Go Ahead and Fuck Up

Not sure who the equivalent is for you, but Albert Camus was one of the first authors I found outside of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. The high school teacher who introduced me to him also laid an egg it took years to get over: the apparently insurmountable gulf between “popular” and “serious” literature; and so even more than other writers, Camus was one of the first to come packaged in the veneer of that new category of human being, the “literary author.”

Unlike many of the writers I found during those crucial years, Camus is one of the few who has been a lasting companion, one whose work and life story has continually rewarded rereading and rediscovery. And having just spent a year going through a shelf of books on Nazi occupied Paris and the years following, those pages were always lit a little brighter when Camus showed up.

All a way of saying perhaps a surprising thing, that it was a great relief to read this 1982 essay, where Camus is respected but comes in for a good deal of criticism: that his plays were never really that good and have only suffered more with time, and that even his best fiction betrays not a novelist’s expected use of character and situation, and reflect more Camus’s natural bent in philosophy. Camus has also always been anecdotally credited with a large part in the French Resistance, and the essay tamps that down as well.

Even if you disagree with these conclusions, the fact that they exist seems important to me. We seem to have such a skewed notion of talent, genius, or just of fame, that even the hint of personal or artistic criticism or failure becomes an immediate excuse to sentence one to some form of public shaming, or just years out of public or critical favor; and these judgments are taken as titanic, as final.

But to be reminded that someone as respected as Camus was vilified during and after his life—whether for his refusal to embrace Communism, or his support of French action in Algeria, and so on—is to be reminded that the people we admire most were actually alive, and were never the somber presence of a dozen or more books on a shelf. They were never the near-armor they seem to be for us now, as we carry their books around like a proud and private secret. These people sat down to breakfast and had doubts, and our favorite book of theirs might just be a hundred pages of gold surrounded by two hundred pages of filler. And their fiction and philosophy, when broken down, probably can’t withstand some critics’ silly need to make them into something as consistent and systematic as a spreadsheet.

So it’s simply refreshing to realize that, no matter what level of renown or success you reach, you are never beyond criticism. If you are an artist of any kind who constantly gives the world a piece of yourself, there is no point to reach where you won’t be accused of failure. The point, then, isn’t to avoid the possibility of a negative reaction, but just to keep going. Hardly any of us will ever approach even the supposedly “flawed” talent of someone like Camus, but that’s no reason to suddenly care what anyone thinks of us. And so, go ahead and fuck up. Even a bad review means you’re still trying, and that’s really all that matters.

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22 Comments Add yours

  1. John Thomas Menesini says:

    this is great!

  2. Tim Miller says:

    that means a lot–coming from the masterly JTM!

  3. Yes, well you have just given me the encouragement I needed for this day. Today I feel as though my up and coming book, Calming the Chaos: How to Live Beautifully in an Ugly World, will never be finished, let alone out there in the world for people to read. Writing from the heart is what authorship is all about, and it seems as though the “talking heads” can either love or hate what our hearts say. No matter, it’s the work that matters. After all, “writing is a struggle against silence.” Thanks.

  4. JLakis says:

    Camus holds a similar position in my heart. My Dad was an actual beatnik and professional artist. I remember, at about 14 or 15, him throwing his copy The Plague at me while I was reading who knows what in my room, with the comment, “Read this if you want to understand humanity!” Camus is an interesting case. He suffered some of the same criticisms as Fellini: he didn’t take conventional or popular sides, and they are both entertaining! I love The Plague. It is an exciting book. A page-turner with a profound truth at its heart: in life, you do what you can the best you can with the circumstances you’re given. And it doesn’t necessarily work out for you in the end, but your work lives on in the lives you’ve touched. He also writes more like a screenwriter than a writer. He SHOWS rather than tells. Unfortunately it seems his estate is managed by his former publisher in coordination with his son and daughter. And while the daughter desires to spread her father’s legacy. The son never liked his dad, and is resistant to any proposal to reintroduce his genius to new generations. If accessibility is wrong in a writer or filmmaker to a certain set, their loss. Homer is accessible in a good translation. As should be off books that have lasted millennia! To Camus and his fans, I say, “Gentlemen. Hats off!”

  5. Hi Tim,

    “We seem to have such a skewed notion of talent, genius, or just of fame, that even the hint of personal or artistic criticism or failure becomes an immediate excuse to sentence one to some form of public shaming, or just years out of public or critical favor; and these judgments are taken as titanic, as final.” — Tim Miller

    That part of your post, especially, hits a chord with me, And I’m sure, many others.

    A nice read for me this morning.

    Cheers! JBS

  6. ‘The point, then, isn’t to avoid the possibility of a negative reaction, but just to keep going.’
    YES! Thank you! The point is I like my art (my visual art), anything I do, actually, and I keep going, because it makes me happy:)

  7. Fantastic post! Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Very true; it took me a long time to realize this. I wrote a similar post once myself:

    https://entertainingwelseyshaw.com/2014/06/27/courage/

    I never discovered “literary writers” after King and Koontz, however. It was because of King and Koontz that for years I thought I didn’t like fiction, as it was because of pop music that for years I thought I didn’t like music. Then I discovered Beethoven; taught me in a day I certainly don’t have a music-loving problem, as did Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, Mahler and others. As for K&K, I read The Stand in junior high–or tried to, but it bored me to tears. I returned to it about ten years ago and it bored me worse…Sorry, don’t get the fuss over King. The way he handles prose makes me want to barf. Koontz my college roommate introduced me to with a novel he said scared him so much he couldn’t sleep at night. I forget what it was called, but it was about a whole town disappearing and there’s some sort of evil devil-like creature responsible for it and this small band of survivors is left to fight it. (Would have been written in the late 80s I believe.) He may have been scared, but I laughed. And thought the book sucked.

    Since you’re into Camus I’d like some recommendations for how to get into him, since I’ve never tried anything he’s written. Same, btw, with Kafka, whom I’ve only read a little of, and none of it recently. I keep eying him but don’t know where’s best to jump in.

  9. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks for this John. For both of them I’d see if you like either of their shortest books, Camus’s The Stranger, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis; it’s a good bet that if you don’t like those, you won’t like the others. I’d give Kafka’s Trial a go, but not really The Castle, & Camus’s Notebooks are quite nice as well, as are his plays. But The Stranger & the Metamorphosis are both gems for me. I’d love to hear what you think if you give them a try.

    Since I’ve always tended towards writing, King & Koontz swept me up in junior high/high school, & I read tons of them, although admittedly it’s harder to now (but as I suggest in the essay, a “serious” novel by a “serious” writer can easily be just as bad).

    It’s nice to hear you talk about music, since that’s been the undercurrent to so much, so that where authors have gone by the wayside, many composers have not. Beethoven most of all. I’m in the middle of Jan Swafford’s biography of him, & for me there’s nothing like his Late Quartets, or so much of Bach. It’s strange where people find themselves intersecting. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll go check out your post.

  10. Tim Miller says:

    You’re very welcome! Thank you for stopping by.

  11. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks Elizabeth. Sometimes that personal happiness, & the process of creation itself, is all we might ever get. It’s worth reminding ourselves how important that private feeling is.

  12. “They were never the near-armor they seem to be for us now, as we carry their books around like a proud and private secret.” I loved this line. I read it three times.

  13. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks for this, Jessica. Seems we read The Plague around the same time, & what you say is a perfect response to the essay I mention. It pretends to criticize The Plague for not being a consistent (or whatever) parallel/allegory for the Nazi Occupation (& the doctors & those who help parallels to the Resistance) which Camus supposedly said it was. Yet the book still works, has it good & bad parts, but it works. It worked for both of us when we were fifteen, despite all the distractions that were around then…. & you mention his never being conventionally political; his change after the war, for wanting the death penalty etc. for collaborators, to being convinced otherwise, is really a moving thing to witness. Imagine that, someone who sees the difficulty of things & can change his mind, & grow! Thanks for stopping by, & for the comment.

  14. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks Greg. Isn’t that the experience of books, especially when young, carrying them around like that?

  15. spudbudette says:

    I love your perspective. Thanks for the refocus. Blessings!

  16. GM Wallace says:

    Existentialist literature and philosophy subverted traditional narrative semantics and teleologies and introduced a new kind of freedom and for me this was the terrain that later came to be populated by an experience Kerouac, Punk Rock, Zen and the realisation that, as we are left Ultimately rudderless and with only ourselves to depend on for meaning-construction and purpose-attribution in life – we should our best to make sure these creative meanings are worth something, that we can look back upon our life and feel that we meant something, even if only within our own improvised semantic Universe.

  17. Martin says:

    Very true. You only have to look up any classic book on Amazon and you will find a one star review. At the end of the day it is hard to argue successfully what is “good” art/poetry/writing/music etc. and what isn’t, because it is always subjective.
    Mind you arguing about it is actually quite fun, just ultimately pointless.
    My approach is to write/paint stuff I like and if other people like it as well then great.
    If they don’t then my response is that they’re entitled to their opinion, (unless they’re just mean, in which case screw ’em!)

  18. Tim Miller says:

    “Mind you arguing about it is actually quite fun, just ultimately pointless.” This is pretty much it, & I haven’t heard it said better than that. The art (& for me the story of the life of the artist) is of primary importance, but the only way it seems to get either of those out into the world is to pretend & play at arguing & criticism. Thank you for this.

  19. Tim Miller says:

    Thanks for this great comment, especially the end, “even if only within our own improvised semantic Universe.” It took me ages, & lots of anguish, to come to the same conclusion: https://wordandsilence.com/2016/10/13/there-is-only-the-trying-thoughts-on-fame-failure/

  20. Sean Bronson says:

    It’s funny you mention Albert Camus. I remember reading and liking “The Stranger” in high school as well. We must be the same age.

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