Arts “When I write badly, it’s because I’ve been cowardly, I’ve lied…”
posted by November 21 at 12:35 PMon
Slog reader Josh found this excellent radio interview with Zadie Smith on KCRW. She talks about the idea of the good, the idea of beauty extracted from all content, misunderstanding David Foster Wallace, Aristotle, the people who run liberal arts colleges, conservative characters versus liberal characters, hiding the scaffolding of a novel’s structure, Iris Murdoch, black people who think they’re inauthentic or aren’t black enough…
Constantly when I’m in interviews I’m being told, Your books are all about the search for identity, and I always think, My books are about that search being completely pointless.
A slightly longer sound bite on reading as an analogy of living, and Jane Austen:
Good reading is an anaolgy of good living, because it takes all kinds of sensitivities, committments, beliefs, passivity—all kinds of different qualities to understand, when you pick up, say, Pride and Prejudice, what’s going on in that book. Not just on the superficial level, its plot and character, but what it believes, that book. And, I mean, Austen, she was a bit of a rationalist-positivist in a sense because she really believed there are rational people who move through the world making these great choices, they make them very carefully, and at the end there’s a happy ending. So that’s not to everybody’s taste but it is a model for what fiction does. Her books are kind of a hypothetical ethical arena. You walk into them, you have all these choices in front of you, and the wonderful thing about them is they’re not life or death, they’re not your choices, they’re Elizabeth Bennet’s choices, but you place yourself in this arena and you move through this carefully affiliated world of choice. Austen does it in a quite a simple and beautiful way, other writers do it in incredibly complicated ways. And the complexity of that is a real education of the emotions and an education of the heart and it’s very hard to get that education elsewhere. So a piece of moral philosophy—On Beauty was half based on a book called On Beauty and Being Just, which is a small theoretical text, but the question is, a small theoretical text gives you an idea of beauty and makes an argument which you have to come to with your rational mind. Now a novel can make exactly the same case but it does it in a different way, and those procedures are vital, they’re really important to becoming a human being. Becoming a human being isn’t just something you get with your birth. It’s an exercise and it takes your whole life.
Here she is on writing badly:
Any writer, even though they may never make this argument because it’s very hard to make and defend yourself from critics and academics who will shoot you down, knows that, to be a good writer, it’s more than craft. To be a good writer is not just craft, it’s also yourself. And I don’t mean in some simple American self-improvement sense… When writers write bad books, it’s not just an act separate from themselves. It’s the writer who has written the bad book. When I write badly, it’s because I’ve been cowardly, I’ve lied—it seems odd to say in fiction I’ve lied but any writer knows what I’m talking about. I can reread a book, like I reread The Autograph Man on a plane for the first time a few days ago, and I was enjoying it to a point, and then I got to a 20-page section and I knew it was a lie, and I rememeber when I wrote it I knew it was a lie. That’s what I mean. It’s very, very hard to discuss as a critic or academic, but writers know what I’m talking about and it’s one of the most profound feelings of self-betrayal. You’ve betrayed yourself in some way.
If I’ve gotten any of her words wrong, it’s my fault—I just transcribed these passages. Listen to the whole thing, it’s great. I’ve listened to it several times now. (I am a big fan.) The lecture she says she’s going to give soon she gave at The New Yorker festival. ‘Twas awesome.