safer to wave the darling work through the press.

All this a pity, not only because it involves a sleight-of-hand that most intelligent readers will soon see through and disdain, but because it involves ignoring the lessons of several hundred years of literary history. However dispiriting it may be to acknowledge the fact, great authors are capable of writing bad books alongside the good ones.

Joyce, it might be argued, began with the scintillating short stories of Dubliners, reached a creative-high point with Ulysses and then ended up scuffling around in the dream-thickets of Finnegans Wake. The novel for which D.H. Lawrence is most celebrated — Lady Chatterley’s Lover — is the one which posterity finds the most embarrassing.

If there is one slight consolation in the spectacle of critics queuing up to convert a well-known writer’s little failings into proof of towering achievement, it lies in the fact that Zadie Smith Syndrome rarely works posthumously. Once the writer has left the stage then so, mysteriously, does much of the respect.

Once the writer has left the stage then so, mysteriously, does much of the respect

Significantly, in one of the many interviews he granted to promote Crossroads, Mr Franzen could be found criticising such lofty predecessors as Mailer, Roth, Updike, Bellow et al for unreconstructed attitudes towards the female sex — complaints, it might be said, which would have carried a lot more weight had he cared to utter them while their subjects were alive.

Meanwhile, we should all be a great deal better off if we admitted that Homer sometimes nods — Mrs Homer, too. After all, even The Beatles recorded the odd duff track, while the downward curve in the parabola of the average literary career is usually implicit in the upward. And if I were Jonathan Franzen, I’d want to be told about my shortcomings, on the grounds that it might help me to become
a better writer.

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