Tuesday 3 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (9th Part)

True or false? That was my first reaction to Zadie Smith's statement this week. For parts 1-8, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy

There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called "The Great American Novel" and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation , not just of a man . . .

Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible -it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I've been talking about - the duty to convey accurately the truth of one's own conception - is a duty of the most demanding kind. If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that's because there were only a few. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception - given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self - truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one's eyes water just thinking about it. But there's no reason to cry. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare, it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them.

The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do. It is a writer's duty. It is also a reader's duty. Did I mention that yet?

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Moolaadé' (Review, to be published on Thursday 5th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. I don't think any of the great writers set out to write one of the greatest novel ever published, but writing what he/she knows (from the heart) + a little luck = success (in my book!).

  2. Pity the poor artist who drags the ball and chain of "perfection", as a mindset. Just as the kingdom of heaven is within, so is the artist's vision. In awe of genius, but the rest of us don't have to sit it out, much less grow crazy over dreams of glory.

  3. Everything we write feels perfect at some point.

  4. not sure that we're qualified to comment on this,
    but heck, commenting is free so, why not?

    the perfection thingy,
    well, our guess is that what writers
    want is not really perfection
    but something they can CALL perfect.
    what they really mean is something written that they feel is done, complete, over . . .

    perfect = leave it alone,
    let it go,
    yer gonna ruin it dammit . . .

    that kinda thing.
    but geeze, waddoo we know?




  5. True. One lifetime is far too short a time to achieve perfection, but the success lies in the striving for perfection. I think only time and history can determine what constitutes "great" literature or literary "genius", and even those works won't be perfect. It's probably best to consider them as perfect as the author could get them at that moment in time.

  6. "Moby-Dick" is a very rare book indeed, and following on from Ann, was largely ignored in Melville's lifetime.

    I think I'm tending to the "true".

  7. I once went to a writers' group were some guy told some girl not to use the word 'shards' so it makes me particularly glad to see Smith use it here. Shards, shards, shards...

  8. The last paragraph says it best, I think. It's true that many are out there trying to write the groundbreaking novel, or the groundbreaking something or other. I think that sometimes when we overly challenge ourselves we can fail miserably. The key is to be true to yourself, to your vision. Nobody can know it all, about everything, everyone, the whole world; it doesn't really work like that, does it? We truly know only what we experience, not just as it happens around us, but most importantly, as we internalize it. If we can pour out, in honest words, what we internalize from our direct or vicarious experiences, we can write honest prose. And then, whether or not it's intended to be monumental won't really matter, because it will ring true in the mind of the reader, and that is what will make it monumental, actually. Thanks again for these priceless snippets from Smith, Cuban. They're much appreciated.


  9. Perfection is difficult, but dreaming is free so be it..

  10. "The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment."

    Isn't that also a description of our lives? Most of us, I would venture to say, endeavor to improve ourselves. Some of us devolve into self-hate in the process because the ideal never seems to match reality. It's a profound life lesson Smith is offering.

  11. we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly

    precisely...This is so well stated. And what Smith writes is such a lesson. Love the post. Hope all is well there.

  12. Hello my dear friend.

    Thank you for feeling me today.

    I just was wondering if you have noticed a drop in comments on your page or if anyone else has said anything, because maybe it is my computer.

    When ever I come here as soon as I sign off I get a million popoffs and have to shut off my computer. Since I don't get it anywhere else, I thought maybe it is from here.

    It just keeps popping up your blog about a million times.

    For me, it is always worth it to come and see you but I just wondered if you had any other people saying that.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

  13. I don’t dream of the perfect novel, just about getting my less than perfect novel published. Interesting concept of “honourable failures.” I feel closer to Zadie Smith’s vision in this post, although I agree with the other commenters about the problems with this perfect novel concept. Thanks for sharing it!

    Dovegrey reader posted a review of Zadie Smith’s new essay collection (due out Nov 26): http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2009/10/changing-my-mind.html

  14. Thanks a lot for your lovely comments. And now it is my time to play devil's advocate.

    I agree with Zadie 100% because I strongly believe that underneath most writers (note the use of 'most') there lies a subconscious desire to write that 'perfect' novel. If not, please, refer to the very first part, how it all started with Clive and his yet-to-be-published novel. The Latin woman character he is not sure about does not give him nightmares just because he can't conceptualise her, but also because that concept will not be THE CONCEPT that sums up Latin women the world over. That Latin woman character lacks trascendence. Clive might or might not know it, but even if he came round to admitting it, he would either justify it or try to hide it. Because trascendence, perfection are words that writers hardly ever use even when their works become classics.

    I've often wondered what a classic is. And what does it depend upon? And how did circumstances, timing and marketing come to play a major role in that literary piece, or painting, or play becoming a classic?

    Say sunflowers and you think of... Van Gough. Mention absurd and the name Harold Pinter comes to mind, or Ionescu, even though the creator of the theatre of absurd was a Cuban playwright, Virgilio Pinnera (oh, yes, and don't even get me started on that). Say Italian mafia and you think of Marlon Brando. And in literature? Say bonnets and corsets, and you think of Austen. Mention whodunnits and the name Agatha Christie pops out like a Jack in the box. These are classics in their own right. But did their authors ever set out to become classic writers?

    To me the first sentence says it all. Maybe Smith should have used 'most' instead of referring to writers as a single unit, a uniform mass of scribblers vying for the title of 'Grand Novel', 'Greatest Work Ever'. But the content that follows thereafter, oh, yes, I agree with her. Somehow, subconsciously, I think, we all want a piece of that trascendence, the dream of our work being studied by future generations. And there's nothing wrong with it. Except that you can waste your life pursuing that goal and not concentrate on what you do best: write.

    Many thanks to you all for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  15. I don't believe in the perfect novel.

  16. I sometimes question the fluff I'm writing but I also have to remember that just below the fluff is a deeper meaning disguised.

    Perfection is out...I just hope to tell a good story.

    much love

  17. Maybe the readers get to choose what is the perfect novel and when a collective draws together and proclains "This is the perfect novel" then it has been created *smiling*....

    Love this post.

  18. I think great novels are written purely by the accident of inspiration. Still waiting for mine. ~rick

  19. what makes a good writer.. hmm i guess a good writer has to have an open mind and heart to be able to tap into certain aspects of reality. too many people have closed minds and aret willing to open up to new things, so their ability to write gets smothered..

    oh and the yankees won..congrats fellow fan.

  20. Very well put.

    I am fine with imperfection.

  21. Writing is like riding dressage: the writer and rider strive for perfection but often don't reach it. It is the effort of trying that is the most important aspect here.

  22. Many thanks for your kind words.

    Greetings from London.

  23. Another great and inspiring installment. "..some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you will ever do." Says it all and that is why writers must surround themselves with other writers to stimulate each other.

  24. Thanks a lot for your comment.

    Greetings from London.



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