Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Great Mind of Zadie Smith

Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow bloggers me hearties, I commend to you one of the most serious and insightful minds in the literary world today: that of Zadie Smith.

Today the Guardian publishes an article by Zadie (and which I understand to be extracted from a promised book) on the nature of fiction and the condition, in creative terms, of the fiction writer. At the end of a week of blogosphere dispute about whether fiction writing 'should' be a painful experience or one which is fun, here is Zadie's (to me searingly accurate) view of 'the land where writers live':
...a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet.
As a result, she says, writing fiction can be 'some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do'.

In illustration, she gives us the fictional story of 'Clive', who sets out to write a novel, and finally completes it:
Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalisingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection; its shape is warped, unrecognisable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate and Clive must suffer the bleak sense ... that his novel was not only not good, but not true.
And what is this truth which would make for the perfect novel, but which inevitably evades the fiction writer? It is, says Zadie, the truth of the self, the writer's character, a fact little acknowledged by critics writing with the legacy of TS Eliot's injunction to separate the 'personality' of the writer from the writing:
To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character ... Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great.
She is careful here to make the distinction between crude autobiographical facts - an obsession with which, as I am always saying, can get in the way of a reader's receptivity to the writing - and the idea of a writer's personality in the truer sense. Personality, she says, 'is much more than autobiographical detail, it's our way of processing the world', and a writer's style is 'a personal necessity ... the only possible expression of a particular consciouness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth'. And when a writer fails to find the style which does this adequately - as he or she always must, to a greater or lesser extent - then writing inevitably becomes an endeavour of failure and disappointment.

This is the one duty of writers, she says: 'to express accurately their way of being in the world' and a great novel is one which can do this, however alien to a reader the way of being expressed. The duty of readers is to meet this halfway, she says, and reading too is a skill to be honed:
Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced.
In a week when people have been posting about 'comfort-blanket' books, Zadie reminds us that books are meant to prevent us from what she calls 'sleepwalking through life.'

7 comments:

Wayne said...

but we can spend all our time writing about writing. Story, psychological truth, communicating honestly but with humour and creating/sustaining a compelling reader is a different matter!

I am a writer/director who at the very least enjoys the rigours of this challenge..waynex.wordpress.com here are some short stories, seeds of maybe bigger ideas you may enjoy. Or not. Either way they are short...

yours, bindlestiff.

Ms Baroque said...

Elizabeth, I haven't read the paper yerbut it is sitting there on the arm of the couch. The debate about writer's pain has been a little frustrating to me.

Any person who is uncelebrated, unpublished, has no contract/agent/fanbase, is writing into a black hole. It's a faith thing, and as such will engender moments (at least) of self-doubt etc, especially after reading good work by other people. Anyone doing this on top of a full-time job is necessarily sacrificing something to do it - or even sacrificing somebody. Add to that the home truth that most people who aren't writing something don't understand the impulse, and that an unpublished writer is often assumed to be a crank, or a bad writer, or a bit sad -- so this person who is working erally hard, and making sacrifices, is now trying to hide his (or her) true nature, and can only socialise on the basis of other parts of his or her personality.

Sure, it's great to write! It makes you feel like yourself at last. It's great to read, too. And writing is the hard intellectual and emotional work Zadie Smith says it is- that's why we procrastinate etc. Back when I was writing the novel I feel sure I've mentioned to you in the past, I'd write a scene and then I had to go lie down and sleep. I used to get so flipping tired.

It seems clear to me that most of the things about writing that are "problems" are ancillary issues. People get discouraged because the world actually does not WANT them to write. It would be easier for everyone if they didn't. They are caught in a cleft stick, because no one even wants to read what they HAVE written - unless they're lucky enough to have an agent or publisher, or if they just have a great family and that's all they want.

(Friends who also write are a double bind. Join a group and gain competitors.)

Of COURSE it's hard. It's ALSO fun. It's both.

Ms Baroque said...

By the way, I wrote my previous post and then noticed too late to say so that the word verification was Bedvl - bedevil!

Susan Hill said...

The two things are not incompatible.. Comfort blanket books can be great literature at the same time. Or not. A comfort blanket book is, by definition, one which you have read before enough times to know very well and to be guaranteed delight, pleasure, interest, even intellectual stimulation - it has nothing to do with being lulled to sleep. It has everything to do with the certain expectation of reward. I do not mean, by 'comfort blanket books' ones which are necesssarily easy to read or have happy endings or are undemanding.. I do mean those which I return to knowing that although I may get something new out of them, I will also get a repeat of something old - in the best sense - too.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Ah, Susan, I understand what you mean, and I'm sorry if I misrepresented you.

Katy: you're right about writing being both (fun and pain) - in very particular senses.

As I've commented before, these issues can get so simplified and polarised on web discussions. On the other hand, the blogosphere gives us the chance to clarify and tease things out if we're prepared to do so.

Sinéad said...

As a furtive, unpublished scribbler, I had already torn out the article to return to it again, so I'm delighted to hear it comes from a forthcoming book.
I have mixed feelings about Smith's fiction, but this piece was inspired.

Oh, and can't wait for that Canogate volume of Paris Review interviews that was also featured in Saturday's Review.

J G said...

who is zadie smith?