Thursday, March 17, 2016

Zadie Smith on Her Craft

            Zadie Smith gave a lecture to students in Columbia University’s Writing Program. An edited version (called “That Crafty Feeling”) appears as one of the essays in Changing My Mind. She begins by discussing “two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.” A Macro Planner (MP) “organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page.”
            I thought I understood what she was describing until I read the next sentence: “It’s not uncommon for MPs to start writing their novels in the middle.” (Huh?) She continues recounting bizarre behavior: MPs take characters out and put them back in, they change the setting from London to Berlin. Smith finds such radical surgery to be “incomprehensible and horrifying.”
             Actually, the problem lies entirely with the contrariness of Smith’s representation. She has MPs engage in rigorous preplanning of plot and structure, and then she has them promptly discard that plot and structure and descend into chaos. To act in such a way would be insane.
            Smith describes herself as a MM. She doesn’t change endings because she doesn’t have “the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it.” For her a novel takes shape as it proceeds. This line by line process of discovery is especially grueling in the first twenty pages: “It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of novel am I writing?
            Here, again, I’m perplexed. Surely Smith must have some idea of where she’s going. If she is indeed a blank, why sit down at her computer? I was further amazed by her revealing that, in her novel On Beauty, “I reworked those first twenty pages for almost two years.” When she “finally settled on a tone, the rest of the novel was finished in five months.” But two years devoted to a sort of trial and error search? This too struck me as insane.
            She further claims that the MM approach — which includes editing as she writes — has an upside: “There’s only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done.” In that statement is a sense that the finished product is satisfactory. But then she advises her audience that, when they finish a novel, to put in a drawer, preferably for a year or more. Here’s why: “The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader rather than its writer.”
            Editing? I thought the novel was “done.” It turns out to be far from done. “The perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came in, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.”
            Then, regarding those pristine proofs, Smith proceeds to repudiate her words in the following paragraph: “Proofs are so cruel! . . . When I look at loose-leaf proofs, fresh out the envelope, bound with a thick elastic band, marked by a conscientious copy editor, I feel that I would have to become a different person entirely to do the work that needs to be done here. To correct what needs correcting, to fix what needs to be fixed. The only proper response to an envelope full of marked-up pages is “Give it back to me! Let me start again!”
            Dissatisfaction with her work runs throughout this lecture: “To look back at all past work induces nausea . . . It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.” In the case of her first novel (published when she was twenty-three), “I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten pages in before I was overwhelmed with nausea.”
            It’s almost certain that the young writers in her audience looked up to her as a role model. That she’s being illogical and contradictory indicates sloppy thinking, and we already have enough novels that are sloppily thought out. What Smith is dispensing are cliches. The MM approach could be renamed the Muse Approach (MA). The muse will arrive to tell you What kind of novel am I writing? As for the agony and dissatisfaction, it’s all about how we artists must suffer — and fail. There’s a noble glamour in that failure. The completed novel is not the one you hoped for, but alas! Of course, for Smith there was always the consolation of publication, praise, prizes and profit.
            It was a clubby little lecture that she gave. Clubby in that it was addressed to Macro authors like herself (now Im using that prefix to refer to those with significant credentials; if you’re in Columbia University’s Writing Program you’re on the ladder to literary success, albeit the lower rungs). In Smith’s case, she never struggled up that ladder: she was boosted straight up to the top. At age twenty-one, while she was attending Cambridge, she received an advance of a quarter million pounds on the basis of the first eighty pages of White Teeth. Was it all about talent? In The Nation William Deresiewicz reviewed Smith’s On Beauty (he didn’t like it), and he goes into the Whys of her success. “Smith’s personal story didn’t hurt,” he writes. She was the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother, and “her ascent was part of the late ’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots.” As for her looks, he notes that “Smith takes a great publicity shot.” His point is clear: those who open the doors to success are impressed by an author’s packaging. Zadie (even her name worked in her favor) was a highly marketable commodity.
            In her Acknowledgment page of Changing My Mind Smith thanks her editors and her agent “for all their efforts on my behalf for the past ten years.” And for the help and advice she received on individual essays, she cites sixteen people. When you reach the heights the view is terrific and the people are swell!
            Not so with Micro authors (those with no significant credentials). From their perspective, down in the muck, the literary world is barren of generosity and encouragement. Do some deserve recognition? How could we know, since their work isn’t even given consideration. Despite the obstacles they face, the persistence of some Micros is amazing — or heartbreaking. After seven (or seventeen) years of rejection could Smith sit down at her computer and endure the “agony” of writing? Some would say “Yes! The need to create would be too strong to ever give up!” Sounds like a harebrained or brainwashed Micro to me. Many of these naive souls actually subscribe to Writers’ Digest and read articles like “Twelve Sure-fire Tips on Landing an Agent.”
            Most eventually turn into cynics. If they bring up the issue of fairness, their complaints are dismissed as whining from contemptible losers. But George Orwell was an acknowledged truth-teller, and his harsh depiction of how the literary world works will give solace to disgruntled Micros. He expressed his views in The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. One might claim that these views are outdated; but it’s likely that the situation he describes is more pronounced today. In pre-TV times there was an audience for literary fiction, whereas now people can choose from easier forms of entertainment. Even Smith, despite her decent sales figures, has had to supplement her income with teaching stints (in creative writing programs at Harvard, Columbia and New York University).
            At any rate, here’s Orwell’s take on matters: “It is just possible to be a literary gent and to keep your decency if you are a definitely popular writer — a writer of detective stories, for instance; but to be a highbrow, with a footing in the snootier magazines, means to deliver yourself over to horrible campaigns of wire-pulling and backstairs-crawling. In the highbrow world you get on,” if you “get on” at all, not so much by your literary ability as by being the life and soul of cocktail parties and kissing the bums of verminous little lions.”
            I’m sure Zadie was a striking presence at cocktail parties; but, in her unique case, she probably didn’t have to engage in wire-pulling and backstairs-crawling, nor did she have to kiss any bums. Most of the students in her audience won’t be so lucky. At the very least they’ll have to do a good bit of toadying as they ascend the shaky ladder to success. After her lecture there was probably a crush of writers pressing toward the stage to have a word with Zadie. But I suspect she had planned an escape route.

1 comment:

Phillip Routh said...

I read a story by Smith entitled "Escape from New York" in the June 8 & 15, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. I'm at a loss to find one redeeming quality in it.