Tuesday 17 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (11th Part)

Individual vs General, or Uniqueness against Mass Production? For parts 1-10, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

System readers, system writers

"A work of art," said Nabokov, "has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me."

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the "individual reader" having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered - the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur-novel - the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller - it's annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognise as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key. The upshot of this is that the intimate and idiosyncratic in fiction is everywhere less valued than the ideologically coherent and general. When the world is nervous, state-of-the-nation novels bring great comfort. The Nobel went to Pasternak, not Nabokov. But then how should we read? What does one tell a young reader struggling to choose from the smorgasbord of theoretical reading "systems" that are put before him or her in an average undergraduate week? Soren Kierkegaard has a useful piece of analogous advice, given to sceptical youths approaching philosophy for the first time: "The youth is an existing doubter. Hovering in doubt and without a foothold for his life, he reaches out for the truth - in order to exist in it."

That's how young readers are, too, when they start out. They are doubters and seekers. They are living in a negative, as Kierkegaard explains it, and so naturally are very susceptible to those who come offering positives like - in the case Kierkegaard is considering - the overwhelming positive of Hegel's "System". But, he warns, whole systems that concern themselves with the experience of being a self will not lead us to truth, for the cogent reason that we cannot fully exist in systems, but only within our own skins. "A philosophy of pure thought," he argues, "is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point - Aye, it is still more impossible."

When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it. We have our map of Europe and this novel is Denmark, maybe even just Copenhagen. But we've forgotten how to walk round Copenhagen. Frankly, it seems a pointless activity. If fiction is going to be this particular and inimical, we'd rather give it up and read something useful and real like a biography of Stalin.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post 'Half of a Yellow Sun' (Review), to be published on Thursday 19th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Oh, I will always go for the intimate and idiosyncratic! I like the Nabokov quote at the beginning.

  2. ... and yet, it is ususally those little idiosyncratic novels that are delightful and uplifting, whereas the "big idea" novels are often oppressive. It's the difference between observing the world and trying to fit it into a mold.

    I find abstract philosophy a little hard to follow. Kierkegaard's illustration about the map made things wonderfully clear.

  3. Wie geht's, Cuban!
    Pues sí que noto las diferencias de los mass books con los otros... Los primeros también tienen su campaña detrás y su dinero por ganar delante. Se me hace difícil a veces escoger el próximo libro a leer...
    Gruesse aus Berlin!!

  4. A great write this. Now I may not be the best writer, but this week much to my delight, my very lovely anthology of poems was published for sale in a beautiful 'coffee table book' you can find all details on.
    Dear Cuban in London they are flying out!!!many I believe for Xmas Gifts. Proceeds to Multiple Myeloma of course. I wanted especially to let you know, as you have always been very supportive. Sincere Regards to you.

  5. You said it right, young readers are doubters and seekers, I agree.

  6. How very true. I used to read just for fun now it seems I take a garden book to bed. How boring is that? Maybe when I stop blogging I can read more fiction:)

  7. Listening to the kids Cuban and you can save their stories to write them little stories.

    Love Renee xoxo

  8. The concept of an “ur-novel” is an interesting one. As one who writes in a style that doesn’t fit neatly into one genre category, this article resonates with me.

    What we need aren’t just individual readers, but individual publishers who can see an unique work for what it is in itself as opposed to how it fits into pre-existing marketing slots. Perhaps that is what is driving the self-publishing phenomenon.

    I’d be curious to know what Zadie Smith thinks of self-publishing. She’s critical of the world publishing, although it has served her, and her original writing, well.

    Thanks for running this series! So many interesting ideas to contemplate.

  9. I'm here! Now, I'll go back to Part I and do this the right way!

  10. Lots of nuggets in this piece - love the dismissive term of the flatpack Ikea novel!! Hope you enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun - I really liked this second novel - so wide ranging and I finally understand where Biafra is and what the whole Biafran war was about!! I always hearc the word growing up in the early sxities but had no idea where it was other than the place where any uneaten food on my plate would be posted to!! Greetings from mexico

  11. The failure of the blog system is that it does not allow for discussion or debate. It tosses an opinion into the atmosphere, and permits only a sentence or two of agreement, disagreement or general observation. In this sense, it represents no more than a newspaper and its letters to the editor section -- except, that since there is no need to address an envelope or to lick a stamp, the blog makes it easier for the lazy man to submit his reaction.

    It amazes me when I drift in the sea of blogs and discover how many people seem (claim) to be avid readers, but the amazement lessens when I see what they are reading. Their selections largely seem to be self-help (please help me find the real me) books and novels which have no particular value other than for entertainment and flights into fantasia. Who is at fault, the reader or the publisher? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    Now, for my observation: This is a fine series of articles, CiL. It is a pleasure to witness people break out of the ordinary.

    This is especially true when government increasingly pressures citizenry to become more ordinary, such as is occurring in America today. The result is an era in which "art" follows society, rather than opens new doorways.

  12. Thanks for your comments. I won't address my reply to anyone directly as most of you have made some very good points.

    To me the concept of the ur-novel is not a new one but one that leaves me cold. Is that original manuscript an act of luck or vision? I never liked 'Don Quijote' yet as a younger student in Cuba it was compulsory literature material. 'Cecilia Valdez', the pinnacle of Cuban literature in the XIX century did not call to any part of me. So, the ur-novel, although it is excellent cannon fodder for critics and specialists, is not always welcomed in the same way by readers. And what to say of writers? 'There goes another "classic"! Now we have to get on the same bandwagon if we want to be published'. Remember chick-lit? Blame Bridget Jones's Diary. Yes, I read it (hides behind cupboard). It was an offer on amazon.co.uk, so I bought along with Chocolat. Two novels written by numbers and determined by the zeroes at the end of the dotted line.

    I agree that we need more imaginative publishers. But hang on a sec! What's that I see in the distance? Waterstone's, amazon.com/co.uk, WH Smith, Tesco, Asda. Yes, they're offering 3 books for the price of 2. They display ghost-written novels by celebrity who don't even know how to pick up a pencil properly. So, where were we? Ahhh... publishers... hey, come back, Mr/Ms Publisher, please, come back, we're not done yet.

    Yes, guys, supermarket and bookshop chains control the business. Recently there's been a very heated debate in the pages of The Guardian about Waterstones and its contribution, or lack of it thereof, to the art of reading (What Makes a Good Writer? passim). It's been very good getting opinions from both sides of the literary spectrum. Those who write the books, those who publish the books, and those who sell them. And guess who has the upper hand? I knew you were an intelligent audience.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  13. "No thanks," I say, to the biography of Stalin. I'd rather read that book that seems to not be about anything in particular, so long as the writer can keep me still inside his little world of fantasy or reality. For me, reading is all about being in that world and just swimming inside it. I can't be particular about the subject matter because the matter of greater interest is the flow of the words. Do they work like a spell for me? I'm there? Do they make me think and dream? I'm there. And I'm not leaving, either.

    Love these Zadie Smith pieces. They're such eye openers. Thanks as always for sharing, Cuban.


  14. I, too, like these Zadie Smith commentaries and thank you profusely for them, Cuban. On this one, though, I part company with Smith. She seems to be advocating for Literature versus literature, for experimental versus derivative. But, I have to ask what the purpose of writing is. The answer is that there is more than one. By logical extension, there can be more than one type of novel. Am I to begrudge the pleasure a reader gets from a novelist who writes only detective pulp fiction? Or feel badly that some of us can’t get through Joyce’s Ulysses? I am sorry to put this in crass commercial terms, but just as there are many brands of coffee for different palates, there are different types of novels for the many types of readers. And who is to define what the ur-novel is and when it is so? Some of those considered classics today barely made a peep on the publishing scene when they were first published. Yes, I feel dismay that so many good writers have a difficult time achieving publication today, but was it ever different? Can those writers find alternative venues for publication? But, again, thank you for the Smith series. They are thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  15. Agree with Nabokov...From the individual's words, to cult or culture? Let them make the choice.. I haven't picked a heading for my writing. We can't be afraid to write from the inside out, the writer's "job".....
    Elitism is such an ego trip, elitists are always being failed by others.

  16. Great points. The publishers drive to make money has always ruled the literary marketplace and it has gotten worse but with self publishing, I feel there are more options for writers and readers. Happy Scorpio Birthday!

  17. Hey! That Nabokov quote is brilliant!

  18. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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