“Fail Better”: Zadie Smith on writing novels

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Zadie Smith, photo by David Shankbone (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

The Guardian has published an insightful article by Zadie Smith on the art of “failing” to write great novels, and what it takes to write “truthful” fiction.

One of the things I like about the piece is that it underscores the (for me, long-wished-for) death of “Theory”–particularly the peculiar lit crit theory that there is no such thing as Authors, only Text. Even the venerable T.S.Eliot contributed to this notion for reasons, as Smith points out, had as much to do with a desire to maintain his own privacy as it did to ensure the purity of literary art.

Smith points out what nonsense it is to think one can entirely separate a novel (or poem) from the personality and, yes, even character of the one who wrote it. Neither does she make the mistake, so common in recent decades among hip young writers, of ignoring the value of the so-called “Western Canon.” Here’s a particularly neat little quote on cliches as a form of authorial laziness:

With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones – for example, in each of my novels somebody “rummages in their purse” for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate “purse” from its old, persistent friend “rummage”. To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence – a small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince; less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which “inauthentic” is truly the correct term.

read the entire article here.

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