Tuesday 20 October 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (7th Part)

What are a writer's responsabilities, if any? That's Zadie Smith's question this week. For parts 1-6, click here, here, here, here, here and here.

Do writers have duties?

All this talk of authenticity, of betrayal, presupposes a duty - an obligation that the writers and readers of literature are under. It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty what that might be, how we might fail to fulfil it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure to write with the average reader in mind to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be "represented", as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable - anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.

Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise.

Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer. When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment - once you have removed all that warped experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in - what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel: one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well, it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Killer Opening Songs' to be published on Thursday 22nd October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Hola Cuban! Qué bien, soy la primera en comentar! Esta serie que has publicado me parece muy buena. El tema que has escogido sobre las cosas que hacen a un buen escritor es muy actual y universal. Respecto a la obligacion de entretener... Si, de eso creo que hay demasiado en la literatura que se hace hoy. Hay mucha gente que entretiene, que vende mucho, muchisimo y a mi no me dice nada. No creo ser la unica con esta opinion. Evidentemente, "para que el mundo sea mundo (incluyendo el literario) tiene que haber de todo". Por cierto, las caricaturas del Garrix que han ilustrado los articulos estan barbaras. Saludos para ti.

  2. The concept and phrase I like here is the watermark of self - very expressive of persoanl authenticity...Greetings from Mexico

  3. As I read this the word that kept coming into my mind was writing "authentically" (I see it resonated in the same way with Catherine).

    I like Zadie' Smith's concept that writer's have duties or responsibilities, although I would extend it to more than one. (not going to discuss here, did a blogpoast a few months back on a similar topic). Stripping away all that is not authentic about our Self is perhaps the hardest part of being a writer.

    I browsed the Observer yesterday - Robert McCrum has some excellent columns indeed. Particularly related to his post about the bookworld being ruined by the bean counters. Will be reading more of his columns.

  4. I'm really enjoying these pieces but for the first time I'm not sure I agree...well, with the first paragraph at least. Are non-entertaining writers really subject to critical ridicule? Surely it depends which critics you're talking about...some ridicule writers for being entertaining and not erudite enough...don't they? Maybe I'm out of touch (and she's the one dealing with publishers and critics more closely I'm sure) but it seems to me that quite a range of books (novels at least) get published and reviewed. The fact that a lot of the public want to read dross (enter Katie Price) I'm afraid is somewhat out of our hands.
    With poetry it can seem quite the opposite to the situation she describes in that paragraph. Those that do publish poetry for the most part opt for anything BUT poetry that might entertain a wide audience. They seem to have thrown in the towel on that one altogether. I think that's a shame...but then I would.

  5. Good and witty comments, as usual. My take on this week's part is partly based on what happened with my previous post. If, as a fellow blogger put it, I was being sexist in my writing fictiously about a fictious encounter with God in a fictious jail, then where did my duty(ies) lie? What if I had written about Soviet-era sandals? Long-lasting but grotesque. Zadie mentions removing 'all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment - once you have removed all that warped experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in - what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception'. Whether I write a letter (reality) or a short-story (fiction) I try to be as close to my real self as I possibly can, but, and it's an important but, when it is FICTION, it really is FICTION.

    You're right, Rachel. So-called serious critics lay into popular writers (Grisham, for instance) whilst mainstream literary analysts pelt with verbal stones what is usually seen as highbrow literature, a concept that is so up its own a**e it's difficult to find good loo roll to wipe it.

    I think that the first duty a writer has (if any) is with him/herself. Last night I received the images from Garrincha for parts 10 and 11 and I was laughing my head off because part 11... well, I will let you read it for yourself, but you're quite right, Isa, Garrincha is a terrific cartoonist. These (unpaid, have I mentioned that enough times?) contributions have complemented perfectly what has turned out to be a more popular series than I first thought. Many thanks for your lovely feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  6. This is my favourite installment so far, I must say, I pretty much agree with all of it and especially the last paragraph. I love this sentence: That is what I am looking for when I read a novel: one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language...

    That is what I'm looking for in a novel too.

    Julochka quoted this truth some time ago: writing is a new prayer. Again, I couldn't agree more.

  7. I think you can be authentic in your writing yet not amuse and entertain readers. Therein lies the divide between good writers and bad.

  8. Whether in reading or listening to someone speak. Whatever the word. If it isn't real, I am not interested. Of course unless you are telling me a story or a fairy tale.

    Love Renee xoxox

  9. Gracias Cubano. En referencia a tu post anterior, me encantó el Dios Cockney!

    Por cierto, genial el video de 4'33. Mi marido lo tocó hace años con un cuarteto de cuerda, creando reacciones de lo más dispares en el público (los músicos lucharon mucho por aguantar la risa!). Los más intelectuales, sacaban los relojes para cronometrar la actuación y comprobar que, efectivamente, duró 4 minutos y 33 segundos!

  10. Authenticity and resonating with "truth" is important...if someone isn't resonating with truth (and I mean their truth)...I don't care to listen or read...

    much love

  11. Always always love coming here and reading - gonna "twitter" this - gawd, can't believe I just said that....*sigh*

  12. I’m with Rachel on literary criticism. At least in America, a serious critic nails the author that panders to common taste and entertainment. Just look at the treatment Dan Brown has received. There is a strong line between literary and commercial fiction. The confusion comes from Zadie lumping them together.

    The rest of the article resonates with me. There are some gems like “When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world.” Yes! And “the watermark of self” is just so gorgeous it deserves engraving.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  13. "... language as the revelation of a consciousness." She says it so well. I don't like to read writing that doesn't sing with consciousness, the reality of the person who wrote it. That's one of the reasons why I love to read journals and diaries - they're the true outpouring of a person's psyche. There is so much writing that is dry while trying to say something it doesn't know how to say because it doesn't feel it. If I don't feel what I'm writing about, I don't want to write about it, and I probably shouldn't. It's that simple!

    These are excellent articles for people who love to write. Thanks for sharing them, as always!


  14. Lovely to meet other writers through your comments.

    I agree with everyone, it's always seemed to me that critics can't stand a book the more popular it is. And it seemed that Smith was joining those critics in taking some easy shots at "formula" writers. Of course, there are popular writers who can really WRITE (e.g., in my op, Grisham, Steven King, Dick Francis), and those who can't (whose books I can never finish).

    On the face of it, it seems Smith is expressing the Romantic notion, shared by so many writers, that Truth is to be found within the Self, and that the most important thing is to be "true to yourself." But, I suspect she means something a little subtler than that, since she mentions "the world" as well as the self. Nobody wants to read literary navel-gazing. (Well ... not NOBODY ... it has become a genre in its own right ...) But what I mean is, the best books are written by those people who have a keen interest in, and know something about, some aspect of reality, be it the law, science, or life in a Welsh village. I think Smith is expressing the paradox that the more thoroughly these writers portray that part of reality that they're in love with, the more their portrayal will also reflect who they are.

  15. Great comments. Many thanks to you all.

    Greetings from London.

  16. The artist/writer is a fortunate being indeed to have the tools to show who he/she is.... of "being in the world". Great phrase.
    The problem is that word,"authentic", already jargon, already as irritating as Awesome! I think it means I'm speaking with my own true voice, but how would you know? Maybe I
    just have some interesting skills.

  17. As I read this, I kept thinking of that writer class nugget: Write what you know. Perhaps I have reduced Smith’s piece to an unintended simplicity, but if an author’s duty is to write authentically, how do you achieve that with derivative material, whether it is light, commercial stuff or turgid literary prose? The market can handle both. The question is: what kind of author does one want to be? Once the question is answered, the author’s duty is to implement the answer in the best way he or she can

  18. I don't know if I found Zadie's article more interesting or the discussion following. Thanks all for very astute comments and viewpoints on authenticity in writing. Lots to think about. I will refrain from adding my thoughts as I need to get back to NaNoWriMo prep.

    CiL, I absolutely agree with you about Garrincha's cartoons - most delightful! And
    thank you CiL for bringing us these essays. I look forward to the remaining installments.

  19. "write what you know" always kinda annoys me. If that means write only about what I have directly experienced, how boring that would be!

  20. I am inspired by this to write on an index card:
    "This is my way of being in the world",
    and whenever I am about to erase a line because of my inner doubting un-trusting voices,
    I will look at it for affirmation!

    Best wishes,
    Greetings from a Long Islander in another Long Island

  21. i can certainly relate to a lot of what she's saying, especially in the alast paragraph.

    i always like to recall concepts like these whenever i'm reading certain material. (zadie's as well as those of people who commented here.)

  22. This series is priceless, inspiring, informative and so timely for me. I love what she says about truth and the watermark of self. It seems to be the underlying theme of the series.

  23. Many thanks for your wonderful comments.

    Greetings from London.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...