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

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 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.

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