Friday, January 12, 2007

On reading

An appealing piece about novel-writing by Zadie Smith at the Guardian. Here's the part I liked the most:

It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" - at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. 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. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. 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. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.

It would be comforting as well as efficient if time spent improving the self could conceivably have some payoff down the road in the fiction, eh? I find in particular as a reader that my doubts about a particular writer's style (his/her sentences, say) can rarely be expressed in strictly aesthetic terms, it always shades into questions of character--it is good to see Zadie Smith saying that so clearly here.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I often wonder about the supposed disconnect between self and the self's fiction creations as well, and it's refreshing to see the point spelled out here.

  2. I would have thought the connection between the self, insofar as we can know it, and the fictions we create was self-evident. We cannot, for example, at sixty write in the way we wrote at thirty and forty and fifty. Things have been born in us and things have died. If we have never known emotional exultation or the experience of extreme physical effort, we are different from those who have and we cannot write about these things in the way they do. It seems to me that reader and writer come closest when the writer touches what Jerome Kagan of Harvard calls 'schemata' – pyschological structures that owe nothing to language.

  3. Well, NOW I certainly agree with you, but I would not have when I was twenty...

  4. Hello, followed a link here from Phantom's.

    Madeleine L'Engle wrote about this -- about the 'self' getting in the way, and also about the moral obligations of writing. I wish I could remember where she wrote it. Probably the Crosswicks journals, do you know them?

    I think what you're referring to is not an individual's personal experience, as peter mentions, but that person's most deeply-held beliefs. A book can be a lie if it denies or betrays what one knows to be a human truth.