What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith)
The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy
There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called “The Great American Novel” and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation , not just of a man . . .
Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible -it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I’ve been talking about — the duty to convey accurately the truth of one’s own conception — is a duty of the most demanding kind. If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that’s because there were only a few. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception — given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self — truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one’s eyes water just thinking about it. But there’s no reason to cry. If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them.
The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do. It is a writer’s duty. It is also a reader’s duty. Did I mention that yet?
What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)
Note to readers: a novel is a two-way street