Of late I’ve not seen much in the way of an explanation of why serious writers should engage in writing fiction and take the subject and what they have to say through fiction writing seriously. Having said that, I have to say that I’m rather impressed with the essay Zadie Smith contributed to last weekend’s Review section of The Guardian. It’s, I believe, one of a pair, the second of which is to be published next week.
Central to her thesis is the idea that a writing style is an expression of the writer’s personality.
A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.
As it happens I read that paragraph just as John Naughton was singling out and posting to his online diary an observation the writer Don DeLillo made in an interview he gave to David Remnick of the The New Yorker magazine
January 13th, 2007 [link]
One’s personality and vision are shaped by other writers, by movies, by paintings, by music. But the work itself, you know — sentence by sentence, page by page — it’s much too intimate, much too private, to come from anywhere but deep inside the writer himself. It comes out of all the time a writer wastes. We stand around, look out of the window, walk down the hall, come pack to the page, and, in those intervals, something subterranean is forming, a literal dream that comes out of daydreaming. It’s too deep to be attributed to clear sources.
From a conversation with David Remnick that was published originally in the New Yorker and later in Reporting.
Waters ends her thoughtful essay by saying something important about the reader. Without ever lambasting readers who are too lazy to pay attention to the written word, let alone saying anything about readers who admire novels because they have seen adaptations of them on the big or small screens, or listened to edited audio versions of them, Waters insists that the reader must be a reader, and that he or she must bring to his or her reading a talent reading.
What I’m saying is a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston’s capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland’s strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert’s faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. 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. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic.
To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.I think most readers – myself included –have, as Smith says, all too readily fallen into the trap of allowing themselves “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” and in doing so the do “fail writers” in the way the Smith argues they do.
In other words, put aside the box set of DVDs of Bleak House, excellent though they may be, and read carefully, and with mind and emotions fully engaged, the novel that Charles Dickens wrote. It’s the only way.