Tuesday 8 September 2009

What Makes a Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (1st Part)

Starting today and for the next fourteen weeks, every Tuesday until 15th December, I will be reproducing an essay written by the British author Zadie Smith for The Guardian's Saturday Review section which was first published on 13th January, 2007. Zadie has penned three novels: 'White Teeth' (turned into a successful television series), 'The Autograph Man' (my favourite book by her so far) and 'On Beauty' (her most accomplished work, according to critics, I loved it). She currently divides her time between the London's Institute of Contemporary Arts where she is a writer-in-residence and Harvard where she is furthering her studies.

I would also like to thank, once again, Ginny Hooker from the Saturday Review team for allowing me to post this thought-provoking article. You're great, Ginny, and just in case I did not make it clear in my e-mail, you deserve a payrise.

There are three reasons why I am publishing this essay now: the first one being that literature has become an intrinsic part of this blog. I review books on a professional level and share a passion for both fiction and non-fiction works with other bloggers. The second reason is that some of the people who visit my blog are writers themselves, the majority of them published authors. I believe that Zadie's musings on the art of writing will generate a healthy debate amongst my readership. The third and last reason is that I have always been attracted to writing's 'how'. The genesis of the project, the development, en bref, the process.

I am lucky to count amongst my acquaintances a Cuban cartoonist like Garrincha. He has very kindly provided the illustrations that go with each post gratis. We had already partnered up before for my 'Living In A Bilingual World' columns and I am happy to say that one of his images has ended up in a book about multilingualism. Although his blog is mostly in Spanish, his humour is universal and therefore not hard to understand. Needless to say he is available for commissions and even has his own online shop (you can visit it here). Garrincha's motto is 'Cartoonist to the End' and it is this conviction plus his quality as an illustrator that led me to ask him to complement the stimulating series to which you are about to be introduced. Please, be aware that the reproduction of images and text is absolutely forbidden and permission must be sought first before copying the content included herein and pasting it somewhere else. Without any further ado, here is the first installment of 'What Makes a Good Writer?'

The tale of Clive

I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission: he wants to write the perfect novel. Clive has a lot going for him: he's intelligent and well read he's made a study of contemporary fiction and can see clearly where his peers have gone wrong. He has read a good deal of rigorous literary theory - those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built - and is now ready to build his own unparalleled house of words. Maybe Clive even teaches novels, takes them apart and puts them back together. If writing is a craft, he has all the skills, every tool. Clive is ready. He clears out the spare room in his flat, invests in an ergonomic chair, and sits down in front of the blank possibility of the Microsoft Word program. Hovering above his desktop he sees the perfect outline of his platonic novel - all he need do is drag it from the ether into the real. He's excited. He begins.

Fast-forward three years. Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalisingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection its shape is warped, unrecognisable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate. For example, when it came to fashioning the character of the corrupt Hispanic government economist, Maria Gómez, who is so vital to Clive's central theme of corruption within American identity politics, he found he needed something more than simply "the right words" or "knowledge about economists". Maria Gómez effectively proves his point about the deflated American dream, but in other, ineffable, ways she seems not quite to convince as he'd hoped. He found it hard to get into her silk blouse, her pencil skirt - even harder to get under her skin. And then, later, trying to describe her marriage, he discovered that he wanted to write cleverly and aphoristically about "Marriage" with a capital M far more than he wanted to describe Maria's particular marriage, which, thinking of his own marriage, seemed suddenly a monumentally complex task, particularly if his own wife, Karina, was going to read it. And there are a million other little examples . . . flaws that are not simply flaws of language or design, but rather flaws of . . . what? Him? This thought bothers him for a moment. And then another, far darker thought comes. Is it possible that if he were only the reader, and not the
writer, of this novel, he would think it a failure?

Clive doesn't wallow in such thoughts for long. His book gets an agent, his agent gets a publisher, his novel goes out into the world. It is well received. It turns out that Clive's book smells like literature and looks like literature and maybe even, intermittently, feels like literature, and after a while Clive himself has almost forgotten that strange feeling of untruth, of self-betrayal, that his novel first roused in him. He becomes not only a fan of his own novel, but its great defender. If a critic points out an overindulgence here, a purple passage there, well, then Clive explains this is simply what he intended. It was all to achieve a certain effect. In fact, Clive doesn't mind such criticism: nit-picking of this kind feels superficial compared to the bleak sense he first had that his novel was not only not good, but not true . No one is accusing him of so large a crime. The critics, when they criticise, speak of the paintwork and brickwork of the novel, a bad metaphor, a tedious denouement, and are confident he will fix these little mistakes next time round. As for Maria Gomez, everybody agrees that she is just as you'd imagine a corrupt Hispanic government economist in a pencil skirt to be. Clive is satisfied and vindicated. He begins work on a sequel.

Next Post: 'A Cuban In Cantabria, Spain (Photography)', to be published on Thursday 10th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copyright 2009


  1. I am really going to enjoy this series which will end one day before my birthday. Zadie is as beautiful as she is gifted. The Clives of the world write sequels because they are still haunted.

  2. Great stuff! I am certainly going to look forward to Tuesdays this fall. I also loved the delightful artwork of Garrincha. Thanks, Mr. Cuban!

  3. oh my word. can't wait for the next part.

    (I think I know a few Clives. But that raises the question, Am I a Clive? :) )

  4. So, writing for writing sake never pays. Clive is stuck between a rock (self-imposed pedestal) and a book that will beat him into submission. The truth will set Clive's creativity free.

    Thank you thank you for this series ACIL!

  5. Very nice of Ginny to let you publish this essay. I hope she gets a pay raise:)

  6. Ah the images and words about Cantabria are exquisite! What a wonderful holiday you had.

    Thanks, too, for today's post. When I come here I am provoked, my eyes and ears are opened to something I don't already know, and I always learn something new and valuable.

    You are so generous! Thank you.

  7. White Teeth was the first of her books that I read. Then On Beauty. I thought she was a splendid writer from the first, but she has gone from strength to strength since. A brilliant choice for a post. Thanks.

  8. I'm so glad you visited me, and then I visited you, because I'm really excited to read this series. I must be the anti-Clive because I would be obsessed with my character first -- and never have a thought about how to construct a novel around her (or using her).

    I really admire Zadie Smith -- and must add The Autograph Man to my to-read list. (I've read her other two.)

  9. Many thanks to you all for your kind words.

    Clive's territory was familiar to me when I was in university and was probably the only male student in my lecture group who was interested in writing. If you choose five ordinary people at random and ask them to write about a coffee table, I would bet you any money that you will have by the end of your session a cult short story, a reportage, a dark tale, a poem in prose and commercial drivel. The question here is: who will appeal the most to the general public? And the second question would be: Would any of them care?

    I am pleased that this series will provoke more questions than answers. But sometimes that's life, an eternal question mark.

    Greetings from London.

  10. How much fun that we posted about writing this week!

    On Beauty was interesting and entertaining. Zadie Smith really captured the nuances of race in the US v. UK. I hope she writes another novel soon. Fame can be distracting.

    I haven’t read this writing series of hers and look forward to reading more of it. I'm pleased to see that you got permission to reproduce this article - other bloggers aren't so conscientious. It was good of the Guardian to share.

    The issue here is whether the commercial market should establish literary merit, but isn't there already a division between commercial and literary fiction? What was especially interesting about On Beauty was that it straddled that divide. One would hope that authors in all genres would try to improve their work even after commercial success.

    Sequels can be more of the same and too commercial, but they can also original - ie a big story told in several installments like Harry Potter. I think the form works better for children's and YA literature than in adult fiction, but there are exceptions like the early works of Louise Erdrich and of Barbara Kingsolver. The best series involve characters that are captivating. The story keeps moving instead of repeating itself.

  11. I love that Clive is satisfied and vindicated, but mostly satisfied.


  12. Thanks Cubano. This is a fabulous idea. I have already identified with exactly that small, niggling voice that Clive has managed to quiet. The cartoon is hillarious, by the way. I think Zadie Smith is supremely gifted. I really loved White Teeth. On Beauty, on the other hand, didn't quite capture me as completely. I felt she was a tad off on the American side of race relations. Her characters didn't ring as true to me but it was still good storytelling. Can't wait for the next installment!

  13. I have come across your comments on friends' blogs so often that I finally had to see for myself who is behind that name! What a discovery (for me!), thank heaven I finally let my curiousity guide me hereI shall be back, so many interesting stories to read!


  14. Hi Mr C

    I loved White Teeth so much when I read it ages ago that I feel good all over remembering the way the characters spoke..., and then it became a TV series, quite well I thought...but I haven't read Smith's other works...now I will rectify that...
    And my isn't she just so beautiful, haunted and hauntingly beautiful...

    Happy days

  15. Very interesting feedback, I am pleased to see.

    Hmmm... commercial interest vs literary merit. I would hope that, as in Smith's case, most authors could reap both financial and critical rewards from their works. Unfortunately we are all aware that that is nigh impossible and on many occasions good writers get sidelined in favour of more bankable ones, even when the latter have not dared to put pen to paper (step forward, Katie Price).

    Many thanks for you comments.

    Greetings from London.

  16. "If a critic points out an overindulgence here, a purple passage there, well, then Clive explains this is simply what he intended"

    That caught me. Since my novel came out, I've been on the defensive edge, sounding just that way. I know how it feels, but I must confess this is what has been happening to me as a writer.

    Sorry, I have not been here in a long time. I have been busy with tours and stuff. I'm done now and back to blogging and thank you so much for finding time to do this for ME. It will surely help in my second book.

    How are you doing?

  17. Ms. Smith is an amusing writer, and I'm inhaling her words. Hope my beauty comes into play, also. I too have floating novels. I keep trying to bring them down to earth. I find that in order to do that I have to pluck words out of my memory, I have to make them into a story. Is that right so far?
    Love the cartoon. Whip me till I write?? That's it! Write, write, write......

  18. Many thanks to you both for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Writing and arting are very similar, it seems.

  20. Yes, DEB, you could say that. Personally I have always included writing within the arts.

    Greetings from London.

  21. Hello CiL! Thank you very much for what I am sure will be a wonderful series of posts... and for introducing me to Zadie Smith. I shall put her novel Autograph Man" on my book list for my first read of a work of hers.

    After reading this post, I do believe I shall very much enjoy reading her novels.

    This series is very timely for me given that I am participating in NaNoWriMo in November. I am glad for whatever help I can get with my first novel - Funny, but this summer I have been doing exactly what Clive did before writing his first novel - plotting and planning the contents of the novel - for surely a blueprint one must have, and also just as methodically researching how to go about writing it. I must add I too have my ergonomic chair at the ready!

    I am waiting eagerly for next Tuesday's installment to see what comes next.

    Fantastic that the Guardian has permitted you to post the series and good of you to have formally sought permission.

    Thank you dear CiL - your blog continues to reach new heights and sets the bar high in both idea and execution!

  22. She writes like a dream.
    'On Beauty' is one of my favourite novels and this is another piece of provocative writing. I'm trying really hard not to think of the Clive in me now!

  23. Many thanks to you both for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  24. This is excellent as I go through a reading catch-up tonight. I feel a little bit like Clive myself, and aim not to commit the same mistakes.

  25. I know this Clive she speaks of...I know him well.



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