Tuesday 24 November 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (12th Part)

In this week's installment, Zadie asks us to become our own intrepid Marco Polos, our own courageous Columbus and set off on the unknown waters of literature. For parts 1-11, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. and here.

Becoming your own cartographer

When it comes to reading, it's a Kierkegaardian level of commitment that we've forgotten about: intimate, painstaking, with nothing at all to do with Hegelian system-building or theoretical schools, and everything to do with our ethical reality as subjects. You have to make the map of Copenhagen yourself. You have to be open to the idea that Copenhagen might look and feel completely different to what you expected or believed it to be. You have to throw away other people's maps. For example, if you read exclusively in the post-colonial manner, then only a limited number of books will interest you and even those that you are promised are within the genre will often disappoint and irritate, failing to do all the things you had expected they would.

And then it will come to pass that some writers, knowing your taste, will begin to write novels to please you - novels that feel almost as if they have been written by committee. These are the big idea books and for the young particularly, armed with the reading systems for which they paid good money in college, such books look awfully tempting. A success, on these terms, is one that fulfils the model failure, the book that refuses wider relevance. System readers create system writers, writers who can unpack their own novels in front of you, pointing out this theme and that, this subtext, this question of race, this debate about gender. They have the Sunday supplements in mind and their fiction is littered with hooks, ready made for general discussion, perfect for a double page feature.

But what of the novels that don't give themselves easily to such general public discussion? Sometimes it feels like the qualities readers and critics most want to find in novels are those that are antithetical to the writing of a good one. We want a novel to be the "last word" on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us "how it is".

The problem is, our lives, as good novels well know, are always a partial, failing, view from somewhere . Nabokov wrote a book about an individual child called Lolita, but he correctly predicted it would be read as a general allegory of "Old Europe ravishing young America" or "Young America seducing Old Europe". He survived communist Russia: he knew all about the collectivisation of thought. In the end, Lolita is easy to read if you believe in symbols. It's only an emotional education, only a going-through, only a transformative experience, when you submit to Nabokov's vision, and let Lolita be individual child, not general model.

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

Copyright 2009

Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...', to be published on Thursday 26th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. good stuff...sometimes we expect so much out of a book that we miss the simple stuff...

    and thank you for such encouraging words although they may be metaphorical

  2. some interesting food for thought here....Greetings from mexico

  3. Very well put. I agree, I like to give myself over to the full story and think about the symbolism later. I don't like to have to take myself out of an engaging read to step back and analyze.

  4. It's time we put back some of the imaginative into reading, a bit like a trip to Copenhagen without a map. Thanks for this. It's salutary.

  5. I'd quite like to know which books she has in mind in the second paragraphy...but I suppose then it might get a bit personal.

  6. It's sadly true that when we read, we enter this exploration as if it is an exploration for unfound lands - an exploration with the highest of expectations. I am guilty of sometimes trying to read too much between the lines, sometimes trying to apply a worldview to a small exchange between two characters, or to an event that is relevant only to the context of that work.

    On the other hand, there are books that do try to apply too much worldview into their own context, not allowing me to come to my own judgments. I apologize to those who enjoy young adult literature, and even more to those who like to write it. I've never been a fan of such literature. It targets young adults as if they are all made from one mold, and it grasps to inject certain modes of thinking into their heads. I would have to say that there are exceptions, of course, but there is a very large majority of writers of young adult literature who engage in this type of writing, unfortunately.

    Finally, a few thoughts on Lolita. I read Lolita when I was in high school, when I was in college, and then again just two years ago. The exquisiteness of this book lies in reading it as it is, in devouring the emotionally felt and expressed words that lie on the page before us like sparkling gems on silk, and definitely without passing judgment on Humbert Humbert. Trying to interpret and analyze breaks down the book into flesh, skin, and bones - too many parts to make a cohesive whole.

    Thank you, Cuban, as always, for sharing these Smith articles. They're thought-provoking for both readers and writers.


  7. Rachel, I think 'The Terrorist' by John Updike might be one. :-) Or any of Jackie Collins novels. Stephen King also comes to mind (by the way, I used to be a fan). Dean R Koontz's books are one original and many carbon copies of the same format. And I read many of his novels in uni.

    'Sometimes it feels like the qualities readers and critics most want to find in novels are those that are antithetical to the writing of a good one. We want a novel to be the "last word" on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day.'

    I agree with this. Sometimes, when I am reading a book, I grow exasparated with the writer and shout at him/her: 'Just write, please, write! Stop trying to be so clever.'

    In fact, if there's one criticism about Zadie's latest novel 'On Beauty' is that in certain passages the language feels over-elaborated, as if she was trying too much. Luckily, the plot was strong enough to withstand this small threat and I ended up enjoying her book.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  8. I love what she says about being your own cartographer, about being an adventurous reader and being a writer that sticks to the artistic workmanship of writing. Wow. This series has been fantastic ACIL!!! I know I will return to each installment for refreshers now and again.

  9. Your neck of the woods sounds very promising.


  10. What jumped up at me here is the realization that I never have read "Lolita," nor anything by Vladimir Nabokov. I wonder why. All other thoughts faded.

  11. When I was very young, I always thought all stories had a beginning and an end (which had to be in the happily ever after spirit), good people and bad people, a specific purpose and idea.
    Then one day, I read a story that wasn't any of these. It didn't have the traditional introduction, or an end. It was like a day in the life of a poor village couple, and it left me wondering why the story didn't mention that they got rich and happy.
    That was when my mom explained to me that a story need not have a happy ending, and a story need not come to an end when the words ended. A day in the lives of people is also a story, and it is these stories we should learn to understand, think over and appreciate. That is how we develop a bigger understanding of our world and human beings. That is how we learn to live with people and things as they are. There need not be a higher or hidden theme in each and everything. Simplicity is good enough.
    This post reminded me of the time I was seven, when my mother explained all this to me.
    And I have always tried to read novels, and look at things, with that perspective.

  12. Another thought-provoking post, Cuban. I love the Marco Polo analogy. I also like Smith’s “our lives, as good novels well know, are always a partial, failing, view from somewhere.” I find myself, still, struggling with my idea that she extols only a certain kind of novel for a certain kind of sophisticated (?) reader. I’ll for now simply accept that she wants us to be the very best at whatever type of written work we choose to embrace, whether it is a comic strip or a *Don Quijote.*

    Since it is Thanksgiving Day on this side of the pond, I want to express my gratitude for your wonderful blog.

  13. Te encontre de nuevo. It's me, la pelirroja de Miami...la Cubana. :)

    You've brought up some interesting points, especially about Nabokov's Lolita and what can be missed if read without much thought.

  14. Fascinating stuff; plenty of food for thought. I don't think I could ever distance myself far enough to read Lolita as pure symbol.

  15. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this post. It is a perspective I had not considered. humans are so good at generalizing.

  16. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  17. hi CIL, a provoking series, as is your
    entire blog. lolita is one of my favorite
    books. the first time I read the novel,
    never did I place any symbolism upon one
    word, I just enjoyed the sheer pleasure
    of Nabokov's turn of a phrase. i adored
    the way his mind worked, and often his little
    asides reminded me of my silly imaginations.
    reading lolita as as an older adult, some
    history, judgement and symbolism creeps in.

    check out -


    for a blog informed by Nobokov's literary

  18. Sorry to be so late to visit; I’ve been in NYC without my laptop. This passage is well worth reading. I fear Zadie Smith is right about formula writing. As a reader it is best to judge a novel on its individual merits.

    I was hoping she’d take one more step and say that readers/publishers should also be open to books that don’t fit into expected categories. Perhaps that will come in the next installment.

    This article also makes me question who is to blame: the publishers for printing toward expectations, the public for wanting that or the writer for anticipating it? Is it the free market economy that creates these trends or our system of education?

    My 12 year old daughter said she wants to read To Kill a Mockingbird before they study it at school because she wants to enjoy it. Class discussion and all the symbolism ruins the pleasure of just reading. I remember feeling like that too. Although I do remember reading Lolita as a teen and taking it on face value, not symbolically.

    The comments on this post were really interesting too. I agree with your take on On Beauty, expecially in the “what is art” parts – the book felt pretensious and was often inaccurate. It was more honest when talking about race and family, on a personal level.

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