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January 14, 2007

Hey! Your Truth Got Into My Book!

Novelist Zadie Smith thinks harder about writing novels than I do; of course "thinking about writing novels" is what she's being paid to do in this article. Pay me to blather on about the topic, and I imagine I could go a couple thousand words on it as well. Writers are like that.

I think some of this article is good; I think some of it is a little much. In particular I think Ms. Smith is incorrect when she notes that writers don't acknowledge a lack in their writing due to purely mechanical faults (i.e., lack of research, screwing up a fundamental fact, etc); she doesn't know the same writers I know. Likewise, I think she's overselling the ideas of author despairing at the gulf between the Platonic ideal of the novel and the novel that the author, as a fallible human being, actually produces. I think dealing with this is simply a matter of getting a grip and understanding that your job as a novelist is to try to write a good story now and to try to write one that's as good or maybe even a little bit better the next time. Keep doing that and you'll do well enough.

Ms. Smith entirely loses me on this bit, however:

Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.

Further examination of "being in the world" appears to reveal it as "don't be a lazy writer; write in a way other people don't." Ms. Smith describes this as "one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language"; I would describe it somewhat more prosaically as "trying not to suck." I guess that's me being all Anglo-Saxon while Ms. Smith is being appropriately Latinate. What can you do.

I would also disagree that being "one person's truth" is sufficient or the only literary duty, as unless the artist is content to reveal their truth only to themselves, they're going to want to put that truth into a form accessible to others. Art is expression; expression is communication; communication implies an audience. Make your truth uncommunicable or obscure and the audience is fully within its rights to say "sure, it's truth... but is it art?" I'd say the answer is no, not really. Aside from the practical matter that "books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent" are likely to make one a living as a writer, they're also the books that in the fullness of time will stick around because they are better at unpacking their ideas in the brains of their readers.

Basically, Smith is drastically underselling the advantages of accessibility. It's perfectly fine to make people work to get at what you're saying; it's less fine to make them do all the heavy lifting.

Posted by john at January 14, 2007 11:09 AM

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Comments

Jim Wright | January 14, 2007 12:09 PM

"Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not willfully obscure - but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfill the only literary duty I care about."

Huh?! So it's okay for a work of FICTION to be unentertaining, unpleasant, unclear, unintelligent, in poor taste, and willfully obscure as long as it fulfills the duty of being in the world? WTF? Did I read that right?

"The essential experience of fiction?" What the hell is that? I read fiction to be entertained. I want my fiction novel to reasonably clear and in good taste (fart jokes not withstanding), but most of all I want my fiction to be INTELLIGENT. I demand it, don't insult my intelligence, it pisses me off. But more than anything else don't waste my time, I could be spending it in the woodshop or with my kid. Smith needs to get a clue.

Scott Mactavish | January 14, 2007 12:09 PM

I love James Patterson's attitude. He's consistently slammed by critics and high-brows and simply shrugs it off. He aspires to be 'the thrillingest thriller-writer' of all time,' and to hell with the inner self and literary duty and all that.

I'm not a fan of his work but respect the hell out of a guy who writes to entertain, and does so without apology. And with a billion dollars in book sales under his belt, I'm betting he's OK with his current business model.

I'd like to see James and Zadie debate this over a pitcher of Yuengling at Applebee's.

Tim Walker | January 14, 2007 12:24 PM

Smith seems to be going for the Emersonian ideal: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius."

Which is great, and all . . . but Emerson also wrote in some of the clearest, most accessible language in the history of, well, the English language.

Dwight Raulston | January 14, 2007 12:26 PM

Obscurity for the sake of obscurity is not so much ars gratia artis as a sign of intellectual arrogance or insecurity (or perhaps both). To oversimplify the complex is not always an advantage for a writer having a subtle point to make. But to look upon clarity and interest as being in general merely qualities "not to object to" is pretentious.

On the plus side, I now know not to waste my time reading anything by Zadie Smith...

mythago | January 14, 2007 12:33 PM

Color me confused, but if I wanted to write about my way of being in the world, I'd write a memoir or autobiography.

Robert | January 14, 2007 12:41 PM

"Art is expression; expression is communication; communication implies an audience."

So A = E, E = C, C presumes A2, therefore A presumes A2?

Even if this neat formula were true (which beyond being a rhetorical flourish I doubt), that audience might very well be the artist herself and not a hypothetical group of folks Out There.

I imagine we can agree that the "success" of a work of art is not exclusively a matter of its accessibility, that there are other factors that make a story successful or not.

I think therefore we can agree that a partial or complete lack of accessibility to a portion or an entirety of potential readers does not make the work of art unsuccessful all by itself, any more than a book not selling well (for various definitions of "well") automatically makes it an unsuccessful book except in the area of sales.

John Scalzi | January 14, 2007 12:50 PM

Robert:

"Even if this neat formula were true (which beyond being a rhetorical flourish I doubt), that audience might very well be the artist herself and not a hypothetical group of folks Out There."

This is why I note "unless the artist is content to reveal their truth only to themselves..." and indeed it's the sentence immediately preceeding the bit you quote.

Read more carefully, please.

Sue | January 14, 2007 12:54 PM

Basically, Smith is drastically underselling the advantages of accessibility. It's perfectly fine to make people work to get at what you're saying; it's less fine to make them do all the heavy lifting.
I do like the way you boil it down -- it should be intelligent, but just "being the truth" doesn't make it a story. Not to mention, most of us are in it to sell something at some point, and sharing the lifting only makes sense if we want the readers to come back.

That Neil Guy | January 14, 2007 12:54 PM

Sounds a bit like the eternal academia vs the real world debate. It often seems as if novels are written for either one of two purposes, to be studied or to be read. Yes, of course, there are those many that fall easily into both sides, but overall, these days especially, it seems you've got professors writing for other professors or professional writers writing for readers.

I think of the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century list from a few years back. The impenetrable, obscure and, well, old dominated, it seems. A more populist response to the list came up with items like To Kill A Mockingbird and Hitchiker's Guide (along with obvious vote fraud crap like the collected works of L Ron Hubbard)that had no place in the Modern Library Board's list, but I'll wager have been enjoyed by more people than things like Ulysses and Zuleika Dobson. Not that there aren't some fabulous, readable novels on the list. Well, anyway I seem to be getting muddled and contradicting myself so I'll just stop now.

Harry | January 14, 2007 01:00 PM

I can't see that Smith is arguing for 'obscurity for the sake of obscurity' and I think it's a pity that her thoughtful and considered attempt to explain her approach to writing should be received as some kind of attack. There's more than one way to write novels and more than one way to enjoy them; how is that a problem?

Ann L | January 14, 2007 01:03 PM

Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" - at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves.

I'm with you, Scalzi--I don't think she hangs around with the same writers I do.

A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones.

I'm willing to bet real money that unskilled ones do so evey more rarely.

John Scalzi | January 14, 2007 01:05 PM

Harry:

"I can't see that Smith is arguing for 'obscurity for the sake of obscurity' and I think it's a pity that her thoughtful and considered attempt to explain her approach to writing should be received as some kind of attack."

I don't recall suggesting that it is, or that she made such an argument. However, she does say that she feels a novelist's prime duty is to "express their way of being in the world," and that other duties are subordinate to that, including accessibility and clarity. It's certainly her right to have that opinion; I don't particularly agree with her formulation of a novelist's duties, personally.

Nathan | January 14, 2007 01:37 PM

This discussion/argument of an author and readers' duty to each other seems to be raging quite a bit lately. While an author and his/her publisher (and any others involved in that fiduciary relationship) certainly have duties toward each other, I reject the premise that any author and I have any responsibility toward each other.

I think the topic needs to be addressed in terms of the author's goals and what he/she needs to do to achieve those goals.

Speaking as a reader only, I would imagine that the vast majority of authors first wrote because they wanted to; because they had an idea they wanted to express; because they had a message they wanted to communicate; because they wanted to illuminate some subject. Then, they probably said, "Hey, that's not bad. I bet I could get paid for this".

So, fine, I say. Put out whatever it is you want to communicate to me. But if you want to succeed, then yes, you need to entertain me. Yes you need to be reasonably accessible. I'm not stupid and I don't mind having to pull out the dictionary every once in a while, but I'm not likely to pay for the opportunity to "work" my way through your book.

On the other hand, maybe reaching "me" isn't your goal, so disregard me entirely. I'm sure you've got an audience elsewhere and I know I'll never get through all the stuff I want to read.

I guess it all boils down to this. If you discover a tribe in the Amazon who haven't had any outside contact in 4000 years and you want to establish a dialog with them, you don't have a duty to learn some of their language, but you're certainly more likely to succeed if you try.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | January 14, 2007 02:11 PM

Obscurity for the sake of obscurity is not so much ars gratia artis as a sign of intellectual arrogance or insecurity (or perhaps both)...On the plus side, I now know not to waste my time reading anything by Zadie Smith...

Actually, if there's one thing that can be said about Zadie Smith's internationally bestselling novel White Teeth, it's that there's nothing "obscure" or inaccessible about it. Quite the opposite, it's engaging, fast-moving, and funny as hell. That's why it was a big honking bestseller.

Jumping to conclusions about an author's fiction based on the critical theories he or she propounds can lead to some pretty silly conclusions.

Rebecca Ore | January 14, 2007 02:15 PM

We've always had a sort of basic ground of writing that didn't suck but which wasn't exciting in a way that, for me, "Howl," Naked Lunch and Kafka's Metamorphosis were exciting. I remember where I first read "Metamorphosis," what the stacks looked like, what I did after I closed the book, what Charlotte Public Library and the streets looked like. That story heightened my senses in a way that very few other works of art have.

And Kafka was anti-audience to the point of asking to have his work destroyed (and chose as a literary executor someone who perhaps he knew would disobey him).

That's the difference between something really remarkable and something that's a way to while away a few hours being somewhat entertained. The great works made me see and remember more: Truffaut movies, Bertolucci's The Conformist, Kafka, Euripides, couple of scenes in Gibson's Neuromancer (this list is not inclusive).

And it's possible to be a derivitive experimentalist, too, which is why I didn't like some of the New Wave takes on William Burroughs and company. I'd read it in the original. Delany, in About Writing says that more young writers want to write experimental literary fiction than want to read it. Structure informs the new aleatory writing.

Zadie Smith probably sells better than most science fiction writers if people want to make that a criterion of a novelist's duties (checking her Amazon figures -- she's currently at 656th place for the paperback version of On Beauty, 2,805 for the same of White Teeth which was released a couple of years ago).

If a writer isn't off the human main sequence, and writes something that goes somewhere original, then, the work will be exciting to other people in a way that trying to turn out something like one's favorite work of art won't be.

When I was a teenager, someone who was a writing teacher suggested that I do Kafka imitations. I knew that was impossible. I wasn't a European Jewish male who could see fascism coming to kill his family.

Tim Walker | January 14, 2007 02:38 PM

Overall, I like Zadie Smith's writing. So take what follows with a grain of salt.

Some of her assertions here seem muddled. I get what she's saying - and agree with her - when she writes, ". . . craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great." That's definitely a true statement based on my experience. But she errs when she continues with, "A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones."

Yes, I get it: You don't expect the typical, competent word-artisan - say, the average good feature writer for the average good newspaper - to write great novels. And if she means that great books are rarely written in general, then yes. And great books are sometimes written by writers who aren't, I guess, "skilled" in the sense she means.

BUT . . there are *lots* of skilled writers who DO write good books, and (relatively) lots of skilled writers who write great ones. The examples are many, but just for starters we could cite George Eliot, Orwell, Thomas Mann, Elmore Leonard, Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Hemingway, Zola, Balzac, Vidal, Gordimer, Philip Roth, . . . I'm getting dizzy now. The assertion doesn't hold up.

Or am I just missing her point?

Chang, without Cat | January 14, 2007 02:56 PM

Isn't it ultimately up to the author to write what works for them? I mean, I am a musician and was even selling CD's for a while (I still am in fact and if you want some, shoot me an email). Anyway, for me, making music was ultimately always about what worked for me. If the music wasn't making me happy, then I didn't care what others thought. I guess I was blessed to be unencumbered with cripplingly high sales so I could enjoy my artistic freedom. ahem.

Now, I am in the midst of writing a book and some short stories and I am writing them first and foremost for myself. I suppose my thinking is that you the writer, musician or artist must first be satisfied with the work. Then hopefully other people will like it, too.

When it gets into works for hire, i.e. making a living by it, then I guess it gets hairier. Because once you become publuished and get a following they are to a certain degree responsible for your success as they bought your book, music, art, etc.

But then are you absolutely beholden to them? I mean, it's not like the patronage system of old, is it? John, I don't remember if this happened - alot's happened in the last year or so for me - but I don't think you and I ever got to signing a contract that said something to the effect of in exchange for my money you promised to entertain men with stories, action, adventure, some sexy bits and the like for which I would continue to give you a certain amount of money.

In fact, I have never done such a thing with any author of any book I have read nor any piece of music I have heard. I trust the publishers of music and books to have authors bound by contracts.

My way of thinking is this. You write/record/produce/carve/paint it, someone publishes it for public consumption. If I like it I will ask for more and pay accordingly. If I don't, I move along to something else. I mean, as much as I love the music of Bowie, Jagger, Skinny Puppy and Talking Heads when they were all drugged up and fucked up, I'm not going to ask them to write like that again or get hooked on glue again so I can relive something past. I respect that authors or artists or whatever move on.

Can't we all just move along?

(I posted this one with almost all my clothes on. Good, huh?)

Craig Ranapia | January 14, 2007 03:04 PM

Well, there's a whiff of the 'Castor Oil-and-Daily High Colonic' school of literature (Motto: No pain, no brain) about this essay, and it's tiresome beyond endurance. I once read an interview with a British writer (sorry, I don't remember her name) who kept over her desk a World War II railway poster that read, "IS YOUR JOURNEY REALLY NECESSARY?". At the risk of sounding creepy crawly, I can enjoy both the straightforward prose of our host, and the fantastic elaborations of Gene Wolfe, because they don't treat the reader like they're doing us dummies a favour just by showing up.

Jeff VanderMeer | January 14, 2007 03:11 PM

What Ore said sums it up for me.

I think it's also not always clear what "difficult" means to one writer as opposed to another, and what "entertainment" means. I imagine if you sat down with Smith and talked about that, you'd find a lot of stuff she's defining as difficult we all really like and find, on some level, "entertaining". Not all, but some.

One thing I do hate is when somebody says "let's raise the bar", let's think about the novel as art form, and other people get offended by that or think it's somehow elitist. What's wrong with a novelist thinking this should more than "just" entertainment (whatever "entertainment" is)? What's wrong with somebody wanting to strive for more? Ultimately, the best stuff is never "product" (and I mean the end result, not how the writer got there, which can be from the ivory turret or from locales closer to the street).

JeffV

Harry | January 14, 2007 03:16 PM

John said: "I don't recall suggesting that it is, or that she made such an argument."

My comment wasn't particularly directed at anything you said so much as some of the responses. I should have made that clearer.

There just seemed to be some rather hostile reaction to an essay that I read as a sincere attempt at communicating ideas that resist easy explanation.

Having been involved in various versions of what for simplicity's sake you could call the accessibility/obscurity argument, what I find most frustrating about it is the way both sides talk past each other.

Anonymous | January 14, 2007 03:18 PM

Isn't it ultimately up to the author to write what works for them?

Well, yes and no... Having an orgasm is what ultimately 'works for me' sexually, doesn't mean that anyone else in the room is going to have a good time. :) Just because a novel 'works for you', that doesn't oblige anyone else to take the slightest bit of interest.

Craig Ranapia | January 14, 2007 03:20 PM

Sorry, I didn't mean the comment immediately above to be posted anonymously. :)

Chang, without Cat | January 14, 2007 03:23 PM

Anonymous: well sure, but sex and a book are two different things. See Anais Nin's writing and her later sex life.

And I'm not sure there's quite as much issue about quality control where sex for pay is concerned.

I totally agree that no one is obliged to take an interest. But neither am I obliged to write the same book over and over again OR write something completely different every time.

I think no party has a right to complain about the other. The writer nor the reader.

Amyzon the Oracle | January 14, 2007 04:04 PM

This issue is something I have to wrestle with every day. I'm the librarian who buys all of the adult fiction for my library. (Yes, I love my job.) I can promise you that a starred review doesn't automatically make me buy the book. I can tell you that if I see the phrase "lyrical prose" or "transcendent language" in the review, I probably won't be adding the book to my collection. It's not that I don't think there's a place for literary fiction, it's that most literary fiction doesn't circulate well. I would rather spend the library's budget on books I know my patrons are going to read. Zadie Smith may scoff at the four dollar romance novel, but that four dollar romance novel circulated fifty times in my library while her book only circulated fifteen, and her book cost the library over thirteen dollars. I'd much rather add books that I know are going to circulate well. Most genre fiction circulates very well. I do add some literary fiction, but I have to be very picky about what I add. I don't need to be so picky about a romance, mystery, science fiction, or western novel because I know that someone is going to pick them up. Patterson, Steel, Grisham, Grafton, Perry, Roberts, Krenz, Hamilton, Jordan, Leonard, etc. may not have the literary reputation or as many good reviews as Ms. Smith; but they have something even better...readers. I never worry about buying the above authors. I usually pick up several copies of each for the library, but I'm still hesitant to buy Ms. Smith.

Kaytie | January 14, 2007 04:13 PM

Tim, the only problem with your list is that many of those writers *did* write great novels and don't any more because they're dead and spread across many generations, which kinda proves Ms. Smith's point that it's only a few writers in each generation (she said every thirty years in the article) who write novels of genius.

John Scalzi | January 14, 2007 04:17 PM

Amyzon:

"I do add some literary fiction, but I have to be very picky about what I add."

I find this to be a very interesting statement, and it makes me wonder again why literary fiction advances from major publishers seem to be so much higher than the advances in genre fiction.

A.R.Yngve | January 14, 2007 04:20 PM

The way I interpreted Zadie Smith's essay, she didn't propose being "difficult for difficulty's sake".

And SF writers should take special interest in this quote by Smith:

"Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced." (Emphasis mine)

If anything, the best science fiction literature is NOT about "having your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced."
And that does make certain demands on the readers: if they are too close-minded, they won't be able to read it.

So give the essay another chance. Read it again.

Craig Ranapia | January 14, 2007 04:31 PM

Chang:

OK, I'll grant that it wasn't the perfect analogy - but I'd like to think that whatever my inadequacies as a lover, nobody has come away from my bed feeling like they've been used as a mere masturbation aid. I'd also like to think that while working as a journalist, communicating clearly and accurately to a literate readership was more important that just doing what 'felt good' to me at the time.

I certainly agree with you that no writer is obliged to write the same book over and over again OR write something completely different every time. AFAIC, to quote our host, the only obligation any writer has to me - as a reader - is to try very, very hard not to suck. IMO, P.G. Wodehouse is perhaps the great English comic writer of the 20th century, though his work was *ahem* remarkably consistent over a career spanning seven decades. Dan Simmons, OTOH, seems to take a perverse delight in genre hopping like a crack-crazed kangaroo. It all works for me.

The late Kingsley Amis once opined, "Importance isn't important; good writing is." and I think that was reflected in the way he paid serious critical attention, in the best sense of the word, to popular fiction like SF and the James Bond books long before it became fashionable. As I said above, I'm a huge fan of Gene Wolfe - who isn't an 'easy' read by any stretch of the imagination. But I don't come away with the sense that he's being miserably self-indulgent, wilfully obscure, or neither knows nor cares what the frak his readers make of it all. I don't mind 'working' on a book; but I very much resent feeling like a writer is either condescending or indifferent to the other side of the equation.

Rachel | January 14, 2007 04:45 PM

I really get exhausted with this debate, from both sides of the genre border. Accessibility's okay. Non-accessibility's okay. Best of all - the existence of both. Why does it have to be a pissing contest to determine which is better?

Feh.

Harry | January 14, 2007 04:46 PM

"Patterson, Steel, Grisham, Grafton, Perry, Roberts, Krenz, Hamilton, Jordan, Leonard, etc. may not have the literary reputation or as many good reviews as Ms. Smith; but they have something even better...readers. "

Again, it's worth pointing out that Zadie Smith has sold books by the truckload. She's not going to challenge J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown any time soon, but she is none the less a bestselling author. The most successful authors of literary fiction sell a lot of copies; the idea that they don't have readers is just bizarre.

Scorpio | January 14, 2007 04:59 PM

Yah, but it's The Artsy Fartsy Way to be obscure and to fail to hook writing to characters your reader can care about, or with a plot that grabs the reader.

In other words, if she writes that way, I'll never read her.

Steve Buchheit | January 14, 2007 05:02 PM

The old, "art or commerce" argument. It just never gets old. Now we have a third option best expressed by Nirvana, "Here we are, now entertain us" (although that can be seen as being on the commerce side, I don't think it is completely there).

As a graphic designer by training and trade, I'm on the mercenary side of "art." If I have to make a choice between sales figures and a critic saying, "yeah, but it's art," I'll choose the sales figures every time. Of course, I'd like to have both, please.

Ray | January 14, 2007 05:08 PM

This is an excerpt from a letter I wrote my daughter who is trying out for a vocal solo in the school play. Umm.. I think it is relative to the posting. But if it is not just ignore it and blame it on watching NFL playoffs in Austria till 3:30a.

"4) Critics.
No matter what you do in life there will always be critics and judgment from your peers. A lot of times its unjust, cruel and unfair but that's just the way it is. For you as a person try not to fall in this trap. Just being brave enough to get up in front of people and perform should earn respect from the get go. People who say things like "You suck" or laugh at you are doing this to try and bring you down to there level because they can not rise or do not have the courage to rise to your level. Ask yourself who are you making music for. Them or for yourself. If the awnser is for them then just hang it up now. Artist first and foremost make art to further express there feelings as an extension from themselves. When you get criticized, thank them for their input and try and look make it look like what they are saying is the most important thing you have ever heard. Then when they leave empty your head and heart of all the garbage they told you and let it go."

Ich bin müde... Gute Nacht!!!

JonathanMoeller | January 14, 2007 05:10 PM

I read the essay, but it didn't have any swordfights, car chases, or sex scenes, so I can't really agree with it.

Bernadette | January 14, 2007 05:14 PM

I didn't think that Smith was expecting readers to do all the heavy-lifting. The bulk of her article is focused on what she thinks is the writer's duty. It's only at the end - the last section out of 10 - that she refers to the novel as a "two way street" and discusses readers. I do think that she wants readers to be engaged with the stories they read, to think while they read rather than just passively read for plot alone. I thought it was a nice reminder for me not to be lazy when I read.

Overall, I thought it was an interesting article which revealed her feelings on writing - I liked the bits about personality in writing - although I do agree the article went on and on a bit.

And, um, speaking as a selfish reader, while it's all well and good to pay attention to craft, I sometimes wish I read (particularly in literary fiction) less writers writing about writing and more writers writing entertaining stories about anything else but writing....

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | January 14, 2007 05:17 PM

"White Teeth which was released a couple of years ago"

For values of "a couple" that include "five and a half." Even longer ago in Britain.

Rebecca Ore | January 14, 2007 05:19 PM

John, regarding advances, some of the "literary" writers get stunning advances, but others get $5K advances like newbie s.f. writers. Those writers have the potential for a larger audience so publishers place larger bets on them.

If a publisher thinks a writer could be the next big thing, then there's a lot of money available.

I've known a couple of people who've sold mainstream novels and have known details about several more. A woman in Virginia got roughly a quarter million in advances and sub rights for her first novel hasn't sold another one since.

SF is somehwat more predictable. The writers who do find a wider audience tend to leave the field. The general reading public is much larger than the s.f. reading public.

On why Zadie Smith doesn't circulate as well as the genre novels -- it's possible that the people who read literary novels buy them and have more discretionary income than library patrons who get their reading material from the library. Or they buy books they want to own and check out books they want to read once but would otherwise toss after reading. Most libraries don't keep those sorts of books beyond a couple of years, either.

I've never checked a Ginsberg book out from a library -- and I didn't check out Kafka's fiction after reading "Metamorphosis" in the library, but bought a collection of his short fiction that included that. I've lost copies of both and have bought new copies in the years since I first encountered those writers.

The escape novel is a subversion of the transformational novel. If a vicarious winning experience novel didn't subvert itself, we'd finish the book and change ourselves and society. This is why escape novels have to have a thread of faults and slippages running through them to get the reader unchanged back into daily life and just satisfied enough to buy another novel but not so satisfied that they don't need more reading material.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | January 14, 2007 05:31 PM

And I ask again: since when was Zadie sodding Smith some kind of epitome of austere "literary fiction"? Zadie Smith writes popular middlebrow novels for a mass audience. The virtues of White Teeth are pretty much the virtues of robust, intelligent genre fiction. Arguably, indeed, it is a genre novel: a family saga.

To put it as politely as possible, altogether too many people in this conversation have no idea what they're talking about. The spectacle of seeing Zadie Smith, of all writers, used as a stand-in for the inaccessible "literary" novelist we all love to hate is one of the dumbest things I've seen in an online discussion this week.

Chang, without Cat | January 14, 2007 05:40 PM

Hey, man! I just posted cuz Scalzi put it up there! I'm not responsible for my actions! If the master posts, I must comment!

That said, Zadie Smith is a midlevel author. If this was Amis, I might have a bit more befuddlement about me.

Nick Stump | January 14, 2007 05:44 PM

I find the essay a bit mind-numbing and though I've never read her work, I'm assuming her fiction touches the reader more than this essay touched me.

I'm first a musician and though I'm not on the road like I was for the first twenty years of my career, I still tour a bit, and still record--sometimes for film and tv and I am working on a new recording of new songs.

I came to the writing business after my long-time band The Metropolitan Blues All-Stars faltered and then died the slow death of occasional work and worse, the inevitable reunion shows. Better a quick death, I say.

My wife made me write at first. A book of poems, then screenplays. I had success selling scripts but none getting the movies made. Writing screenplays is considered by many as barely writing at all and at this point I'm not sure what it is but an income stream I'm glad to have.

As I've written everything from print ad copy to dude ranch brochures in the style of the J. Peterman Catalogue, I tend to not view the writing process as a search for the Holy Grail tucked neatly between two covers.

I'm writing a book as we speak. I plant my butt in the chair and try to figure it out. My God, if I started thinking about literature and wondering if I was writing such a thing, I would walk away from the chair. Even though my effort here might be considered a tad literary by some, I'm working hard to avoid the obscure and all I want to do is write a damned novel worth reading.

I avoid navel-gazing as much as possible. I want the reader to laugh and every now and then, I want them to cry. I strive to write characters more interesting than I am, and I want them to do something more than observe and think. I see observation and thought part of my job.

I don't hang out with a lot of writers. I have a few close friends who happen to be fairly successful writers. We rarely talk about our work. My band has even appeared in one of their novels. But these writers were for the most part friends first. When we do talk about writing we don't talk the talk of literary criticism. I have no interest in the subject and most of the writers I know don't either. I consider the subject useless in helping me prepare to write and I'm not sure why it's been so important in university English programs. Then again, I'm of the opinion that bad poets teaching in universities have smothered good poetry to death. Their love for obscurity, the unintelligable work they produce and promote has created a body of poems not worth reading. They write for and about each other and this closed system stays alive only because they all have jobs teaching. There are notable exceptions and before all the teaching writers come to burn my house down, let me say two of my better friends teach and also write like the wind. I believe them to be the exception.

I suppose I'm sore because my daughter, who at 16 could write a poem so true and clear, it made me envy her easy talent. She was so eager to do well in school and so hopeful--all any professor could ask for in a student. After two years of being taught by pompous chowderheads who couldn't write a well-crafted thank you note, my daughter decided she wanted nothing to do with the writing business and chose another course of study.

I'm say nothing new here, but I hate how criticism for it's own sake has grown into a huge academic business, while teaching actual writing gets the short end of the deal. Maybe it's because teaching writing is so hard--I don't know. I've taken writing courses. Most of them didn't amount to much. Maybe I should have gone to a better school. Who knows.

I do know one thing. I'm sitting in a chair and and writing 5 to 7 pages a day. When I'm finished I'll send it to my agent and hope he can sell it to someone. Sell it or not, I'm stuck here now, too old and fat to lay bricks. I'm here and hitting the keys 7 days a week.

Steve Buchheit | January 14, 2007 06:13 PM

Okay, well, after reading her article a lot of it seems to center around, "This novel isn't the novel I had in my head when I started." Yeah, all "artistic" concerns are exactly like that. It's never as good in the flesh as it is in the concept stage where it's all in your head.

The next part seems to be all about "the lens." That's what she's talking about with "writer's duty," "to express my way of being in the world," etc. She's discussing the lens we all are, experiencing reality from our own view point.

"Fictional truth is a question of perspective," is the real crux of this. It's all about perspective. My world isn't yours. Hopefully I can share mine with my writing, but your world percpetion, Dear Reader (OMG, did I actually use that phrase?) is your lens. You'll be seeing my reality through your own. She basically admits this in section 9.

When she says, "great writing forces you to submit to its vision," she's grasping at the impossible. Can I see the world as Chekhov? No, I'm not him. However, I can see the world as Chekhovian, or at least my interpretation of him. Is it his vision? Only when it comes to dancing dogs. When it gets down to why the dogs are dancing, probably not.

As for section 10 and the responsibilites of the reader, I don't agree with here except for the analogy of the magic trick. To think that a reader is going to intentionally read a work to challenge their world view, I think, is not the best way to sell books.

StarDragon | January 14, 2007 06:55 PM

Just because it's Truth does not mean that we will find room for it in the shelter.
Art makes people happy.That is why it survives.

Scott Mactavish | January 14, 2007 07:55 PM

Hemingway would smash Zadie over the head with a swordfish for writing that dissertation.

John Scalzi | January 14, 2007 08:00 PM

Well, come on now. As I said, some of it was a bit much. But some of it is square on target.

Nick Stump | January 14, 2007 08:02 PM

Ray, I loved the note to your daughter. My daughter, Marea is a DJ and dance music composer, but I remember the pain she carried around as a kid auditioning for singing roles in her Magnet School for the performing arts. She lucky to have a Dad who gets it.

Marea's all grown up and working for Dusttrax (sp?) a dance music umbrella company for a bunch of different artist and she is also on the road, playing her own music, much like I did for the first half of my life. I wrote her a long note about some of the very thought on critic you were writing about here and she printed the note and plans to frame it.

I find having a child in the same business I have been in both frightening and wonderful at the same time. When she calls me for advice, (more often than one would think), it fills my heart up. I feel like I'm really part of her live and she see me not just as Dad, but as a mentor too. That's something you have to look forward to and I'll tell you, it's my favorite part of our life together. My daughter will always be my little girl, but now we're friend and peers. What a great life.

In passing, I'll mention I checked out your music and thought it terrific and have sent a link to Marea. Though she's more into Chicago house music, I'm betting she'll like your work as much as I do.

I love the digital age. I have orchestras who do my bidding right here in this box, and my lap steel with a hex pickup has somehow turned into a rocket ship. What magic will they bring to me next.

Nick Stump | January 14, 2007 08:09 PM

"She lucky to have a Dad who gets it." I somehow missed this glob of a sentence. Ray, I meant to say your daughter is lucky to have a Dad who gets it.

Sorry folks--too long at the computer. Can't see my own typos and bad edits unless I punch post first. Time for the cold beer I promised myself if I wrote 5 pages instead of watching a ball game.

burritoboy | January 14, 2007 08:41 PM

"I would rather spend the library's budget on books I know my patrons are going to read. "

Um, so why isn't most of your library pornos, Left Behind novels, sex manuals, "Who Moved My Cheese?", C++ programming manuals and Bibles? Because that's primarily what people read, not genre fiction either.

Then, too, since you have a budget and you're inevitably picking one thing over another, that means you're using some methodology of picking: you can't buy every romance novel published, for instance (and then: how MANY of each romance novel published do you select?). Even just using sales data (buy the top xx mystery novels published this year, for example) is a methodology. You can't avoid picking and choosing - and part of that is necessarily deciding what's good and what's bad.

Rebecca Ore | January 14, 2007 09:29 PM

"To put it as politely as possible, altogether too many people in this conversation have no idea what they're talking about. The spectacle of seeing Zadie Smith, of all writers, used as a stand-in for the inaccessible "literary" novelist we all love to hate is one of the dumbest things I've seen in an online discussion this week."

I'm not part of this "all" and never have been, and find hating people for what they write to be ignorant, whoever does it.

If writers are genuinely inaccessible to me (nothing there for me in any of the ranges of possibilities I'm open to in writing), then I don't read them. I could be wrong; I have no need to hate what I might find something in later.

mythago | January 14, 2007 10:01 PM

Um, so why isn't most of your library pornos, Left Behind novels, sex manuals, "Who Moved My Cheese?", C++ programming manuals and Bibles? Because that's primarily what people read, not genre fiction either.

I would guess that there isn't porno because they have to go to the trouble of keeping it away from under-18s, but there probably are sex manuals, C++ guides are expensive and go out of date quickly, the Left Behind books are ordered as soon as they come out, and there are only so many versions of the Bible.

(By the way, the idea that C++ manuals are 'primarily what people read' is also pretty, well, insular. Even in Silicon Valley, you don't have entire shelves devoted to the latest O'Reilly books.)

Amyzon didn't say that literary fiction is silly or that only a few artsy-fartsy types read it. She said that she has to balance how popular books are and how quickly they circulate vs. how much those books cost, and for the price of a thirteen-dollar book that won't get read so much, she can buy three four-dollar books that will get read to tatters.

John Scalzi | January 14, 2007 10:05 PM

This is why I also way donate copies of my books to the local library. Gets my book in circulation, lets them spend money on other books.

Steve Buchheit | January 14, 2007 10:16 PM

The local libraries in Geuaga County buy lots of westerns because that's what the Amish love to read (and they have a bookmobile to service that community). They also have a good selection of genre works, including Romance, "how to" books and reference. Their "literary" section, by percentage, is significantly smaller than what you would find in a typical big box bookstore. Including the Chardon branch, which serves an "old money" community.

Amyzon the Oracle | January 14, 2007 11:12 PM

The problem with most library budgets is they cannot cover everything. It's not that I don't want to buy them, but that I have other books that would furthur the collection. I love my job, but one of the downsides is that I cannot please everyone. If you ask the patrons, I'm never buying enough. I can never buy enough christian, western, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc. to please everyone; and I hear about it.

I have nothing against more literary fiction. I have nothing against Zadie Smith. I know that she sells books, but in my library she's not an essential purchase. It's sometimes interesting to me what catches on with the public. I'll admit to eyeing "Life of Pi" with scepticism when I first read the review. A book about a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger...right. But it caught on with the public, so I bought several copies.

Part of the problem is reviews. I get a few paragraphs to decide what sounds interesting. I have to make a decision with very little information in front of me. I can't personally read everything that comes out. Though, I do my best. Sometimes I have to wait and see what catches the public's eye.

Thank you Mr. Scalzi for donating books to your library. I'm sure they appreciate your kindness. And yes, we have a copy of all of your books.

burritoboy my library buys plenty of C++ books, bibles, Left behind novels, sex manuals, and we have quite an extensive collection of erotica. I know. I buy it, and I read it. While these books are heavily used, they're not the only ones that circulate heavily in my library.

Thank you mythago for stating so succinctly what I was trying to convey.

Ian Mathers | January 15, 2007 01:32 AM

"Being in the world" - sounds like someone has read too much Heidegger, and understood too little of it.

(of course, once you start understanding Heidegger, you usually stop reading him...)

Ray | January 15, 2007 05:26 AM

Nick:
Thanks for the positive words. In risk of veering to far off the thread subject I can say that as a parent I feel obligated to pass on my experiences to my daughter as well as encourage her creative outlets. Also I have been a musician for far to many years and If I can pass on my experiences so that she can avoid the same "extremely diverse and difficult challenges" that I went through then half my work would be done. She has several letters simular to this one that I have written her. All of which she reads once a month. I can only hope that me and my daughters relationship grows to what you have with yours. I have a long way to go. She's 11.

John:
Sorry for moving so far off the topic. ,;)

Patrick Shepherd | January 15, 2007 10:55 AM

Surely one of the duties of the writer is to communicate, unless he is truly writing for himself only - which is probably extremely rare, as the impulse to write at all typically implies that the writer has something to say. And the reader has a duty to try and see what is being communicated, else why read? What, then, is the duty of the critic?

The best of them can find things in a written work that are not obvious but are highly relevant to the work's entire message, things that perhaps even the author was not aware of having put there, but will recognize when pointed out, and can help the reader decode that message by doing some of the 'heavy lifting' for him. The worst of them look only for a confirmation of what they think the 'perfect' book should be, as filtered by their own biases. The critic is an outgrowth of the impulse to tell your neighbor all about this book that you found was great (or horrible), so that he too can share your great experience, with the refinement of figuring out why the work was good or not.

Unfortunately, the supply of great critics is probably as small as the supply of great authors. And the poorer variety of these beings, by sheer weight of numbers, have great influence over what gets to be considered 'great', and set the field of study for poor unsuspecting English Lit majors.

Perhaps I'm currently being unduly influenced by my current reading of The Trillion Year Spree by Brain Aldiss, but for me Smith's essay treads close to the border of that ivory tower critical thought process, while John's emphasis on communication and accessibility seems closer to the mark of what writing is all about.

jmmcd | January 15, 2007 12:07 PM

don't forget another important job of writers like this one: creating a "persona".

the guardian piece is an excellent work of public image control. she doesn't actually have a huge output. if she is to justify keeping her books on shelves, she'll need to keep her name in print, and keep people talking about her as an artist, not an entertainer.

i do believe miss smith believes in her words. however, she also targets her books at people who want this kind of nonsense from their authors so the readers can justify their reading with snobbery.

i seriously doubt the universe needed zadie smith's take on this non-issue. this smells like PR, to me. "look at me, i'm posing like an artist!"

literature is, after all, just another kind of genre. part of that genre is the silly artists' statements.

SouthpawPL | January 15, 2007 12:48 PM

So Ms. Smith wants writers to "express themselves like no-one else"? Okay.

I'm going to write a profound, self-important novel and traspose it into Wingdings and ASCII symbols. I expect her to gush about my artistry and style of "being in the world..."

claire | January 15, 2007 07:13 PM

And I ask again: since when was Zadie sodding Smith some kind of epitome of austere "literary fiction"? Zadie Smith writes popular middlebrow novels for a mass audience. The virtues of White Teeth are pretty much the virtues of robust, intelligent genre fiction. Arguably, indeed, it is a genre novel: a family saga.

To put it as politely as possible, altogether too many people in this conversation have no idea what they're talking about. The spectacle of seeing Zadie Smith, of all writers, used as a stand-in for the inaccessible "literary" novelist we all love to hate is one of the dumbest things I've seen in an online discussion this week.

thanks for saving me the trouble of articulating that, patrick. let me just add, since you seem to like zadie smith, that i can't stand her, and that is because i've read 1.5 of her books. she's a hack, a genre hack. i love genre writing, hate genre hackery.

she's waaaaay overrated because she made brit color identity politics accessible and comfortable to the average white reader. (danzy senna did it over here with "caucasia", which, if you're going "huh?", means that she went on to the obscurity that she deserved.)

to write about tinted subcultures in a manner true to that subculture, you kinda *have* to make it at least a little bit inaccessible. why? because mainstream writing follows the cultural markers of the dominant culture, so either you write about marginal subcultures in the language of the dominant culture ("accessible") or you don't. and plenty of people don't, it's just that nobody's ever heard of them because they're "inaccessible".

this is all beside the point at hand, however. zadie smith has floated some high-falutin' but ultimately vague ideas about What Fiction Is or Should Be, ideas she doesn't actually make manifest in her own writing. so boo to her. i'm glad she's smart enough to articulate ideas and all, but she's still a hack.

Nick Stump | January 16, 2007 12:55 AM

Ray and John, I too, am sorry to jump off-topic, but when Dads write about daughters, it's hard to not talk about your own. I will try to be an on topic man the the very next time. I betcha Zadie has a Dad out there talking about what a smart daughter he has.

John Ainsworth | January 16, 2007 07:23 PM

If anyone finds the question of "What makes a writer good?" interesting, they should definately read "The Mind of the Maker" by Dorothy Sayers (who also wrote the Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novels).

She identifies the three components of any creative act as the original idea, the instantiation of the idea in the artist's medium, and the participation in the original idea by another person, through the medium in which the artist's works. The goodness or badness of a particular work is governed by how well each of these pieces are done: How good the idea is, how well it is executed, and how much of the original idea that the reader is able to understand through the artist's work.

And, not content to stop there she explains how the idea of a creator may be extended to understand the Trinity of God. God the Father as the Platonic ideal of God, Christ as the instantiation of God, and the Holy Spirit as the means by which, through Christ, we communicate back with God.

All in all, a highly worthwhile book.

bob smietana | January 17, 2007 05:05 PM

Isn't the writer's one duty to tell stories?


Philip Pullman had some comments along these lines a few years back (http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/author/carnegie.html)

He said:

"There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book.

The reason for that is that in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.

But stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, "events never grow stale." There's more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy."

Amen

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