Tuesday 1 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (13th Part)

I think this is definitely one of my favourite parts by far. For parts 1-12, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here and here.

Corrective criticism, AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like

Far from the system critic there is another critic, let's call him the corrective critic, who prides himself on belonging to no school, who feels he knows his own mind. He is essentially meritocratic, interested only in what is good, and good for all time. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it if another is unrecognised he will be its champion, regardless of fashion. He is not, as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being, a leaf in the wind of trend. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief - the most beautiful kind of criticism, in my opinion. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. It is not enough for him to say, as the novelist has, this is what I love, this what I believe. He must also make his taste a general law. It is his way or the highway. To understand the problem with corrective criticism, we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer's duty. I said earlier that it was each writer's duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. It follows that each writer's duty is different, for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis, a different urgency. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James, while discussing religious subjectivity, gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed: Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself one must yield a point, another must stand firm, - in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks, a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth, or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro, does not occur to him. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral, Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly, and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. And although it's certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women, it happens that women were not his business - his business was death.

If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer's strength - but he seeks the sentence of literature, not the syllables. Committed to his theory, he defines his theory as"literature" itself, recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality, it is vitally important that one recognise one's own beliefs. The corrective critic is like one of William James's cocky atheists, believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. It is important that we recognise, for example, that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. That's what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the "dramatisation of belief". And a response to a novel, a piece of literary criticism, is also a dramatisation of belief. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.

Copyright 2009

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

Next Post: 'An Angel At My Table (Review)', to be published on Thursday 3rd December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Interesting and informative. Thanx.

  2. "If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer."

    So true.

    Another interesting post, Mr. Cuban. Thank you.

  3. This is so interesting -- she is so articulate and generous. If I had written this essay, I think I would add: "and then there's Dostoevsky..."

  4. To borrow from William Shakespeare and to paraphrase Dick the Butcher: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the 'critics'."

    I am afraid that it has been a few years since I took professional critics of the arts seriously. I believe them to be formed from the same mold as politicians and television newscasters: Self-indulgent, egotistical and corrupt.

    Whatever, CiL, it is understandable why this is among your favorite parts of the series. Zadie has clarity of vision.

  5. Great post, it is really interesting
    1. being humble
    2. always try to be authentic
    3. always try to improve
    4. keep seeking.

  6. Oh, this *is* one of the best parts of Zs's article so far! The sum of us, she appears to be saying, is better than the parts. And that can be equally true of writers or humanity.

  7. Zadie Smith's wisdom: 'a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks' wins me over. This whole series has been inspirational. thanks for sharing it.

    I will get back to you at some stage to ask your permission to quote from it (with due attributions of course). Some of this writing is amazing.

  8. Another excellent essay from Zadie, and I agree completely. I especially like this sentence: Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

  9. Cuban the banner is awesome.

    Cuban you are even more awesome.

    Cuban you are so intelligent and kind and mostly caring and wise.

    Love Renee xooxxo

  10. Thanks a lot for your kind words. Why is this one of my favourite parts? Because it lays into the 'sterile closed club of bitter old men'. That's a quote from the Independent journalist Johann Hari, one of my favourite columnists, defending a theatre reviewer who's come under attack recently.

    Next Sunday as par tof my weekly reflections I will be using this part of Zadie's post to expand on a class from this genus.

    Greetings from London.

  11. I can see how this installment is your favorite, especially as a fellow book blogger. I’m reading this piece as a reviewer, and it resonates on certain notes. This sentence is so lovely it could be framed: “Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.”

    I think there is some truth in this: “We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.”

    When I review a book, I acknowledge my personal taste, but I try my best to review a book on its own merits, on its ability to achieve the author’s goals. For example, easy read children’s books no longer appeal to me, but they did as a child. My goal is to match books with readers. I judge them on how well they succeed on capturing their intended audience and on the quality of the writing.

    For example Barrie Summy’s children’s books appeal to 8-12 year old girls, employing their vocabulary (including name calling which I personally dislike), humor and a literary style that make them very readable to those who might otherwise struggle. I’d look for something else if I were reviewing adult literary fiction or commercial fiction.

    Even beyond genre, I prefer originality to conformity, and it appears from this segment that Zadie Smith and I are on the same page.

    Love the new banner image!

  12. Very interesting thoughts about this type of critic. I'd like to know her thoughts about other types of critics.

    I haven't read any Zadie Smith until now and I'm intrigued.

  13. This is such a good discussion... seems to embody the Uber-critic's arrogance. I have an odd sense of humor... The more serious the one sitting next to God becomes, the more I want to giggle. Stay away from correcting yourself for the pleasure of the one in love with his ideals...and I think atheists are subjective too!

  14. I like this post very much. It’s even making me feel better about the fact that the recently published NY Times 100 Notable Books for 2009 did not include a single Latino author, or at least none with a recognizable Latino last name. Smith’s post helps me to at least consider that the judging panel may have standards which are, well, theirs. It doesn’t make those overlooked writers necessarily bad. It doesn’t make them necessarily good either, but I at least have to ask the question: were the standards used by the panel culturally determined? Does it even matter?

  15. I'm challenged when it comes to reading literary criticism, to say the least. It's no secret that we tend to read any work of literature, whether it is a classic or contemporary, prose or poetry, with predetermined ideas in our heads. When we enter a situation where those predetermined ideas are in any way disputed, we cringe. That is why this last sentence in the posting speaks volumes to me: "We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes." We find it hard to accept something we don't personally believe, unfortunately, and this doesn't bode well for the critic who is trying to pretend he is sitting on the fence only because he wants to see what's happening on either side of it.

    Thank you, again, Cuban, for posting these Smith treasures for writers and readers, both.


  16. You have to love Zadie's insight. I think she's pared it down to the real point. Dusty, bitter,old men as critics should not dictate what is and isn't worthy. Great post.

  17. I think good writers are like good musicians. It takes a bit from the cradle and a lot of practice.
    Al Godar

  18. wow! Cuban, it's a real wake-up call to realize how patronizing assuredness may appear to some.

    this piece is all well and good, except we're left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps NOTHING is certain.

    we DO get it; the sparcity of Hemingway's words is HIS strength just as the verbal acrobatics of Wilde is HIS talent;it follows that choosing one over the other on this basis does NOT negate the greatness of either.

    the thing of it is that not ALL writers are great, some are really bad all on their own {we are a prime example and admit it} but are especially bad in comparison to good writers.

    iow, where does certainty fit in? is it THAT condescending to believe one's own judgement?

    another entertaining and informative piece, Cuban, thanks once again. :-)


  19. I cannot say too strongly how thoroughly I agree with this. Absolutely spot on.

  20. Thank you very much for you kind words.

    Greetings from London.

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