We should all stop being so self-deprecating

Awhile back, I admonished a friend of mine to not run down her own work so much. But it was kind of a glass houses situation, because I am also frequently prone to fits of self-deprecation. I’ll talk about how my writing has reached the stage where it’s only sort of okay, or I’ll run down my novel as another “vampires in high school” novel. And I know that I’m only hurting myself by saying that.

Because when you say you’re not that great, people will believe you. And even if you think you’re not that great (and I am far from thinking that), it doesn’t help you for other people to think so too.

The worth of self-deprecation is mostly social. We don’t like it when other people are arrogant and have a high opinion of themselves. We want people to like us, so we take pains to avoid being seen as arrogant. And that’s the right thing to do in social situations, when it’s more important to avoid annoying people than it is to impress them (like when you’re talking to your family).

But most of the occasions on which we talk about our work (whatever that work might be) are not social occasions. Insofar as you’re my readers, you’re not my friends. My responsibilities towards you are different than if we were all sitting around the house together. My responsibility is to provide you with some pleasure, and to gain your regard in return. In that kind of relationship, I think that the risks of being annoyed by possible arrogance on my part are lower (though not entirely gone), and that the costs of self-deprecation are higher (because you have fewer friendly feelings towards me to inflate your opinion of my work).

In this regard, I think its part of the performance for me to at least pretend that I think my words are worth your time. Because if it’s not, then what the hell am I doing?

I think that we should all strive to be one of those people who skates by on confidence and braggadocio (even if, in my case, that confidence is backed up by some solid talent).

You know the people I’m talking about, right? They’re the ones who exude a great deal of confidence in themselves, and, in doing so, achieve a reputation that is disproportionate to their accomplishments. That’s because people don’t spend very much time or effort trying to make accurate judgments about other people. Most of the time, they’re just willing to take your word for how much your worth (although that level of worth is, of course, giving a floor and a ceiling by your overall place within society).

 

There are two counterarguments here. The first is that even promotional arrogance can sometimes annoy people when it starts to call their own judgments into question. If I said, “My novel is better than the Windup Girl and you guys were fools not to give it every prize”, then people who disagreed with me might feel like I was being a huge fool.

But I don’t think that’s a big deal. There are writers with massive, outsized egos out there: writers like V.S. Naipaul and Harlan Ellison. For their fans, that’s part of their appeal. And that massive ego often causes otherwise uninterested people to give them a shot (I would not never have read a word by V.S. Naipaul if he was even slightly less bombastic). Basically, any publicity is better than no publicity. Even people who disagree with a writer’s brag usually have to read their work in order to do so. It’s better to be read and hated than not to be read at all.

 

I think the more salient counterargument is that sometimes self-deprecation is merely the outward expression of a person’s unwillingness to be satisfied with the things in their work that are not up to their personal standard.

That unwillingness is very important, and it’s a skill that writers have to greater or lesser degrees. There are a large number of writers who are not very self-reflective about their work (i.e. they think their own work is awesome even though few others would agree), and because of that, they never improve.

Being able to make accurate assessments of one’s own work is something every writer should probably develop, but I don’t see any reason to pollute your potential audience with that self-awareness. What you want is for them to be totally clueless and to think you’re the greatest thing since the invention of ice cubes.

One of the few times I’ve read about Africa without being made to feel sorry for anyone

So, a week ago, I was reading David Markson’s Last Novel (which was predictably fascinating, in a very annoying and highly pleasurable way) and I came across the little factoid:

I think A Bend in the River is much, much better than Conrad

Pronounced the humility-drenched author of A Bend in the River

And somehow, out of all the unfamiliar vaguely literary anecdotes in that novel, it was this one which caught my eye and prompted me to look it up. Well, upon reading the opening lines of A Bend In The River (which is by Indo-Trinidian author V.S. Naipaul) I was totally hooked and had to read the rest. Those lines are:

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

I have no idea why I found this to be so gripping and resonant. I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by the Indian Diaspora, and I know so little about it (particularly the part that did not end up in the U.S.), but this novel is not really about that (the protagonist is a Muslim shopkeeper of South Asian descent, but one whose family has been in Africa for centuries). It’s just about life in this small town, in a fictional country, that is deep in the interior of the continent.

Any long-time blog reader will know that I love socially-conscious writers: Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Aravind Adiga, Emile Zola, etc. But these writers often paint in very broad strokes, and end up creating works that are powerful and ring true, but which lack subtlety and thoughtfulness. And they’re the kind of writers who are often derided by those who just look for dense, mellifluous writing and well-observed characters. This kind of reader prefers fairly apolitical, often domestic novels, like those of Nabokov or Virginia Woolf.

This novel feels like a domestic novel. It feels like it’s about an adulterous affair, and about feeling alienated from society. It feels like it’s about dirty kitchen sinks and coming to terms with the death of one’s dreams. But it’s also about analyzing and categorizing entire societies.

It feels, sometimes, like a satire, but if so, it’s one without the broad portraits and the melodrama that I often associate with satire. Oh, and best of all, you know how I keep talking about how terrible I feel for enjoying poverty porn type novels (in my posts on The White Tiger and on The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance)…well, this has none of that. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. You know how rare it is to hear about Africa and not be made to feel sorry for someone? It felt great not to feel even a slightest call to action emanating from the book. That alone is enough to make me love this novel.