Sunday, January 21, 2007

Read Better

Thanks to Adam for the heads-up on this:


Concluding her 15 tips on writing and reading, Zadie Smith calls for a new, non-cynical criticism that reveals personal tastes and obsessions- an individual experience of the novel.

11. System readers, system writers

"A work of art," said Nabokov, "has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me."

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the "individual reader" having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered - the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the
state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur novel - the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller - it's annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognise as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key. The upshot of this is that the intimate and idiosyncratic in fiction is everywhere less valued than the ideologically coherent and general. When the world is nervous, state-of-the-nation novels bring great comfort. The Nobel went to Pasternak, not Nabokov.

But then how should we read? What does one tell a young reader struggling to choose from the smorgasbord of theoretical reading "systems" that are put before him or her in an average undergraduate week? Søren Kierkegaard has a useful piece of analogous advice, given to sceptical youths approaching philosophy for the first time: "The
youth is an existing doubter. Hovering in doubt and without a foothold for his life, he reaches out for the truth - in order to exist in it."

That's how young readers are, too, when they start out. They are doubters and seekers. They are living in a negative, as Kierkegaard explains it, and so naturally are very susceptible to those who come offering positives like - in the case Kierkegaard is considering - the overwhelming positive of Hegel's "System". But, he warns, whole systems that concern themselves with the experience of being a self will not lead us to truth, for the cogent reason that we cannot fully exist in systems, but only within our own skins. "A philosophy of pure thought," he argues, "is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point - Aye, it is still more impossible."

When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it. We have our map of Europe and this novel is Denmark, maybe even just Copenhagen. But we've forgotten how to walk round Copenhagen. Frankly, it seems a pointless activity. If fiction is going to be this particular and inimical, we'd rather give it up and read something useful and real like a biography of Stalin.

12. Becoming your own cartographer

When it comes to reading, it's a Kierkegaardian level of commitment that we've forgotten about: intimate, painstaking, with nothing at all to do with Hegelian system-building or theoretical schools, and everything to do with our ethical reality as subjects. You have to make the map of Copenhagen yourself. You have to be open to the idea that Copenhagen might look and feel completely different to what you expected or believed it to be. You have to throw away other people's maps. For example, if you read exclusively in the post-colonial manner, then only a limited number of books will interest you and even those that you are promised are within the genre will often disappoint and irritate, failing to do all the things you had expected they would.

And then it will come to pass that some writers, knowing your taste, will begin to write novels to please you - novels that feel almost as if they have been written by committee. These are the big idea books and for the young particularly, armed with the reading systems for which they paid good money in college, such books look awfully tempting. A success, on these terms, is one that fulfils the model; a failure, the book that refuses wider relevance. System readers create system writers, writers who can unpack their own novels in front of you, pointing out this theme and that, this subtext, this question of race, this debate about gender. They have the Sunday supplements in mind and their fiction is littered with hooks, ready made for general discussion, perfect for a double page feature.

But what of the novels that don't give themselves easily to such general public discussion? Sometimes it feels like the qualities readers and critics most want to find in novels are those that are antithetical to the writing of a good one. We want a novel to be the "last word" on what it is to be a young Muslim, or an American soldier, or a mother. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. We want one man to symbolise a nation. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. Like good system-makers, we want a view from nowhere, a panopticon, hovering above the whole scene, taking it in, telling us "how it is".

The problem is, our lives, as good novels well know, are always a partial, failing, view from somewhere. Nabokov wrote a book about an individual child called Lolita, but he correctly predicted it would be read as a general allegory of "Old Europe ravishing young America" or "Young America seducing Old Europe". He survived communist Russia: he knew all about the collectivisation of thought. In the end, Lolita is easy to read if you believe in symbols. It's only an emotional education, only a going-through, only a transformative experience, when you submit to Nabokov's vision, and let Lolita be individual child, not general model.

13. Corrective criticism AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like

Far from the system critic there is another critic, let's call him the corrective critic, who prides himself on belonging to no school, who feels he knows his own mind. He is essentially meritocratic, interested only in what is good, and good for all time. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it; if another is unrecognised he will be its champion, regardless of fashion. He is not, as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being, a leaf in the wind of trend. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief - the most beautiful kind of criticism, in my opinion. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. It is not enough for him to say, as the novelist has, this is what I love, this what I believe. He must also make his taste a general law. It is his way or the highway. To understand the problem with corrective criticism, we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer's duty. I said earlier that it was each writer's duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. It follows that each writer's duty is different, for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis, a different urgency. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James, while discussing religious subjectivity, gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed:

Each, from his peculiar angle of observation, takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble, which each must deal with in a unique manner. One of us must soften himself, another must harden himself; one must yield a point, another must stand firm, - in order the better to defend the position assigned him. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley, or a Moody forced to be a Whitman, the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation,different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.

This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks, a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth, or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro, does not occur to him. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral, Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly, and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. And although it's certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women, it happens that women were not his business - his business was death.

If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer's strength - but he seeks the sentence of literature, not the syllables. Committed to his theory, he defines his theory as "literature" itself, recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality, it is vitally important that one recognise one's own beliefs. The corrective critic is like one of William James's cocky atheists, believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. It is important that we recognise, for example, that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. That's what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the "dramatisation of belief". And a response to a novel, a piece of literary criticism, is also a dramatisation of belief. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us, if we reject it, part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes.

14. Imagining better readers, better writers

But if the real duty of writers is to themselves, how can they ever fail? Are we advocating a new "nice" criticism, where all writers get off the hook just because they tried hard, were in good faith? No. What I am imagining is, I hope, a far more thorough reader. My reader holds writers to the same account as the rest of us; my reader does not allow writers to transcend the bounds of the human, because my reader recognises that writers exist like the rest of us, as ethical individuals moving through the world. One critic-practitioner, Iris Murdoch, understood this well. She insisted on the idea that art-making was a test not only of a skill, but of one's entire personality. Here she is making a high-wire connection between what it takes to make good art and what it takes to live well:

The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy, the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one ... This is not easy, and requires, in art or morals, a discipline. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals.

For a writer, that's a fascinating, terrifying idea. What if the personal qualities we need to recognise the Good in life do indeed bear some resemblance to the literary tools we need to write well? It is, Murdoch once said, incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people really exist in the same way that we do ourselves. It is the great challenge of art to convince ourselves of this fundamental truth - but it's also the challenge of our lives. Writers, just like everyone, are prone to the belief that all the world's a movie, in which they are the star, and all the other people, merely extras, lingering on set. To live well, to write well, you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people. I believe that, and I believe further that this relationship can be traced at every
level - a sentence can be self-deluded, can show an ulterior motive, can try too hard to please, can lie, can be blind to anything outside itself, can believe itself to be of the utmost importance. To see things as they really are ... to me this is always and everywhere, in writing, in life, a matter of morals.

But that's just me. I'm sure there are many other, more radical ways to trace the relationship between our experiences and the demands that narrative makes on us; as many ways as there are shapes of narrative. Wouldn't this be an interesting project for a new generation of critics to undertake? Every critic is an artist in this fantasy literary republic I'm envisioning; every critic is doing as much imaginative work as the novelist, probably more. A great critic is, in the end, imagining the novelist. He is piecing together, retroactively, the beliefs and obsessions and commitments that powered the novel into existence in the first place. And as he does so he reveals his own beliefs, obsessions, commitments. He speaks the truth about an individual experience with a novel.

I have said that when I open a book I feel the shape of another human being's brain. To me, Nabokov's brain is shaped like a helter-skelter. George Eliot's is like one of those pans for sifting gold. Austen's resembles one of the glass flowers you find in Harvard's Natural History Museum. Each has strengths and weaknesses, as I apply them to the test of my own sensibility. I can slide down Nabokov, but not slowly, and not fully under my own control. I can find what's precious with Eliot, but only hidden among mundane grey stones of some weight. Austen makes me alive to the Beautiful and the Proportional, but the final result has no scent and is cold to the touch.

This is my private language for a private understanding. It is the critic's job to formulate a public language that comes close to their own private understanding, and which, if it is acute enough, will find its companions in a community of like-minded readers. And if you read with the wideness and flexibility Murdoch describes, with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible, you will find fiction opening up before you. To read The Virgin Suicides followed by The Idiot followed by Despair followed by You Bright and Risen Angels followed by Bleak House followed by Jonah's Gourd Vine followed by Play it as it Lays is to be forced to recognise the inviolability of the individual human experience. Fiction confronts you with the
awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world.

15. In conclusion

I have tried to make a case for the special role of writer-critics, as it is in my interest to do. There is a suspicion that writers who become critics retain too much of the sentiment and mysticism of their craft to be capable of real critical thought - maybe I am evidence of that. But Roland Barthes is a good exception to that rule; he had both a sensuous understanding of the creative artist and an unimpeachable critical skill. Most of all, he understood that the critic's job is a non-cynical truth-seeking exercise, deeply connected to the critic's own beliefs, values and failures. "Each critic," he says, "chooses his necessary language, in accordance with a certain existential pattern, as the means of exercising an intellectual function which is his, and his alone ... he puts into the operation his 'deepest self', that is, his preferences, pleasures, resistances, and obsessions."

That's what I want to hear and feel from critics and readers, this deepest self. Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling. Listen to Virginia Woolf, my favourite writer-critic, speaking of the experience of evaluating fiction from the comfort of her reading-chair:

It is difficult to say, "Not only is this book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good". To carry out this part of a reader's duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive of any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self- confident to find more than the seeds of such flowers in himself ... [Yet] even if the results are abhorrent and our judgements are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it.

Writers learn through feeling, too, and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers. The Trial, a novel about justice, works upon us in a fundamentally different manner than John Rawls's essay "A Theory of Justice", or Judge Judy shouting at us about justice through the television. The Trial properly translates as The Process, and reading it and all novels is a process like no other. Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion - allow me to call it an expansion of the heart - in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with; both fail in varied, fascinating ways to complete this action as ideally it might be completed. But if it were ideal, if the translation from brain to page were perfect, then of course all idiosyncrasy, as Woolf suggests, would indeed be impoverished: the novel would not exist at all. There would be no act of communication, no process, no gift - we would simply be speaking to ourselves.

Fail better. What a strange business we are in, we writers, we critics, we readers! Writing failures, reading failures, studying failures, reviewing them. Imagine a science institute that spent its time on the inventions that never actually do what they say on the tin, like diet pills, or hair restorers or Icarus's wings. Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human. That writing and reading should be such difficult arts reminds us of how frequently our own subjectivity fails us. We do not know people as we think we know them. The world is not only as we say it is. "Without failure, no ethics," said Simone de Beauvoir. And I believe that.

(c) Zadie Smith
January 20, 2007

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good article. I admire her work and now I have decided to some poetry. Honestly, I dont know where to begin. can you give me list.