I’ve been thinking some more about the intensity of my reaction to Ali Smith’s Autumn, about how out of step I seem to be with a majority of Smith’s readers. How can it be that I – who after all have a PhD on one of the most ‘difficult’ writers of the twentieth century – find Smith’s books as sham and vacuous and dull (the worst literary sin of all) as I do when just about everyone else thinks she’s great?
Here’s what I think sometimes happens. A writer comes along who is granted a certain reputation on account of the fact that they are innovative and experimental and eschew conventional storytelling techniques. The writer continues to publish their barely-readable novels and readers and reviewers continue to admire them for their innovativeness, setting aside any considerations of their overall quality as works of fiction. As a result readers now come to those books with a freight of expectation: the writer is successful after all, they have achieved a certain prominence, so their books must be good. The fault, if there is one, must lie in me, in my not being smart enough to penetrate their many layers of subtlety.
You can see this in the Goodreads review of Autumn I quoted in my last post. The review continues as follows: ‘Most likely, I am not the right person to read Ali Smith. Sorry I cannot do better.‘ Or another review from Goodreads: ‘To speak quite frankly, I think Autumn is a novel that is a touch too smart for me to properly wrap my head around.’ Or yet another: ‘I wasn’t sure I was getting it or what Smith was trying to convey, but I enjoyed the ride anyway.’ You can even see this same dynamic at work in the NYT review I quoted in my previous post: ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence.’ (Yeah and you know why it’s hard to grasp all the nuance? Because there is none other than what you unjustifiably attribute to the book.)
I’m not suggesting that readers deliberately lie about their response to Ali Smith. What I am suggesting is that a form of cognitive dissonance is going on, resulting in a kind of collective delusion or socially agreed fiction: this book is good not despite the fact that I can’t make much sense of it but precisely because I can’t make much sense of it.
I should also point out that ‘experimental’ writers were amongst my earliest literary enthusiasms: John Barth, Italo Calvino, Alasdair Gray. Equally there have been avant-garde writers I haven’t had much time for: Georges Perec (experiment for the sake of experiment, in my view) and BS Johnson (a literary cul-de-sac) spring to mind. It’s not the experimentation I object to in Smith, it’s the lack of substance or method or purpose behind it.
I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography (unimaginatively titled Born to Run, no doubt at the behest of his publishers) and there’s more wit and cleverness and poignancy and sheer good writing in a single paragraph of Bruce’s book than there is in the whole of Ali Smith’s Autumn. Give the Boss the next Nobel Prize!