There are, as I type, something ridiculous like nine or ten pages of accumulated incoherent brain mush all about reading, writing and books inelegantly sprawled out on a draft somewhere in the bowels of the Blogger server. Which is fine, I guess. One day I may haul some of it out, ruthlessly prune off the huge repetitive chunks and overblown extemporisation, add some conjunctions and plonk it up here. Maybe.
But in the meantime, Zadie Smith has written roughly the same number of words in the Guardian on a similar topic. Of course, the difference between my efforts and hers are somewhat akin to the difference between a shameful brain fart in a crowded lift/elevator and the rare, sweet honeyed breezes of Paradise that waft the manna of thought to a hungry reader. She’s the breezes, I’m the flatulence (sorry, Dad). So go read. It’s bloody fantastic. It made my Sunday morning (that and my special Christmas coffee in its lovely tin, that is). And it will likely make next Sunday too, since that’s when the second part gets published.
It’s the sort of essay-writing that makes me want to flop belly-up in her presence, wagging my tail in delight as I agree with every single word she says, ‘cos I think the writing is sooooooo goooooood. Well that, and curling up with despair at the realisation that I will never, ever write so well in my entire life. I mean, Zadie Smith wouldn’t be looking at the first two words of this post thinking, “There is? er… There are? umm… There is?? Oh buggerit. Flip a coin.”*
So it took me a read-through, a period of thinking, and then another read-through (with a pen! making notes!) to overcome my instinct to just say, “Yes, yes, yes. I agree!” and actually THINK about what she’d written. It’s still damned interesting, but I’m beginning to feel the urge to argue. What a relief.
If you can’t be bothered to read the lot – even as a first section, it’s pretty long, there's an incomplete misinterpretation of her essay below, using as many of her words as possible, because they’re better than anything I could manage. Unfortunately, this means that I’m leaving out the metaphysical swoosh of Great Writing that makes the essay such a fine reading experience. Sorry.:
1. Writers are torn between the Platonic ideal of the novel that resides in their imagination and the reality of what they produce.
2. Between these two versions of their novel, lies a gap. There… be dragons, aka. the personality of the writer making itself felt, and into this gap tumbles the truth about literary success or failure.
3. “Personality” is the writer’s “way of being… and…processing the world.” His/her duty is to try to reveal this to the reader, although this is “impossible in totality”.
4. Because of the impossibility of revealing the whole of the self (see 1 and 3), at heart, writing is “a compromise… a self-betrayal.”
5. But great writing will still do this well enough to “wake us from the sleepwalk of our lives.” It changes its readers.
6. Readers have a similar duty to be open to the Other: the “picture of [an unfamiliar] human consciousness”. They must work to tease out the nuances of the writing and stretch their understanding, rather than passively receiving a text.
7. In other words, readers have to engage with the text, not just relate to it, looking to have their own worldview confirmed and sustained (you see now why I’m throwing in as much of what she wrote, verbatim, rather than using my own words).
I should also add that although she is making judgements about literary quality, she doesn’t condemn any specific genre or type of writer wholesale. And she does this on the basis of what she sees as the duty of both readers and writers when tackling fiction. This provides her with a way to express what she thinks lies at the heart of a Great Novel. While she discusses failure and success, I don’t get the feeling the essay is about exclusivity, since the effort she describes is guaranteed to end in failure for anyone.
In my view, it’s all very interesting stuff to swish around with a mental stick and then poke at, to see if anything happens. Why? Well, first of all, I think it sheds light into the murkier corners of the perennial debate about criticism that rages between writers/writers-as-readers/writers-as-critics/readers/readers-as-writers/readers-as-critics/and-variations-thereof. I don’t think it resolves it, but for me, it provides a new perspective on aspects of both the reader and the writer’s disappointment in the process that I want to think about some more. Particularly the bits about TS Eliot and “bad aesthetic choices” having “an ethical dimension.” Someone needs to alert those interior decorator heroines from the 1980s. Chrome and black velvet does not an ethical statement make.
It’s also helped me to articulate part of why I find clichés so frustrating, and plagiarism in fiction so personal. At heart, she’s writing about truth, both as a writer and a reader, and there is something about this ideal that is intensely appealing.
But here’s the crunch, and it’s why I’m a tad anxious about the rest of the article to come. I really don’t want to put words on her page before I’ve had a chance to finish the whole thing, so I’m going to leave out what I’d planned to say in the rest of this paragraph… Let’s just say that I want to believe, I really do, but I’m very scared about where all of this might be leading.
*But then, she probably doesn’t get holiday letters like mine, or write stuff about creationism, man-titty and all things czechish. Life’s not all bad.