Tuesday 15 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (2nd Part)

This is the follow-up to Zadie Smith's tips for (future) writers. Click here for the first part.

The craft that defies craftsmanship

That is the end of the tale of Clive. Its purpose was to suggest that somewhere between a critic's necessary superficiality and a writer's natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost. It is very hard to get writers to speak frankly about their own work, particularly in a literary market where they are required to be not only writers, but also hucksters selling product. It is always easier to depersonalise the question. In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work. One writer, of a naturally analytical and philosophical bent, replied by refining my simple question into a series of more interesting ones: I've often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: "Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?" A map of disappointments - that would be a revelation.

Map of disappointments - Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character.

What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?

It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" - at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised.

That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere - for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well.

In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.

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

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum', to be published on Thursday 17th September at 11:59pm (GMT)

Copright 2009


  1. more than just craftsmanship - isn't that so universal? someone can plant a garden based on certain data about sunlight and so on and then someone else can plant a garden for their mom and it magically has an indescribable glow to it. everything is more than just merely doing it. behind every fiction book is a composer of true heart and soul and if it were not expressed in their writing it would not be good writing.

  2. Excelent post, I really find it interesting and tought provoking.

    Judging any kind of art is almost impossible I think, there are no rules that could be made for setting paremeters to do it properly.

    I was thinking that at least my favourite writers are the ones that are most predisposed to say in what they think they are not good at. Being humble might be related to being good at writting and many other things.

    I liked what you say about what writting well consists of.

    When you ask what does a writer require. I was thinking that maybe one of the problems wit writers nowadays is that they are mainly a facade.

    The illusion (if there is one) comes, on the contrary, from the impersonality of the work. It is a principle of mine that a writer must not be his own theme. The artist in his work must be like God in his creation — invisible and all-powerful: he must be everywhere felt, but never seen.

    Take care mr Cuba man

  3. ¡Hola Cuban! Qué gusto volver a tu blog. Me encanta la nueva imagen que le has dado. Por cierto, muy bueno el artículo de Zadie S. Opino que en la literatura, como en el resto de las artes, es difícil decir cuál debería ser la norma. Lo que algunos nos parece bueno a otros les parecerá un bodrio. Ya sabes, diverso que es el mundo. Eso sí, creo que si se quiere escribir hay que leer mucho y variado. También soy de la opinión que un escritor que ha vivido experiencias intensas siempre contará con un imaginario más rico que puede ayudar a nutrir su obra. Por último, hay una cuestión de talento inegable en lo que a escribir "bien o mal" se refiere. Hay quien escribe poco y trasciende dejando una traza imperecedera. Creo que el mejor exponente latinoamericano de este tipo de autores podría ser Juan Rulfo. Y hay quien escribe hasta por los codos y ni siquiera con los años mejora. En esta última categoría puedo colocar a una infinidad de críticos de arte y periodistas, por ejemplo, de los que es mejor ni hablar.

    Por cierto, gracias por tus comentarios. Te respondí el que dejaste en mi post de Belkis Ayón de forma extensa por la polémica acerca de que Abakuá es una secta. Un abrazo.

  4. Writing fiction is most definitely a question of character. I think that only those fictions that are not disconnected from ourselves are good. Because at the end of the day we can only write well about something we are familiar with.

    This argument always reminds me of Everything is Illuminated by J S Foer, who wrote it when he was barely 22 years old. The book is - in my opinion - a literary masterpiece, but would it be one if it wasn't for the fact that he was describing events from his family history.

  5. Lovely argument, Polly. Should we start off with what is familiar to us and expand on it, or shrink it to suit our narrattive, or should we rather try our hand at at a subject that we might not know much about? Is Clive's Latin woman all the less credible because he did not do enough research? Or would I, as a reader, overlook that and focus more on the plot?

    Alaskanott, quite true and it reminds me of the example I gave last week (more about that below).

    Mariana, to me, a writer as any other artist (and I must stress again that to me literature is art) is independent and dependent on the subject about which he/she writes. Independent (if we talk about fiction) because he/she has the relative freedom to open or close boundaries, to set limitations to him/herself and to their readers. Dependent because, as Sarah Laurence brilliantly remarked last week, there's a certain dividing line between literary merit and commerce that he/she cannot avoid.

    Chez Isabella, there are norms unfortunately. Not all good writers write good novels. Also, let's be very clear that Zadie is still referring to fiction. There are many bad fiction writers who excel at journalism or essay-writing. But then again, even that definition 'bad writers' is flawed.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  6. Writing is certainly a craft you must learn-a fun one too.

  7. I enjoyed this second installment, Mr. Cuban. And the illustrations are marvelous!

    (always fun to connect with a VW lover)

  8. The banner pic is astonishing! Wow!!

    It's amusing when anyone tries to define what makes art "good." It's a slippery concept, especially because "good" is about the most subjective thing in the world. Cool thoughts, though.

  9. I'm with Reya, what is "good", defined? Does it mean successful? Not at all, I hope. These revelations are so true of musicians in my world too. Being faithful to the composers intent while being faithful to self-a very difficult tightrope!

  10. New here, and Wow. If you are going to talk about writing, I'll be back.

    When the subj came up of character qualities that make a great writer, the first one to come to my mind was PATIENCE. Tolkien's amazing achievement took much of his adult life to write (much of that time spent inventing the world, the myths, the languages, just for their own sake). And how many great novels are "too long" by modern standards, and HAVE to be, in order to achieve what they do?

    This is not to say a book may not birth itself very quickly. But as with real birth, you can't tell beforehand how long it will take, neither can you perfectly control the amount of time and effort that will be involved. And that might be one way that commercialism sabotages good writing. If you've got a deadline, you might have to be content with a poor version of your grand idea (a stillbirth if you will), if the deadline does not give you the time it turns out to need, in order to fully develop. Perhaps that is why so many novels seem to begin with an intriguing idea and a promising first hundred pages, then degenerate into an unsatisfying finish. Whereas the really great ones get better as they go.

    Ironically, however, keeping commitments (such as deadlines) is a sign of good character.

  11. No matter what Smith says, what writer really thinks that their fiction is disconnected from themselves?
    I thought the allusion to books piling up on a far shore was vivid, all of us hoping for a bridge..
    I'm lucky though, there's my book, perfectly dry, coming to me, walking on water. Maybe good writing is a miracle!
    Love the new header!

  12. Cup of hot tea in hand (a mix of gingko biloba, ginger, mint, chamomile, green tea and ginseng, I call it my magic potion), children in bed and time to spare.

    I could not agree more with those posters who wonder what good writing is. To me good writing is very personal and subjective. However, let me go back to my initial example from last week: those five ordinary people trying to write a work of fiction about a coffee table.

    My theory then as it is now is that one of them, or maybe all, will try to emulate an author that s/he admires. And isn't most writing the repetition of a language that we already familiar with? That definitely confirms Polly's point earlier. And yet the result of these five people's fiction will be as different as their eyes, nose and mouth shapes (provided there are no twins). It was Sarah Lawrence, a Maine-based author who brought up the literary merit vs commercialism issue and for that I am grateful. Because if you asked these five people at the beginning to try their hand at fiction you will get a much more authentic product than if you promised them inclusion in a compilation of new fiction.

    And yet... and yet... let's not be so cynic. Zadie Smith is the classic example of someone who has enjoyed commercial success as well as literary acclaim. It is a very thin rope to travel and there's no safety net below. Would you dare? Never mind books floating ashore and bridges to cross, Jen mentioned an important factor: deadlines. 'Sorry, darling, where's your (insert expletive) novel? C'mon, you ain't the new Coetze, for Christ's sake!' Yes, publishers need to eat, editors need to go on holidays, agents have families. Writers have... duties.

    Many thanks for your great feedback. And Jen, yes, every Tuesday until 15 Dec is about the art of writing.

    Greetings from London.

  13. Lots of interesting stuff to absorb here... how much of you own creative writing do you do?? Greetings from Mexico on Independence Day
    ps Rubencito was wonderful!!

  14. what a thought-provoking insightful post.......beautifully written, too.

  15. I read the second article first, then the first article, then the second again. Along with the comments. I feel a need to absorb and to read them yet again, but I have two immediate thoughts.

    One circles around the notion of whether "I" write to produce "the book" I wish to write (a story which I feel is significant and needs to be told) or to produce a novel for a specific market, for a target audience, which, hopefully, will be made into a motion picture which is where the "real money" is to be found. Which writer am I?

    At the risk of being condemned as a heretic, the second thought is that many of the comments and your responses to them, CiL, are more fascinating than the articles themselves. I think the reader often is more important in defining and explaining any piece of writing than are the author or the critics.

  16. You're not a heretic, Fram. I usually welcome your opinions.

    You write the book you want for yourself first and foremost. That's my humble opinion. I think that the drive to write comes from inspiration (or from finding a goldmine opportunity in a crowded market, step forward Jackie Collins). Where does inspiration come from? That will be approached in this series. But I sincerely believe that we write to satisfy a craving, a niggling voice in the back of our brain that tells us to put thoughts to paper.

    Catherine, I have written fiction on this blog before (http://cubaninlondon.blogspot.com/2009/06/exercises-on-free-writing.html) however not being a native speaker, I tend to do more writing in Spanish than in English. My theory is that in the same way that 2+2=4; 3+1 do too. And so does 0+4. You probably know what I'm getting at. Exact science proves that 4 as a mathematical result can be arrive by combining any odd variety of numbers. As an aspiring writer and confirmed reader I could turn that formula on its head and say that 3+1=5. People will call it postmodern, or magical realism, take your pick :-)

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  17. A wonderful post! Thank you so much for visiting my blog and your wonderful comment.
    Have a golden day! xoxo

  18. Sorry, I meant 'can be arrived at'.

    Thanks Joyce.

    Greetings from London.

  19. Loving her beach and the talking so honestly about dishonesty.
    I have a poem called 'Sea of poets' which is along something like similar lines.

  20. "Fictions are not as disconnected from ourselves as you like to imagine." For me, this is the core issue of a good writer. No matter what kind of story you're telling, to be effective it must ring true with your soul. And its scary to expose your self to the world in that manner, no matter what the literary camouflage. One of my big influences is Sandra Cisneros and I'll never forget what how she advised me to write the short stories that I struggle with. "Take your own experience and expand on it with your imagination." I think the sharply-honed ability to do that marks a good writer from simply a skilled one.

  21. fascinating discussion. i am not 'a writer' though i write, mostly i am an artist who sees language as a medium. but having studied fine arts and become serious as a painter, i understand where the need to connect to
    a larger meaning and also to establish ones work comes in. it is the same in painting. we begin to carry justification as part of the process, self-examination etc etc. to me it is a way of finding a place somehow. but i do think it is burdensome to analyze too much, just the right measure is called for. the image of the writer on the beach, that is wonderful. but one thing i dont understand, the issue of 'honesty'. isnt every work honest in what it is? even if it is pretentious isnt it also true pretentiousness? would it seem dishonest only if the writer had no clue about his/her intention? but then isnt there honesty also in not knowing? perhaps there is some axiom regarding honesty as related to writing that i am unaware of.
    again, fascinating, thank you

  22. Honesty, measure, truth. It is fascinating to read how we react to literature. Tipota, you ask a very good question: even if it is isn't it also true pretentiousness? Yes, and I have a weakness for authors who come across as pretentious and arrogant (step forward Kundera and Rushdie). But I see them as masters of their genre, in control of the in which they inhabit and therefore I overlook the sometimes masterly air their novels convey.

    Many thanks to you all for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Smith’s comment about the difference between what a critic says and what writers say was well observed. Although in all her generalities I crave some particulars. What does SHE think is wrong about her own writing?

    I have a different attitude towards writing. I’m not trying to capture a Plutonic ideal. Revision is sculpting. I like to think my writing improves through the process. My original vision is not perfection nor is my product, but it pleases me. I would hope it would please others too and make them think.

    Thanks for sharing this series – it does make me think. Nice new banner image too.

  25. That is a very good comment, Sarah. Zadie does not provide examples of her own work. I remember when I read 'White Teeth' I thought the book was a tad bit too long. I still loved it, though. But maybe more revision.

    It's interesting to see that you are one of those authors who do several drafts of a novel and revise and edit. Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  26. I also believe that inspiration is that needling voice that won't let go, no matter how many escape routes you try. This series is also inspiring. Thanks again.

  27. Your magic tea sounds delicious.
    I like the image of you gathering this group together to discuss literature as you sip such a great sounding concoction.
    I'm smiling and not adding anything to the literary blue (I mean brew) and glad to know this column is here.
    Thanks and thanks for your visits too,

    greetings from a Long Islander in Japan

  28. Beyond craftsmanship for a writer there must be a knack of being a good storyteller. Otherwise the novel will fall flat on its face. This is a wonderful series you have come up with, Cuban.



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