What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith)
Writing as self-betrayal
Back to my simple point, which is that writers are in possession of “selfhood”, and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure. This shameful fact needn’t trouble the professor or the critic, but it is naturally of no little significance to writers themselves. Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski, speaking of The Self, in a poem of the same title:
It is small and no more visible than a cricket in August.
It likes to dress up, to masquerade, as all dwarves do.
It lodges between granite blocks, between serviceable truths.
It even fits under a bandage, under adhesive.
Neither custom officers nor their beautiful dogs will find it.
Between hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.
To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation — as Zagajewski suggests — is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it’s impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realise it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called “realists”, comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. 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. That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one’s own work, is Prufrock’s: “That is not it at all . . . that is not what I meant, at all . . .” Writing feels like self-betrayal, like failure.
What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)
Writing as inauthenticity