What Makes a Good Writer? (originally written by Zadie Smith. Illustration by Garrincha)

Do writers have duties?

All this talk of authenticity, of betrayal, presupposes a duty — an obligation that the writers and readers of literature are under. It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty what that might be, how we might fail to fulfill it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader’s perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear to be interesting and intelligent but never willfully obscure to write with the average reader in mind to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be “represented”, as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable — anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.

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. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologise.

Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer. When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people’s, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment — once you have removed all that warped experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in — what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel: one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It’s certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can’t help tell if you write well, it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.

Image by Garrincha. To visit his online shop, click here.