Go Ahead and Fuck Up

I’m 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 when I recently 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, but 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 has become 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. Some public figure can’t make a gaffe, let alone express what to many may be an abhorrent opinion, without it somehow ruining his entire life.

Why does this happen? Is it some combination of jealousy at the notoriety of someone who made a mistake we feel we never would, and the need for our public figures to be impossibly pure and perfect? If so, it’s even more reason to be shown that someone as respected as Camus was vilified during and after his life, whether for his refusal to embrace Communism, or his views on French action in Algeria, and so on. It’s good 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.