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.