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

System readers, system writers

“A work of art,” said Nabokov, “has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.”

A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture, the idea of the “individual reader” having gone into terminal decline. In writing schools, in reading groups, in universities, various general reading systems are offered — the post-colonial, the gendered, the postmodern, the state-of-the-nation and so on. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. There is always, within each reading system, an ur-novel — the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel, which is usually a work of individual brilliance, one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.

This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller — it’s annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognise as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key. The upshot of this is that the intimate and idiosyncratic in fiction is everywhere less valued than the ideologically coherent and general. When the world is nervous, state-of-the-nation novels bring great comfort. The Nobel went to Pasternak, not Nabokov. But then how should we read? What does one tell a young reader struggling to choose from the smorgasbord of theoretical reading “systems” that are put before him or her in an average undergraduate week? Soren Kierkegaard has a useful piece of analogous advice, given to sceptical youths approaching philosophy for the first time: “The youth is an existing doubter. Hovering in doubt and without a foothold for his life, he reaches out for the truth — in order to exist in it.”

That’s how young readers are, too, when they start out. They are doubters and seekers. They are living in a negative, as Kierkegaard explains it, and so naturally are very susceptible to those who come offering positives like — in the case Kierkegaard is considering — the overwhelming positive of Hegel’s “System”. But, he warns, whole systems that concern themselves with the experience of being a self will not lead us to truth, for the cogent reason that we cannot fully exist in systems, but only within our own skins. “A philosophy of pure thought,” he argues, “is for an existing individual a chimera, if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe, on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point — Aye, it is still more impossible.”

When we are confronted with a delicate, odd little novel, that pretends to no encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning, that is not set in a country at war, or centred around some issue in the papers, we seem to have no idea how to read it. We have our map of Europe and this novel is Denmark, maybe even just Copenhagen. But we’ve forgotten how to walk round Copenhagen. Frankly, it seems a pointless activity. If fiction is going to be this particular and inimical, we’d rather give it up and read something useful and real like a biography of Stalin.

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