What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith)
We refuse to be each other
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. And I don’t care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks, I don’t care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family I don’t care if it refuses to use the letter ‘e’ or crosses five continents and two thousand pages.
What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen’s prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton’s. The dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec.
Great styles represent the interface of “world” and “I”, and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides.Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. 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.
What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)
The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy