Tuesday 29 September 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (4th Part)

This week Zadie tackles one of the more pressing concerns for aspiring writers. For parts one, two and three click here, here and here.

Tradition versus the individual talent

But before we go any further along that track we find TS Eliot,that most distinguished of critic-practitioners, standing in our way. In his famous essay of 1919, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", Eliot decimated the very idea of individual consciousness, of personality, in writing. There was hardly any such thing, he claimed, and what there was, was not interesting. For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer's work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. The poet and his personality were irrelevant, the poetry was everything and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of literary history. That essay is written in so high church a style, with such imperious authority, that even if all your affective experience as a writer is to the contrary, you are intimidated into believing it. "Poetry," says Eliot, "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion, it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." "The progress of an artist," says Eliot, "is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

These credos seem so impersonal themselves, so disinterested, that it is easy to forget that young critic-practitioners make the beds they wish to lie in, and it was in Eliot's interest - given the complexity and scandals of his private life and his distaste for intrusion - ruthlessly to separate the personal from the poetry. He was so concerned with privacy that it influences his terminology: everywhere in that essay there is the assumption that personality amounts to simply the biographical facts of one's life - but that is a narrow vision. Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it's our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities it is our way of being active.

Eliot may have been ruthlessly impersonal in his writing in the superficial sense (if by that we mean he did not reveal personal details, such as the tricky fact that he had committed his wife to an asylum), but never was a man's work more inflected with his character, with his beliefs about the nature of the world. As for that element of his work that he puts forward as a model of his impersonality - a devotion to tradition - such devotion is the very definition of personality in writing. The choices a writer makes within a tradition - preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme - constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.

There is no doubt that Eliot's essay, with its promise to "halt at the frontiers of metaphysics or mysticism", is a brilliant demarcation of what is properly within the remit of, as he puts it, "the responsible person interested in poetry". It lays out an entirely reasonable boundary between what we can and cannot say about a piece of writing without embarrassing ourselves. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science he famously compared a writer to a piece of finely filiated platinum introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. This analogy has proved a useful aspiration for critics. It has allowed them to believe in the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself, or at least none the critic need worry himself with. Eliot's analogy freed critics to do the independent, radically creative, non- biographical criticism of which they had long dreamt, and to which they have every right. For writers, however, Eliot's analogy just won't do. Fiction writing is not an objective science and writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate. It is certainly very important, as Eliot argues, that writers should foster an understanding of the cultures and the books of the past, but they also unavoidably exist within the garden of the self and this, too, requires nurture and development. The self is not like platinum - it leaves traces all over the place. Just because Eliot didn't want to talk about it, doesn't mean it isn't there.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Road Songs (Special Edition)' to be published on Thursday 1st October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Fascinating slant on Eliot's attitudes which I have not wholly taken on board yet, but find most convincing. I shall return when I have more time to spare on it.

    I have posted the following as reply to your comments on my blog, but thought I should also post them here in case time was of the essence:

    I am somewhat taken aback, but I would be very happy indeed for you to make use of my poem either on its own or as part of a group, whichever you think best.

    I will give thought to entering it in any relevant competition.

    My thanks indeed for the interest taken.

  2. Elliot's attitudes are definitely helpful. I too agree fiction is not an objective science. I don't think writing should be objective at all because we have to apply our own individual views for it to be interesting.

  3. I love the comic you place with these posts. Thinking of you.

    Love Renee xoxo

  4. Another excellent segment. I am enjoying these posts, Mr. Cubin. And I think I like this illustration the best so far!

  5. This one, I need to read and re-read. Really digest it.

  6. So very true! Personality is something we cannot escape in writing, whether it's fiction or non-fiction. My friends say that my blog is very much "me". This has never been a conscious effort, in fact I avoid including personal details in the blog and hide as much as possible of my own personality. But somehow the real Polly transpires through the posts.

  7. I’m siding with Smith on this one over Eliot. I like also that she used “disinterested” correctly. Her interpretation as to his motives sounds plausible.

    Although isn’t Smith making a leap, applying Eliot’s theory on poetry to novels? Or did Eliot’s essay cover all creative writing? I haven’t read it myself.

    Creative writing is a personal exercise, although that doesn’t mean all authors/poets are writing memoirs. There is literary tradition and imagination too. We writers make things up.

    Thanks so much for sharing this series with us. I look forward to it every week!

  8. Many thanks to you all for your feedback.

    To me the most serious mistake Eliot makes is to imply that a writer 'must' follow a certain path to achieve success. Or a similar result. To me, personally, and I agree with you Sarah and Polly, a writer must never do 'must'. As an artist him/herself, the only path a writer 'must' follow is that dictated by the circumstance he/she chooses to surround themselves with. Or those that are enforced upon them, which is often the case.

    Th difficulty is that writers will find agents, publishers and editors who have a similar mindset to that of Eliot's and they will be unfortunately limited in the choices they can make.

    Many thanks ofr your comments.

    Gretings from London.

  9. ugh! i can´t stop reading your blog and i have a million things to do! i´ll be back with a pot of coffee. un abrazo-jane

  10. I too will want to go back to read this again, but for now was struck with the 'coincidence' that the last place I met you was on the comments to one of my posts where a T.S. Eliot quote had just been left!
    I often think of the collective consciousness and as we are writing there is something that is bigger than us and at the same time uniquely us that connects us and brings forth what it is we express. It seems like we enter that metaphysical door once we set down to open up any expression whether we like it or not... (if this makes sense)
    Best wishes from Japan.

  11. With every excerpt I love Zadie Smith more and more (and there's already quite a fan's ardour burning in the grate).
    I can enjoy Eliot's poetry (loved it at school) but the way some of his critical pronouncements have become literary law...all that I can well live without. He was a man, not a god.

  12. Many thanks for your kind comments. I, too agree with you, jgy, that there's a like-mindedness amongst certain bloggers and followers that lead to serendipitous. I just visited another blog that had posted WH Auden's poem 'Stop All the Clocks' a day after I had published my post about the newspaper industry. I used Auden's poem, too.

    Rachel, you're spot on, he was just a human being, not a god.

    Greetings from London.

  13. Cubano, hacía mucho tiempo que no te visitaba pero hemos andado muy liados, con cambios de casa, viajes, etc. Pero ya tengo el internet en casa y ya me he puesto al día con tu blog... como siempre excepcional!

  14. i don't see how you can write anything without your personality showing - or why you would want to - sorry, eliot!

  15. I agree with Sarah Laurence that "writing is a creative exercise". The writer puts forth his ideas while placing just a little bit of himself into it.



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