Zadie Smith on Writing – and Reading

January 21, 2007

In “Fail Better,” an article recently published in the Guardian, Zadie Smith speaks out on writers, readers, and critics. An interesting discussion point is the fact that not only the writer, but the reader may be responsible for the lack of more truly great novels.

The first section of the article describes an imaginary writer setting out to write the perfect novel. He knows writing, has studied the techniques, and does all the right things. He completes the novel, but recognizes his failure to achieve what he set out to do. The novel is critically and financially successful, and he starts on the sequel. Smith aptly points out at this point that “A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones.”

Smith elaborates on the necessity of the writer to tell the truth, his or her own truth-

The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique. It’s what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations “only good men write good books” or “one must know a man’s life to understand his work”. But neither did they think of a writer’s personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth…

In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it…

With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have represented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.

I like the idea that a truly great writer reveals his own truth, not the truth the reader may expect or hope for, not the truth that the reader is comfortable with, but the truth and reality that only the writer can know. As I think about that novels that have stayed with me, it is not those that were necessarily the most entertaining, but those that revealed a different world to me, a different life. Zadie does a better job of explaining that I can-

A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own.

Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry – we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing – great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

The next section of the article describes the reader’s role, and Smith gives the reader equal responsibility with the writer. I really need to think about this one for a while- an equal effort required from the reader as that of the writer? That is just hard to imagine.

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers.

Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.

What I’m saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston’s capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland’s strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert’s faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. 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. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.

“A work of art,” said Nabokov, “has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.”

I love this description of a single novel shining brightly and creating a cottage industy of novels surviving in its shade. I have seen it so often;

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the “individual reader” having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered – the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur novel – the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

I have to think about to what degree I have helped to perpetuate the growth of “less than great” writing. I know that I did at one time. I remember at a younger age reading through a slew of “spy thriller” type novels that have been showing up as movies the last few years. They were entertaining novels, but did nothing more.

I think I am a better reader now, but there is always room to improve.

Here is the link to the article:

Fail Better


3 Responses to “Zadie Smith on Writing – and Reading”

  1. Dorothy W. Says:

    I like this article; thanks for quoting so extensively — I like particularly the idea that good reading is important and requires work. I find this inspiring.

  2. Brad Says:

    I enjoyed her comments on reading as well. Francine Prose also charges the reader with putting forth more effort in her Reading Like a Writer. It is a interesting book if you can fit into into your reading schedule.

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