Tuesday 15 December 2009

What Makes A Good Writer? By Zadie Smith (15th and Final Part)

And after fifteen weeks of reading about, probing into and analysing that marvellous art we call writing, this is the final instalment of Zadie Smith's eye-opening and exquisite essay 'What Makes a Good Writer'. Once again, I would like to thank Ginny Hooker from The Guardian for making this text available to me and by extent to all my fellow bloggers, followers and writers who visit my cyber-house. I would also like to thank Garrincha for his commitment to provide the witty and humorous images accompanying each post. It's been a ball for me looking forward to his regular e-mails. And last but not least I would like to thank the British writer Zadie Smith herself without whose brilliant intellect this fifteen-part series would not have happened. Zadie has a new book out, a collection of critical texts called Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. I, for one, will be adding it to my amazon's wishlist very soon. And on the strength of the final part of her essay 'What Makes a Good Writer?' tonight, I would advise you to do the same. Many thanks. For parts 1-14, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here. here, here, here and here.

In conclusion I have tried to make a case for the special role of writer-critics, as it is in my interest to do. There is a suspicion that writers who become critics retain too much of the sentiment and mysticism of their craft to be capable of real critical thought - maybe I am evidence of that. But Roland Barthes is a good exception to that rule. He had both a sensuous understanding of the creative artist and an unimpeachable critical skill. Most of all, he understood that the critic's job is a non-cynical truth-seeking exercise, deeply connected to the critic's own beliefs, values and failures. "Each critic," he says, "chooses his necessary language, in accordance with a certain existential pattern, as the means of exercising an intellectual function which is his, and his alone . . . he puts into the operation his 'deepest self', that is, his preferences, pleasures, resistances, and obsessions." That's what I want to hear and feel from critics and readers, this deepest self . Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling. Listen to Virginia Woolf, my favourite writer-critic, speaking of the experience of evaluating fiction from the comfort of her reading-chair: 'It is difficult to say, "Not only is this book of this sort, but it is of this value, here it fails, here it succeeds, this is bad, that is good". To carry out this part of a reader's duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive of any one mind sufficiently endowed, impossible for the most self- confident to find more than the seeds of such flowers in himself . . . [Yet] even if the results are abhorrent and our judgements are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant. We learn through feeling we cannot suppress, our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.'

Writers learn through feeling, too, and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers. The Trial , a novel about justice, works upon us in a fundamentally different manner than John Rawls's essay "A Theory of Justice", or Judge Judy shouting at us about justice through the television. The Trial properly translates as The Process , and reading it and all novels is a process like no other. Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion - allow me to call it an expansion of the heart - in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with. Both fail in varied, fascinating ways to complete this action as ideally as it might be completed. But if it were ideal, if the translation from brain to page were perfect, then of course all idiosyncrasy, as Woolf suggests, would indeed be impoverished: the novel would not exist at all. There would be no act of communication, no process, no gift - we would simply be speaking to ourselves. Fail better.

What a strange business we are in, we writers, we critics, we readers! Writing failures, reading failures, studying failures, reviewing them. Imagine a science institute that spent its time on the inventions that never actually do what they say on the tin, like diet pills, or hair restorers or Icarus's wings. Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human. That writing and reading should be such difficult arts reminds us of how frequently our own subjectivity fails us. We do not know people as we think we know them. The world is not only as we say it is. "Without failure, no ethics," said Simone de Beauvoir. And I believe that.
Copyright 2009

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

Next Post: 'La Historia Oficial/The Official History' (Review), to be published on Thursday 17th December at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. This sentence sat with me after I had finished reading: "Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling." That is, the feeling of our "deepest self". I think we do ourselves a grave injustice as readers when we do not engage this deepest self while we read. It is only by activating this part of ourselves that we can truly feel what we read. But then, our "deepest self" is not usually a part of us that we actively engage; it is the most true part of us that engages itself involuntarily. It seems that we are at an impasse. But we can come out of it if we can just relax with a book rather than stiffen and assume the attitude we used to assume when we were in high school or college and faced with having to read various tomes we had no interest in. We are, now, readers by choice (one would hope), and we can just hold our book with the ecstasy that comes with knowing we have made this choice. Now, we can enjoy...

    Cuban, I believe it was through one of Zadie Smith's installments that I first made my way to your site. I'm sorry to see these go, but then, you remain. And there is no lack of entertainment coming from you... EVER! :-)


  2. Mi herma se que estas aquí y que estas metiendo pescao con coquito y mortadella, pero a veces no tengo tiempo ni pa' rascarme el kukuruku.
    Gracias por colgar tantas cosas interesantes y buenas.
    Un abrazon, tony.

  3. In one of my periodic plunges into the world away from journalism, I became sort of adept at computer programming. In that role, I was assigned a particular project. After a few weeks, I announced that it was impossible to achieve the stated goal.

    Another fellow then took on the project. After a few weeks, he proclaimed the task completed and his work to be a success.

    Strangely (or not), his pronounced success ended at precisely the same point as had mine. What I saw as failure, he saw as success.

    In reality, his attempt was a failure, too, although he did not realize it even after the powers that ruled had seen demonstrations and declared the project to be impractical.

    I think the world revolves around an old cliché: One man's fantasy is another man's reality or, as said another way, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Apply the same concept to works of fiction or to authors or to critics or to readers.

    Critics? Bah, humbug. The series was great. I enjoyed it immensely. Thank you, CiL.

  4. Expansion of the heart? Oh yes please!

  5. I can't believe it's already the end of the series...

    I very much agree with Fram on the point of critics, it's all subjective. And I'm not so sure about "deepest self" in criticism: I look for informed opinion, based on some research that I simply couldn't do myself. When it comes to critic's personal opinion, I either take it or not, but it's the "academy" that I want.

    I will miss this series. I'm off to order Zadie's new book...

  6. Well, I thought I had posted a comment but it seems to have disappeared into the cyber cemetery. I hope that's not a reflection of its worth. In any case, I was talking about how delving into the deepest self is indeed the greatest challenge both for the writer and the reader. It is the difference between a distinctive and a derivative work. I have enjoyed the Smith series. It has been both illuminative and maddening, but in the end it was also thought-provoking, which I always consider to be a good thing.

  7. Many thanks for your kind words. This was my favourite part of the last part:

    'Writers learn through feeling, too, and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers.'

    In the last couple of years two books have made me felt uncomfortable to the point of questioning that discomfort quite seriously: 'Native Son' and 'Lolita'. The former froma liberal point of view. When do I stop being a reader and beging to think as a father? I won't give the plot away but as much as I understood the plight of the main character the way in which he committed he hideous deed had me questioning not only his morals (or lack of them thereof) but also mine.

    Lolita is a re-read which is meant to serve as preparation for my next book 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'. But having read 'Lolita' when I was a teenager, I had forgot about the humour. Of course a younger person wouldn't necessarily pick on Nabokov's masterful writing. It has been a pleasure to read but at all times there's a little light at the back of my head that comes on with a sign reading: 'But this guy is having sex with a minor!'. Then the other part of my brain responds: 'Yes, but this is fiction, it's a made-up tale, don't you understand?'

    Such is a reader's dilemma. However, the lesson I take with me is that both these books have exercised my sensibilities and for that I am grateful.

    Many thanks for your feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Good point, Cuban, spot on, I must have missed that before in Zadie's teaching. We read thousands of books in our lives but we end up remembering the ones that, as you said, exercise our sensibilities. I often try to recall a plot of a book that I've read sometime ago and to my utter frustration I realise I can't remember any of it, other than names of main characters. But then again there are books that I've read twenty years ago and I still remember them so well that I could tell their stories in detail here and now...

    I guess this is a simplified version of what you just said :-)

  9. Oh no, the final part! I shall miss reading this series on your blog. Perhaps you can keep the literary conversation going yourself?

    I am interested in Changing My Mind, but I’m hoping that Zadie Smith will explore the issue of creativity in future novels. I’d recommend On Beauty to those who have enjoyed her writing.

    It was interesting to have her end with writer-critiques since I am a writer-reviewer (I have no professional training so would not call myself a critic.) As a fellow writer, I may understand what the author is trying to do and spot common mistakes from my own experience. I’m also more empathetic and reluctant to write a bad review of a colleague, knowing the hard work that goes into all books. I get around this by only reviewing books I like. I’m a book blogger and not a critic.

    I do like that quotation from Virginia Woolf. Blogs are certainly idiosyncratic. I loved Zadie Smith’s appraisal, “Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human.” Beautifully put and a perfect place to end.

    Thank you, ACIL, The Guardian and Zadie Smith!

  10. Fantastic series! Thanks so much for posting this; I gained so much from reading Zadie smith's wisdom over the past weeks.

  11. I have to have a book between my hands. I have to sit all cozied up with a cup of tea and read and feel the book. It is like breathing.

    As for Native Son and Lolita. I was marked by both.

    In Lolita I still think he made the child to sexual, it was an upsetting book.

    In Native Son, it was so worlds apart that I almost felt it couldn't be true, people surely didn't treat others that way, it was an upsetting book too.

    Feliz Navidad Cuban.


  12. Dear Blogpal!
    Just briefly stopping by with my very best wishes for Xmas and the New Year! Can’t tell you how much I’ve missed you & your terrific posts since my last visit - but hope to see you very soon back at my place where I’ve just posted my latest Christmas Lola Lifeline! All the best & see you again soon!
    xxxLOL LOLA:)

  13. I love Zadie Smith...read White Teeth and On Beauty a few years ago..so good! I will have to check this essay out.

  14. Thanks a lot for your kind feedback.

    Greetings from London.

  15. I have enjoyed this series ACIL! It will continue to be a resource for me. This week, this sentence stayed with me: "...in order to confront the human otherness that fiction confronts [us] with..." For me it speaks to the generosity of spirit that must be garnered in order to genuinely appreciate others; and in the process of 'losing yourself' you find yourself opening up and absorbing all of the wonderful gifts.

    I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season ACIL. I look forward to many more wonderful opportunities to share with you here in the blogosphere.

    Asante sana!

  16. Hola London.
    Te dire que hace rato miraba pasar estos post y queria leerlos pero no tenia tiempo. Ahora en los dias de vacaciones, decidi imprimirlos todos y los estoy leyendo: super buenos.
    I still haven't finished reading them but there is something that makes me think.
    Zadie Smith says reading is as difficult as writing and I don't know if I agree with that. Part of the absolute admiration I feel for good writers is that I can't write like that. And I can read them and feel what they say, I can be laughing, crying, amazed with them...I know when I am reading a good book and know how to appreciate it.
    I do think you need to have a certain sensitibity for literature, but I think writing is much more difficult than this.
    I am enjoying this greatly, so thanks to you both.

  17. I am sorry, I meant sensitivity.

  18. Hi CIL, I enjoyed reading this interview
    and the ideas/thoughts Zadie's words/thoughts
    have provoked within me. To see failure in
    writing as a step and to simply fail better
    the next write, for one.

    To show my deepest self when writing, I am
    not there 100% yet. Suppress the feeling
    something I am guilty of at times. However,
    this must stop. I just read an essay by
    Audre Lorde, and she states - feeling births
    ideas - so true. And as Zadie states in this
    interview - we learn through feeling.

    Excellent interview and thank you CubaninLondon, for posting this - KUDOS.

  19. Thanks for letting me know about this series. I very much enjoyed reading each installment and the drawings from ACIM added to the delight of Zadie's words. I also agree with Renee's comment that reading is like breathing.

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