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Jan. 13th, 2007

 Liz Hand has sent me this link to an article by Zadie Smith ("White Teeth" etc) in the Guardian: 

In it she says that writers sure of their craft and their strategies can fail, though even reviewers might not notice.  "I've often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: "Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?" A map of disappointments - that would be a revelation."

She goes on to say:

"Map of disappointments - Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?"

She continues at length, not quite so profitably I thought (Smith's idea is that a great novel is at bottom a revelation of character -- the writer's -- and the perfect novel would be a total revelation of an absolutely unique world, the world of the writer)  but her questions are interesting ones. One of those dangerous games we might be tempted to play.  "I pretend my book was damn good, but in fact I know it failed, and here's why."  Anybody else like to go first?


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 13th, 2007 04:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting article. Thanks for posting! My reaction:
No way! Who cares about intention? An author should have no idea whether they've suceeded or failed, only that they've done their best, and moved on. Flaws are what make pieces of fiction distinct and should be neither denied, nor appologized for.

Jan. 13th, 2007 09:30 pm (UTC)
i think very rarely is any artistic endeavor wholy satisfying to it's creator. i know there are very few pieces of music/poetry that i have been 100% sure of their worth. probably few enough to count on the fingers of one hand. i've yet to take on anything as vast as a novel...a novel is equal in length and breadth to dozens of poems...or maybe a full hour or so of music. and creating a flawless, or mostly complete piece of art that size is rather overwhelming. it's definately beaten me a few times.

) a s o n
Jan. 14th, 2007 01:30 am (UTC)
In the words of another famous British author: "The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence..."

As for Smith, it sounds like she's playing a very different game than I am.
Jan. 14th, 2007 02:04 am (UTC)
'To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack?'

Reminiscent of Martin Amis's argument (vide 'The War Against Cliche') that style is a measure of moral seriousness. Something of a British obsession, it would seem. In both cases the benchmark is Nabokov - flamboyant stylist, Cold War warrior - and his attacks on what he called 'cheap publicistic fiction' - i.e, poor old plain-spoken Orwell. I always think Nabokov is a dangerous name to throw around in this kind of commentary - certainly his influence on Smith's own writing - especially in 'The Autograph Man' - has been regrettable. Unexploded politico-aesthetic ordnance, as it were.

If memory serves, 'The Translator' deals with some of these issues (I don't have a copy to hand to check).

I think Smith's comments on 'worldmaking', while not particularly original, are of great interest to fantasy/SF writers/fans. When reading Tolkien, for example, how far does the clunking prose detract from - & how, in odd ways, does it reinforce - the illusion of the reality of Middle Earth? And does Tolkien's prose make us more or less receptive to his 'message'?

Jan. 14th, 2007 02:59 am (UTC)
Tolkien a great example in its way of a writer managing to unfold his entire character and world, as complete as any I can think of, without an iota of shame or hedging or faking or bluster. Still you'd never (I'd never) class it with War and Peace or in any neighborhood near it.
Jan. 14th, 2007 09:10 am (UTC)
What does War & Peace have that Lord of the Rings doesn't?
Jan. 14th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC)
Sex, for one thing. And human beings. And this - real people died at the Battle of Borodino: nobody died at Helm's Deep. Part of the fascination of War and Peace is Tolstoy's acknowledgement of the tension between the demands of the historical novelist's imagination and his duty towards the once-living, now-dead originals/coevals of his characters. Whether Tolstoy ever resolved this is moot, but I don't think its a problem Tolkien ever had to contend with.

I'd go further, at the risk of ruffling feathers. I don't think its a problem _any_ genre novelist has to contend with. Perhaps that's the nature of being generic - you just don't have to worry about questions of duty in this sense (which is why writers like JC or Gene Wolfe are praised for 'transcending genre'). Duty to yourself, duty to readers - but those are duties to entertain, which is not what Tolstoy (or for that matter Nabokov) was talking about.
Jan. 14th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC)
Depth, for another
War and Peace haas depth in a literal sense, the way paintings have depth. The illusion that there is a world in front of you, as real as this one, and as potentially discoverable. I used it once as a text in course for novel-writing, and half way into the semester gave this assignment: each student was tracking the developement of a different minor character in the novel. Then they had to write a chapter that could be interpolated into the novel from that character's pov, one that showed an aspect of his character implicit in Tolstoi's original but not spelled out. The results were amazing, and I believe most of the credit belonged to Tolstoi.

Perhaps a similar exercise might yielld edible fruit from Tolkein (his name does begin with Tol-, after all). Maybe Depth is not the right word. Maybe Density comes closer. The degree to which you can come in for a closeup and still get significant details. Tolkein is more like a comic book; the details are generic.
Jan. 14th, 2007 11:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
Is is harder to write about a world that exists or one that doesn't? And we're talking worlds that are completely thought out like both Tolkien's and Herbert's.
- would you say that Dune has more or less density than LOTRs/W&P?
Jan. 15th, 2007 12:51 am (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
Yes all around. Another idea to steal for teaching my own classes (and no credits given of course.) Yes it's that density and the reason that it's unacheivable in fantasy is because almost by definition it's not there: it depends on an interaction of the novelist and his created world with the actual historical or contemporaneous world experienced by the writer, and fantasy aims specifically to escape that entanglement. I can't imagine that any fantasy novel would satisfy Smith's criteria. Failure (in her terms) is built in. This doesn't apply to a book like 334 or even Camp Concentration, whose involvement with contempraneity and history are complex and different from Tolstoy's (or Balzac's or Zola's or Updike's) but central. About Gene Wolfe I can't say.
Jan. 15th, 2007 01:38 am (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
It could be argued that 'depth' - in the sense of 'an interaction of the novelist and his created world with the actual historical or contemporaneous world experienced by the writer' - is itself time- and context-dependent. We get it from Balzac, Eliot, Tolstoy, Zola, Joyce ... - but so much twentieth century fiction, modernist & postmodernist, seems aimed at debunking the idea that the world is solid and various and mappable by the novelist, as it is in W&P, say, or Middlemarch. And of course this idea of the 'thinning' of the world is central to both the critical and the ameliorative impulses in fantasy. One sees it as much in Tolkien's letters as in classics (in Smith's sense) like 'The Third Policeman' or 'Invitation to a Beheading' ... which brings us full circle, because from a certain perspective Smith's hero Nabokov and much-maligned JRRT can look very similar.

Feb. 2nd, 2007 01:33 pm (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
I think this is a central and unaddressed (as far as my own limited knowledge reaches) question for anyone interested in what Tom Disch has called "our stuff" -- yes it does come full circle as you say but somehow the ends don't touch -- what is the difference between the imagined, not-asserted-to-be-mimetic worlds of Flann O'Brien or Nabokov's fairy tales and the Fantasy that John Clute taxonomizes? Is the one (as perhaps you suggest) out to undermine our faith in a shared world, to dismiss it in favor of the aesthetic delight of an imagined world, whereas the other depends on our responding to an imagined world as though it were the common shared one, with all the tugs of love and grief and heroism and shame etc. intended to reach us, only in a different form, maybe more undiluted?

To put it more simply -- ADA and Calvino and Borges and Aimee Bender and AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS and Marquez ought to be the same sort of thing as TITUS GROAN and THE BUSINESSMAN and LITTLE, BIG and JRRT and E. R. Eddison and A PRINCESS OF ROMANIA and they plainly aren't, but why not? On what plane does the difference lie?
Jan. 15th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
In other words, a writer of Fantasy can't possibly create a world that will ever live up to the one that they live in... Yes, it makes sense now, because our history has been created by many, not just one, which ultimately seperates the Fantasy author from the Contemporary author.
Jan. 23rd, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
What I don't understand is why academics and critics, and authors of "literary" novels for that matter, are so down on fantasy and other "genres". Calling it "less deep" or "less dense" and saying that is it as "generic as a comic book" (to which I say, there is a LOT you don't know about comics if you can make such a blanket statement about *that* genre) is so far from the point that I'm having difficulty even finding words to describe what I'm thinking. Why on earth is it inherently "better" or "more serious" or "more worthy" to write or read fiction that is set in the so-called "real world?"

I think that a fantasy or science fiction novel in which the author has done his or her research, and has done their utmost best to develop a world fully (as in Herbert's or Tolkien's case at the very least), is just as "dense" and "deep" as any literary novel taught in a college literature class. Perhaps more so, in fact, because I personally believe that there are some truths about humanity and nature that are best told with a bit of distance. By setting a story *outside* our own reality it is easier for us to absorb uncomfortable truths. And yes, I do believe that at times SF/F fiction shows uncomfortable truths. It is not simply escapist fluff. In fact I think there is often more useful and thought-provoking material in so-called "genre" fiction today than there is in all the post-modern, depressing, dystopian, navel-gazing crap that passes for "literary fiction" these days.
Jan. 23rd, 2007 05:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
I find it ridiculous that you compare Tolkien to "a comic book" and say "the details are generic." First of all, how many comics have you read recently? And of what type? The comics industry has expanded beyond the "whiz-bam-pow" era, in case you have been sleeping under a rock for the last twenty years. Secondly, perhaps you've read a different Tolkien work than I have? Some other Tolkien than J.R.R.? There is an incredible amount of detail in his work, in fact it is packed with so much detail that it often distracts one from the action of the story (and was one of the major frustrations dealt with by Jackson, et. al. when they tried to adapt it to the screen). If you are going to make such scathing critical remarks, at least do your homework first.
Jan. 31st, 2007 01:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Depth, for another
This is a bit choleric -- in your outrage you may have misread.

Now matter how deep and vital and intersting and compelling a comic is, it has to create its effects with less depth and density than a painting by Velasquez or a play by Tennessee Williams. You can't have pictures that total or dialogue that long. You must suggest, sketch -- use generic buildings, streets, faces, gestures (the artist's, I mean) to project meaning and affect rapidly. Even the most detailed comic isn;t detailed in the way that Apres-midi sur la Grand Jatte is, nor would we want or expect it to be. It's not a shortcoming, only a technique.

Tolkien is less dense than Tolstoy because its warp is not connected to the woof of history, shared cultural/physical facts, the necessities and demands that readers know and share with the characters. The blood shed at Borodino in W&P is bound up with the actual blood shed at the actual battle. This intertwining of the reader's reality and history with the book's is and has long been central to the effect and power of novels. The detail in Tolkien (or E.R. Eddison or any highly detailed fantasy) has a differnet function: everything in Tolkien is made of emotional meaning -- every cup, sword, flower, mountain, crown, monster is simply an evocation of meaning: strife, questing, renewal, acheivement, peace, the power of evil, etc. etc. That's why the detail is compelling and also generic -- these are not _particular_ flowers or mountains or swords, they are _universal_ ones.

As for the sex, it's not graphic sex scenes that are wanted. The fact is that Tolkien's Middle Earth is not only without sex, it's without women, excep (like the Smurfs) one queen, one true love, one loathsome spider, one earth mother. Here the generic quality is felt as a lack, not because it's not "realistic" in the sense of being able to be plotted on sex or love or females that we know, but because it has limited the _meaning_ that it needs to live.
Jan. 24th, 2007 05:06 pm (UTC)
So are you saying that The Lord of the Rings is somehow a lesser work simply because it doesn't have graphic sex scenes? I would say that is a rather shallow assessment. As for death...there was plenty of death at Helm's Deep. The entire story was filled with death, in fact. In my estimation the entire point of the story was that despair and death are ever present, and that it takes enormous courage and perseverance to continue on in the face of that truth.

Or did you simply mean that there was no factual element in The Lord of the Rings? This too is a shallow assessment. After all, we're talking about *fiction* aren't we? Even fiction set in the so-called "real world" is talking about people who aren't real, events that didn't really happen.
Jan. 31st, 2007 03:10 am (UTC)
Thank you for your comments. I always find it so frustrating that SF gets crapped on when compared to Literary Fiction. SF and Fantasy have had some great storytellers, and I would say that it is true that Literary Fiction has generally had the better prose stylelists, but when have the two artforms come together? Very rarely. On the other hand, it is difficult to keep beautiful prose going when trying to describe the ideas of SF, and isn't always appropriate.

Dune had a sex scene. I think - or was that just in the movie?
Feb. 2nd, 2007 09:24 am (UTC)
Are you actually reading his replies to you?
Feb. 2nd, 2007 01:18 pm (UTC)
To be fair, this came in BEFORE my reply to the earlier post. It deserves a response of its own, though, perhaps
Feb. 2nd, 2007 04:56 pm (UTC)

Then I might ask myself this: "Do I even read timestamps?" To which the answer appears to be a resounding no.

Interesting blog, by the way.
Jan. 15th, 2007 02:34 am (UTC)
"Anybody else like to go first?"
Not for many years.

-Nick A.
Jan. 17th, 2007 08:13 pm (UTC)
To take the conversation in a slightly different direction...

Smith's notion of stylistic perfection, of a style without flaws, strikes me as both impossible and dull. Isn't she missing the point: namely, that our flaws are *part* of our style? What we cannot say, or say well, or say as well as one reader or another might like (which is probably the most accurate way to describe this kind of "failure"), is as much a part of our style as our moments of sublime triumph. To let your work stand with its unavoidable flaws strikes me as at least equally, and probably more, the revelation of authorial character that Smith is looking for.
May. 1st, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)
I love this place!
Great stuff here!
I'll definitely bookmark this place and come back soon.

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )