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Zadie Smith on writing

Excellent article on writing from writer Zadie Smith (whom I have not yet read). I’ve copied over pretty much the whole article, but only because she writes only what’s necessary, even if there’s a lot that is.

On the writer:

Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self – vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That’s why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great.

A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere – for convenience’s sake we’ll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the “soul” would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator.

They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.

In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it. That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one’s own work, is Prufrock’s: “That is not it at all … that is not what I meant, at all …” Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.

On T.S. Eliot:

For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer’s work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. The poet and his personality were irrelevant, the poetry was everything; and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of literary history. That essay is written in so high church a style, with such imperious authority, that even if all your affective experience as a writer is to the contrary, you are intimidated into believing it. “Poetry,” says Eliot, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” “The progress of an artist,” says Eliot, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

He was so concerned with privacy that it influences his terminology: everywhere in that essay there is the assumption that personality amounts to simply the biographical facts of one’s life – but that is a narrow vision. Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it’s our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities; it is our way of being active.

As for that element of his work that he puts forward as a model of his impersonality – a devotion to tradition – such devotion is the very definition of personality in writing. The choices a writer makes within a tradition – preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme – constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.

Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science; he famously compared a writer to a piece of finely filiated platinum introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. This analogy has proved a useful aspiration for critics. It has allowed them to believe in the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself, or at least none the critic need worry himself with. Eliot’s analogy freed critics to do the independent, radically creative, non-biographical criticism of which they had long dreamt, and to which they have every right. For writers, however, Eliot’s analogy just won’t do. Fiction writing is not an objective science and writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate.

On cliche:

What is a cliche except language passed down by Das Mann, used and shop-soiled by so many before you, and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express? With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones – for example, in each of my novels somebody “rummages in their purse” for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate “purse” from its old, persistent friend “rummage”. To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence – a small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince; less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which “inauthentic” is truly the correct term.

On great writing:

For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise. Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer.

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment – once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in – what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It’s certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can’t help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.

A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. Great styles represent the interface of “world” and “I”, and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry – we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing – great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

On genius:

There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called “The Great American Novel” and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation, not just of a man … Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible – it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I’ve been talking about – the duty to convey accurately the truth of one’s own conception – is a duty of the most demanding kind. If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that’s because there were only a few. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception – given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self – truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one’s eyes water just thinking about it.

But there’s no reason to cry. If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do. It is a writer’s duty. It is also a reader’s duty. Did I mention that yet?

On reading and the reader:

Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers.

To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.

The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced.

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