Tuesday 6 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (5th Part)

This week, the question Zadie asks us is: Are we disloyal to ourselves when we write? For parts 1-4, click here, here, here and here.

Writing as self-betrayal

Back to my simple point, which is that writers are in possession of "selfhood", and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure. This shameful fact needn't trouble the professor or the critic, but it is naturally of no little significance to writers themselves. Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski, speaking of The Self, in a poem of the same title:

It is small and no more visible than a cricket in August.
It likes to dress up, to masquerade, as all dwarves do.
It lodges between granite blocks, between serviceable truths.
It even fits under a bandage, under adhesive.
Neither custom officers nor their beautiful dogs will find it.
Between hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.

To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation - as Zagajewski suggests - is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it's impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realise it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called "realists", comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. 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.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'National Poetry Day in the UK' to be published on Thursday 8th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. That image made me laugh out loud. Interesting also to read "That is not it at all . . . that is not what I meant, at all . . ." on your post today, too, as I've been blogging about exactly the same thing this morning.

  2. Very true words indeed on the struggle we all go thru with what we show the world.

  3. I have to tell you dear friend that I cannot get enough of the images. Brilliant.

    Love Renee xoxo

  4. That's very interesting. I always wondered why I hate rereading my own work and why I posting short stories on the blog feels so incredibly personal (I don't do that any more, for this reason alone!). It's got to have something to do with compromising the self then... I'll have to think about this.

  5. Who is the self who produces the written work and is revealed through that work? This is almost a quantum physics question where the reality of a particle is affected by the observation of it. That inability to “fix” the reality of the writer and her work is also the source of the “magic” of writing and why we can be so transformed by it. Great post!

  6. Many thanks to you all for your amazing comments. The book I am reading at present, 'Ficciones', by Jorge Luis Borges, could go some way towards explaining why Zadie Smith's theory can only be proven wrong... in fiction.

    One of Borges's short stories deals with a library and the contents in it. The way he describes it, this edifice, which is actually full of hexagonal shapes slotting into one another at an angle, like gears, contains all of the most important works ever. In fact, rumour has it that there is ONE BOOK (The Bible, anyone?) that is the ultimate truth-holder. All this shows that in reality the absolute truth which inhabits inside ourselves will never come out. Because we will never discover it.

    What authors do is they take a strand of that truth, theirs or someone else's, and build their edifice based upon on it.

    Judith, you're quite right. My only question is: Is the reality of the object a mirage, or a fact? And will it change from person to person, i.e., will it still be called reality by someone else?

    By the way, don't thank me, thank the amazing writer Zadie Smith:-). As for the illustrations, we have a saying in Cuba that goes: 'Ayuden al artista cubano' ('Help the Cuban aritst'). Garrincha's shops (he's got two now) are open for business.

    Greetings from London.

  7. This post makes me remember my own experience that led to writing fiction. I started out writing a memoir, and then realized I could be more honest if I wrote fiction and avoided real people.

    Still, I disagree (surprise, surprise.) Writing is not failure – it’s artistic expression. There are no absolute truths or self-betrayal in the world of the imagination. Zadie Smith does a fine job of making us think about the act of writing, even if I don’t agree with her. My advice to her: end hibernation in Plato’s cave and write another novel. The genre is fiction, not philosophy.

    And yet, I look forward to the next installment. Thank you, ACIL, The Guardian and Zadie Smith!

  8. I find it's so variable. Sometimes I read something I have written and think 'yes, that is it, exactly' and then another time...maybe even the next day (or sooner...) I will read the same thing and think 'oh no, what was I thinking, that's all wrong...'

  9. The answer is NO. Nor am I disloyal when I cook for myself, I can get pretty close to the taste I want. And...I definitely dance that loose jointed way, as only I can. Loyalty to moi is my middle name!!

  10. hola from le midi!!
    i have you up in 2 windows so i can listen to Eros singing from Firenze--- you are once again raising a good question about writers as truth seekers ,on a quest of self realization through word ,or thoughts in words which when shared are of greater value than not???? a lovely subject to ponder on this first day of rain after the vendange.
    greeting to you as i search for my umbrella.

  11. The Borges' book sounds very interesting and I like the idea of a library holding all the most important works, and even the idea of one perfect book... (this makes me want to read Borges more, I only tried Labirynths before and it was awesome)

    But isn't this theory repeating what we already said before - namely that a writer builds his fiction on snippets of personal experiences?

  12. The answer is yes, Polly. Only that at some point the writer will realise that he/she is revealing too much about themselves, and they will be probably left feeling exposed. I guess that the sense of betrayal Zadie mentions comes from that contradiction between being faithful to oneself and/or faithful to the reader. Throughout Margaret Atwood's work the under- or overtone is one of female emancipation. In 'Edible Woman' the main character eats to calm her anxiety, an antithesis of the modern western dilemma of anorexic women. In 'The Handmaid's Tale' the leading role is taken up by a woman who ends up subverting the system from her own submissive position. Yet, Margaret Atwood declared recently that she does not consider herself a feminist, a slap on the face, if you like, for many of her female fans who thought her literature to be precisely a feminist platform.

    Many thanks to you all for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.

  13. Again I find myself agreeing with Sarah Laurence that 'writing is a creative expression'. Especially where fiction is concerned. It is a means of getting the message across to a reader, to entertain and perhaps enthrall them into reading more.



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