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.'
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