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.


19 replies »

  1. I’ve a wry smile over this one, as my life’s been one long fuck-up on many levels… but grit keeps my shoulder to the boulder of creativity in the hope I’ll find some redemption in there somewhere. I’m lucky I suppose, to be born before the sense of entitlement became innate, so I expect criticism and to be cast into the sea of failure. Never stops me though! :0) A timely piece for me, as I reassess my direction – so thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I know what you mean. Many times I’ve thought to just give up, but the innate thing that brings me back is beyond whatever criticism or failure can do. Even if hardly anyone reads me, there’s still that powerful need to go on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It just seems so necessary to point out the obvious, as i felt the impulse in my ‘Plagued by the fact & the facts of life’ essay. Wallace Stevens brushed his teeth & scrubbed his floor; Eliot lay naked in the bath tub. Dylan Thomas combed his hair. They all had human flaws.They WERE more than their work.
    i think a difference between criticism & shaming is a necessary distinction to be made & may warrant an essay. To shame is not a critique, the critic shouldn’t make it their purpose to bring down what they are criticizing, it is an act of deep understanding & analysis, which should expose & explore the text or the act, not simply & brashly call it out to be ridiculed. Too often, if not in most public cases, the two are not seen as different.
    Bloom is fond of often using the Becket quote about failing. Something like “if you fail, fine, fail again, but fail better.” Something like that. i agree. Fail magnificently, fuck up in the most splendid way, but know why you fucked up. In the limitation there lies the opportunity for understanding.

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  4. I agree, the distinction even between the kind of criticism I don’t have time for, & forms of mindless “shaming”–even that space is vast indeed. Not to even mention the space between shaming & actual ludic astounding criticism. I’ll race you to see who makes this a separate essay first…! I like to collect anecdotes about writers & artists just to say what you did, that they all took baths & scrubbed the floors. When I was at Eliot’s church in London, St Stephens, it was heartening to think of him straightening up the missals after mass…. Sometimes I think HOS is just about the biggest damn 12yr fuckup imaginable, but even if the fullness of time sees it that way, it was still one hell of a ride.

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  5. No, i can’t bring myself to shame. i can ignore, i can resolve to not give my attention, as in this whole Hollywood debacle, for me, considering the ludicrous sums of money to make garbage & couple that with it being full of just sheer ugliness, i can just not watch Hollywood films. Very easy.
    Ahh. You have a library at your disposal for your essays, but i’ll do my best to come up with something. i doubt it’ll be long, as i am a little short on sources. But that doesn’t usually stop me, haha.

    i think that is why i like Larkin so much,, like you say of Eliot, Larkin puts in his poems those moments of attention. i think Church Going has that feel. Just quiet moments, simple, in a space.
    i don’t know if HOS was a fuck up. i think it was necessary to expel the need for it otherwise you may not have been able to write an original poem. Just constantly recycling what you read into what would essentially be a career of cento poetry, & you don’t want that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for reading. It seems especially important to say when it’s to easy to be anonymously critical or cruel online, that this should deter no one’s creativity or openness; we are so surrounded by the judgments of strangers these days, & most of us should say who cares, & still express ourselves.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Your words resonate with me, particularly after reading DBC Pierre’s first novel “Vernon God Little” which he wrote with more passion than talent but won him a hotly criticised Booker Prize. He’s more mature now but still a tortured man who does it his own way. His latest work “Release The Bats” is probably the hardest hitting self-help-for-writers book I’ve read in a long while.

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  8. Private Crabcakes, reporting for duty Sir!
    Ready, willing and able to Fuck Up, Sir!

    This little phrase has been rattling around my brain for quite a few years.

    Three things that I am trying to be better at:
    not knowing, making mistakes and being wrong.
    I call it the path of the Uncarved Blockhead.

    And a quote that I have repeated to myself so many times that it has the ring of cliche:
    “Failure is the key to success. Every mistake teaches us something.” –Morihei Ueshiba
    (to which I like to add “…if we are paying attention.”

    I have not read Camus in quite some time but I seem to remember getting the feeling later on that the fiction took on more and more the feel of a vehicle for the philosophy. I was never well-read enough to say for sure where I go that idea. Perhaps it was from reading The Myth of Sisyphus many years after reading The Stranger and The Plague.

    Thanks for this reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Tim!

    Thank you for the follow! Great post by the way. I admire your style of writing. Descriptive and precise.

    Can’t wait to read more of your content.

    Have a great weekend,

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, that’s the way of it…Those who say that it’s not, play the usual game that everyone plays. One of keeping up appearances. Me I think it better to be vulnerable, you learn more when you have little to lose. Literary icons are never immediately so…or born to it. Or so it seems. Writing is about finding the code, the shared ambition to resonate inside.I’m suspicious of those who seem to do it effortlessly.

    Liked by 1 person

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