When Bad Stories Happen to Good Writers
I have to admit, I had a bit of a crush on Zadie Smith, even before I’d read any of her work.
Let’s face it, she’s impressive. She’s a literary world A-lister. She’s an academically acclaimed novelist who back in the day graduated Cambridge University with a double first (British equivalent of a 4.0 GPA). These days, when she’s not writing best-selling fiction, she’s jet-setting between her homes in New York and London and receiving accolades from the Royal Society of Literature and other highfalutin institutions. Sight unseen, she had to be someone to emulate, right? Revered by critics AND adored by readers = literary heaven, no?
But then I stumbled upon one of her short stories. It was in The New Yorker, a publication to which I cleave for numerous reasons. Firstly, I consider it to be the best value for money weekly subscription available anywhere today. Secondly, it has some awesome cartoons. Thirdly, it unashamedly lampoons Donald Trump at every opportunity; usually on its cover, and being no great fan of his, I appreciate their efforts in this regard. Fourthly, my beloved Dorothy Parker wrote for The New Yorker, and I feel connected to her through its pages in some bizarre sense. And finally, (and most importantly), it publishes a short story every week. Some of the best short stories I’ve ever read, I might add. By authors that have inspired me to emulate their writing style. Stories that I have gone back to time and time again to dissect in an effort to discover what made them so powerful.
And then there was Zadie’s. Published in their summer 2015 issue, titled Escape from New York, it was based upon the urban legend of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando driving themselves out of New York and across country the day the Twin Towers fell on September 11th, 2001. The very idea, of course, is preposterous, and I’m sad to say Zadie’s fictional account of it just made it worse. She’s got Michael with his silver glove on, and Marlon scoffing down Twinkies. Even the dialogue feels forced. After pointing out that Michael “didn’t worry about crying; that didn’t happen easily anymore, not since he’d tattooed around his tear ducts,” Zadie has him admonish his two elderly charges, “This is a very high-stress situation . . . And we have to try and love each other.” And it continues in this vein for 3,600 words. It’s excruciating. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself here!
So….What am I up to, coming on here and bad mouthing not just any author, but an acclaimed one? This is a blog about writing and writers, right? All for one and one for all! And who the hell am I to dis Ms. Smith when I sell my stories for less than a buck?
I’m using Ms. Smith’s faux pas to show writers everywhere that we all have bad days. Not all our novels, or stories, or articles, or blog posts are going to blow people’s socks off, and that’s okay! I have since read other Zadie Smith work, which is fabulous, by the way. Even if you decided to take my word for it on the Escape from New York debacle, I encourage you to partake in Two Men Arrive in a Village, also courtesy of The New Yorker; a heart wrenching tale of male dominance and female submission.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get the feedback you were looking for, because not all writing is equal, even when it's your own. Writers are allowed to have off days too. A bad review? It’s like getting thrown from a horse. One bad experience doesn’t mean putting down the pen and giving up.
As Jack Benny reminded us, there's really only one way to get to Carnegie Hall, and if you're lucky you might just meet Michael, Elizabeth and Marlon there. Just don't have them leaving in the same car in your story. It's not the best of storylines!