Monday, January 15, 2007

What Novels Are For

Bournemouth Runner at The Art of Fiction and others were pleased about one particular aspect of Zadie Smith's Guardian article: the fact that she highlights a problem previously discussed on this blog, the problem which the commercialisation of fiction publishing presents for many writers:
By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so... Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment ... will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio...

...Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about ... [novelists'] duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.

3 comments:

Adrian said...

It's fascinating isn't it? I've read elsewhere that she's tired of writing fiction... a shame, if that's the case, far better, surely, that she addresses the challenges set in this article.

Elizabeth Baines said...

If this is so, I suspect it's more of a rhetorical statement. I was once at a reading where Zadie said in a heartfelt way, in answer to an audience question, that she didn't want to be a 'career novelist', by which she meant the kind of thing she's writing about in the current article: the kind of novelist who churns out a yearly novel in order to please the market and the requirements of the publishing machine. What Zadie knows is that this is not conducive to the greatest writing, because the 'inspiration' or the readiness to write comes in fits and starts and is not amenable to a regulated timetable, and often the great creative efforts leave one creatively exhausted and in need of a fallow recouping period.

Zadie has famously resisted the call for a novel a year, and has dared to overrun her publishing deadlines. Luckily for her, she's famous enough and commercially successful enough (in spite of her principles) for this to have given an extra frisson to her pre-publicity, and a mystique to her profile.

Adrian said...

Ah, but whilst "White Teeth" was exciting and ragged, and "The Autograph Man" was intense and tentative, "On Beauty" was secure and stylised; the next one's the killer, I guess. I like her writing, I just think she could probably write a better book if she wasn't so darn conservative.