What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith)
In conclusion I have tried to make a case for the special role of writer-critics, as it is in my interest to do. There is a suspicion that writers who become critics retain too much of the sentiment and mysticism of their craft to be capable of real critical thought — maybe I am evidence of that. But Roland Barthes is a good exception to that rule. He had both a sensuous understanding of the creative artist and an unimpeachable critical skill. Most of all, he understood that the critic’s job is a non-cynical truth-seeking exercise, deeply connected to the critic’s own beliefs, values and failures. “Each critic,” he says, “chooses his necessary language, in accordance with a certain existential pattern, as the means of exercising an intellectual function which is his, and his alone . . . he puts into the operation his ‘deepest self’, that is, his preferences, pleasures, resistances, and obsessions.” That’s what I want to hear and feel from critics and readers, this deepest self . Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling. Listen to Virginia Woolf, my favourite writer-critic, speaking of the experience of evaluating fiction from the comfort of her reading-chair: ‘It is difficult to say, “Not only is this book of this sort, but it is of this value, here it fails, here it succeeds, this is bad, that is good”. To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive of any one mind sufficiently endowed, impossible for the most self- confident to find more than the seeds of such flowers in himself . . . [Yet] even if the results are abhorrent and our judgements are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant. We learn through feeling we cannot suppress, our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.’
Writers learn through feeling, too, and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers. The Trial , a novel about justice, works upon us in a fundamentally different manner than John Rawls’s essay “A Theory of Justice”, or Judge Judy shouting at us about justice through the television. The Trial properly translates as The Process , and reading it and all novels is a process like no other. Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion — allow me to call it an expansion of the heart — in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with. Both fail in varied, fascinating ways to complete this action as ideally as it might be completed. But if it were ideal, if the translation from brain to page were perfect, then of course all idiosyncrasy, as Woolf suggests, would indeed be impoverished: the novel would not exist at all. There would be no act of communication, no process, no gift — we would simply be speaking to ourselves. Fail better.
What a strange business we are in, we writers, we critics, we readers! Writing failures, reading failures, studying failures, reviewing them. Imagine a science institute that spent its time on the inventions that never actually do what they say on the tin, like diet pills, or hair restorers or Icarus’s wings. Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human. That writing and reading should be such difficult arts reminds us of how frequently our own subjectivity fails us. We do not know people as we think we know them. The world is not only as we say it is. “Without failure, no ethics,” said Simone de Beauvoir. And I believe that.
What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)
The tale of Clive