Tuesday, 8 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (14th Part)

Can writers ever fail themselves, or do they just disappoint readers? Zadie Smith again posing difficult questions this week. For parts 1-13, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here, here and here.

Imagining better readers, better writers

But if the real duty of writers is to themselves, how can they ever fail? Are we advocating a new "nice" criticism, where all writers get off the hook just because they tried hard, were in good faith? No. What I am imagining is, I hope, a far more thorough reader. My reader holds writers to the same account as the rest of us, my reader does not allow writers to transcend the bounds of the human, because my reader recognises that writers exist like the rest of us, as ethical individuals moving through the world. One critic-practitioner, Iris Murdoch, understood this well. She insisted on the idea that art-making was a test not only of a skill, but of one's entire personality. Here she is making a high-wire connection between what it takes to make good art and what it takes to live well: 'The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one . . .' This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. For a writer, that's a fascinating, terrifying idea. What if the personal qualities we need to recognise the Good in life do indeed bear some resemblance to the literary tools we need to write well? It is, Murdoch once said, incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people really exist in the same way that we do ourselves. It is the great challenge of art to convince ourselves of this fundamental truth - but it's also the challenge of our lives.


Writers, just like everyone, are prone to the belief that all the world's a movie, in which they are the star, and all the other people, merely extras, lingering on set. To live well, to write well, you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people. I believe that, and I believe further that this relationship can be traced at every level - a sentence can be self-deluded, can show an ulterior motive, can try too hard to please, can lie, can be blind to anything outside itself, can believe itself to be of the utmost importance. To see things as they really are . . . to me this is always and everywhere, in writing, in life, a matter of morals. But that's just me. I'm sure there are many other, more radical ways to trace the relationship between our experiences and the demands that narrative makes on us as many ways as there are shapes of narrative. Wouldn't this be an interesting project for a new generation of critics to undertake? Every critic is an artist in this fantasy literary republic I'm envisioning, every critic is doing as much imaginative work as the novelist, probably more. A great critic is, in the end, imagining the novelist . He is piecing together, retroactively, the beliefs and obsessions and commitments that powered the novel into existence in the first place. And as he does so he reveals his own beliefs, obsessions, commitments. He speaks the truth about an individual experience with a novel.

I have said that when I open a book I feel the shape of another human being's brain. To me, Nabokov's brain is shaped like a helter-skelter. George Eliot's is like one of those pans for sifting gold. Austen's resembles one of the glass flowers you find in Harvard's Natural History Museum. Each has strengths and weaknesses, as I apply them to the test of my own sensibility. I can slide down Nabokov, but not slowly, and not fully under my own control. I can find what's precious with Eliot, but only hidden among mundane grey stones of some weight. Austen makes me alive to the Beautiful and the Proportional, but the final result has no scent and is cold to the touch.This is my private language for a private understanding. It is the critic's job to formulate a public language that comes close to their own private understanding, and which, if it is acute enough, will find its companions in a community of like-minded readers. And if you read with the wideness and flexibility Murdoch describes, with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible, you will find fiction opening up before you. To read The Virgin Suicides followed by The Idiot followed by Despair followed by You Bright and Risen Angels followed by Bleak House followed by Jonah's Gourd Vine followed by Play it as it Lays is to be forced to recognise the inviolability of the individual human experience. Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world.

Copyright 2009

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

Next Post: 'Living in a Bilingual World', to be published on Thursday 10th December at 11:59pm (GMT)

16 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful essay, and so very true not just about literature but also about life. Murdoch's "incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people really exist in the same way that we do ourselves" really sums it up, but I wonder whether it's possible to create with that in mind. Is it possible to create for other people, with other people in mind or is it only possible in solitude and separation from the outside world.

    I think this has already been answered by Smith in another of her essays. I'll have to reread them all at some point, they are not an easy read for me and I'm not sure I got everything right.

    Thanks!

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  2. I'm thoroughly wowed by Zadie Smith's ideas on writing.

    I find it all humbling and exhilarating at the same time. She tempers optimism and hope with doubt.

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  3. The utopian ideal of author, reader, critiscism exists for someone else. I think Zadie Smith is so talented, a fabulous, rich writer who really knows how to contol a proposition. Good brain.
    I don't read a book to entrap the author. If the writer is full of it, I'll be able to spot that. Too much designing a future school of criticism..too airless for me.

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  4. Hi Mr. Cuban,
    Love the idea of combining writing, life, and living well. Iris Murdoch's point about the connection to personality is essential...also your idea of knowing that others' have a real life and comprehensible reality makes the reading experience more satisfying...it's not only (or all) about you as the writer-other people matter, too. Great post!

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  5. Yikes! A reader is going to judge my morals based on my made up stories? The fun of writing fiction is creating both good and bad characters and exploring bad behavior without hurting anyone. Grey morality makes for interesting fiction. I never like books that come across as preachy. Then again I don’t like trashy books that glorify immoral behavior either.

    I have to add that there are brilliant writers who are morally suspect people. Hemmingway and Fitzgerald were drunks, and Lewis Carroll was an opium addict and possibly a pedophile. Artists can be even more egregious. Hey, Andy Warhol stole a cab from my friends and me late one night in NYC. I bet he didn’t have a curfew. Then again what was I doing at a club in high school?

    There are certainly morally upstanding authors and artists out there too. All my writer friends, including a bestseller author, are the opposite of arrogant. My message is don’t judge a book by it’s author. Art is art.

    I rather enjoyed Zadie’s analogy of Austen to the gorgeous glass flowers at Harvard, but I also think that Austen’s work still breaths beyond a glass case. I think there is a danger in trying to compartmentalize everything, especially if author and book end up in one sealed compartment under glass.

    Anyway, even if I disagree with some of Zadie’s points, it’s still a fascinating subject to ponder. Thanks for sharing!

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  6. Many thanks for your lovely feedback.

    Sarah, Andy Warhol left you stranded in New York and took your cab! Hey, that's A STORY IN ITSELF!:-)

    I agree that we should never judge an author's morals by the book(s) he writes. I am torn right now, whilst re-reading 'Lolita', between following the great storyline and laugh at Nabokov's imagination or frowning at the thought that this is a guy writing about a man who fancies a minor. Decisions, decisions!

    Greetings from London.

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  7. The writer, reader, and critic have their jobs to do. Then there are the agent and the publisher who choose which works and authors to bring to the reading public. Add to that the individual sensibilities of each of these entities, and it is a miracle, almost, that any written work is published and read, and really a miracle if it becomes a bestseller. One thing I know never changes though. There will be readers hungry to read books and writers driven to write them. And then they have to find each other and, alas, therein lies the rub. Again, Smith has made me think, a worthwhile thing to have accomplished.

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  8. "Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world." And what a sobering fact that is!

    But here is what really caught my eye: "Writers, just like everyone, are prone to the belief that all the world's a movie, in which they are the star, and all the other people, merely extras, lingering on set. To live well, to write well, you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people." This statement presupposes that the two realities are mutually exclusive - that the writer cannot fancy herself the star of a movie while the others are extras and still be alive to the reality of people. I would argue that it is possible to be both. Take Anais Nin as an example. She states, in her unexpurgated diaries, repeatedly, that she is out in search of "experience" for her writing, trying to learn about people and what makes them operate the way they do so she could write about them, so she could create characters and stories. But Anais Nin was also a lover of people, and this in every single sense of the word. She loved people sexually, she loved them for their physical beauty, for their personalities, for their ugliness, for their social ineptness, for their weaknesses, their strengths, their absurdities, their kindnesses, their filthiness, and the list goes on and on. She was a star, the center of attention wherever she went, and yet, she was able to step inside the "reality" of people and to become an intricate part of it. And her writing is... well, it does speak for itself, does it not?

    Nevine

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  9. dear Mr. Cuban, I went back to read your Sunday morning essay...and of course my daughter came in and interrupted me because sitting at a screen is being a blank slate (she must be your age, if you are not younger) and I will respond, but not directly, on my blog because I found it so interesting/provoking... but most especially that it ended with the link to My3 and Swaziland and the fact that 50% of twenty year olds are HIV positive. That is the best segue out of a discussion of culture, narrowness of culture, that I can imagine...

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  10. It is so important to realize that other peoples realities are as real as our own.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

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  11. I am not sure about the chief duty of the writer being to himself. I am not sure how that sits with The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. which to my mind is the essence of what we should all be about. So much art and poetry these days is self-expression, pure and simple, and not intended to be anything else.

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  12. Many thanks for your lovely feedback.

    Greetings from London.

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  13. Catching up on my blogging rounds and am blown away by this post! especially the quote from Iris Murdoch "The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one . . . This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline." Brilliant! I like to refer to discipline as "self-mastery". If we can "master" our inner self, then we can transcend our ego-limitations and, hopefully, be both better people and better artists!


    (Win one of five unique prizes from South Africa in the Christmas Contest on my blog)

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  14. PS Sarah's comment also thought provoking

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  15. Thanks, Ann. To me that self-mastery, as you call it, is temporary and periodical. Otherwise, we become dictators of our own selves.

    Greetings from London.

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