Novelist Zadie Smith had a terrific essay in last Saturday’s Guardian Review. For one so young, she writes with astonishing poise and maturity. Sample:
In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work. One writer, of a naturally analytical and philosophical bent, replied by refining my simple question into a series of more interesting ones:
I’ve often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: “Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?” A map of disappointments – that would be a revelation.
Map of disappointments – Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or “disappointed bridges”, as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?
But in the middle of this remarkably elegant, thoughtful and articulate essay, there is a surprising lapse:
But before we go any further along that track we find TS Eliot, that most distinguished of critic-practitioners, standing in our way. In his famous essay of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, Eliot decimated the very idea of individual consciousness, of personality, in writing. There was hardly any such thing, he claimed, and what there was, was not interesting. For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer’s work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. The poet and his personality were irrelevant, the poetry was everything; and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of literary history. That essay is written in so high church a style, with such imperious authority, that even if all your affective experience as a writer is to the contrary, you are intimidated into believing it.
Smith has fallen into the trap of using ‘decimate’ as a synonym for ‘obliterate’ or ‘destroy’. What it actually means is “removal of a tenth”, the distinctive form of punishment meted out to mutineers in Roman legions. I’m wearily accustomed to journalists misusing the term. But it’s a shock to find someone as erudite as Ms Smith doing it.
Nobody’s perfect, alas. But it’s the only flaw in her lovely essay.