What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith)
Corrective criticism, AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like
Far from the system critic there is another critic, let’s call him the corrective critic, who prides himself on belonging to no school, who feels he knows his own mind. He is essentially meritocratic, interested only in what is good, and good for all time. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it if another is unrecognised he will be its champion, regardless of fashion. He is not, as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being, a leaf in the wind of trend. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief — the most beautiful kind of criticism, in my opinion. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. It is not enough for him to say, as the novelist has, this is what I love, this what I believe. He must also make his taste a general law. It is his way or the highway. To understand the problem with corrective criticism, we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer’s duty. I said earlier that it was each writer’s duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. It follows that each writer’s duty is different, for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis, a different urgency. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James, while discussing religious subjectivity, gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed: Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself one must yield a point, another must stand firm, — in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.
This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks, a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth, or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro, does not occur to him. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral, Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly, and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. And although it’s certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women, it happens that women were not his business — his business was death.
If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer’s strength — but he seeks the sentence of literature, not the syllables. Committed to his theory, he defines his theory as”literature” itself, recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality, it is vitally important that one recognise one’s own beliefs. The corrective critic is like one of William James’s cocky atheists, believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. It is important that we recognise, for example, that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. That’s what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the ”dramatisation of belief”. And a response to a novel, a piece of literary criticism, is also a dramatisation of belief. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.
What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)
Imagining better readers, better writers