THAT CRAFTY FEELING
A LECTURE GIVEN BY THE ENGLISH AUTHOR, ZADIE SMITH, TO THE STUDENTS OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S WRITING PROGRAM IN NEW YORK ON MONDAY MARCH 24, 2008
I’ve been asked to speak about “some aspect of craft.” I dithered over this lecture. I always dither over lectures, never more than when they’re about “craft.” They cause me an anxiety that the request for a piece of fiction never does and never could. Not that I find writing fiction easy—I don’t—but I find it within my remit. When someone asks me to write a story I feel they’re giving me a comprehensible block of stone and my job is to carve out whatever shape I think’s within it. Even if the result is poor and doesn’t work in the space, still it’s the shape I honestly thought was in there. I’m not trying to put anything over on anybody.
But a lecture on craft… at once something fraudulent creeps into the enterprise, there’s a whiff of snake oil. I speak from experience, having written a few “Art of Fiction” polemics and regretted them all. In my opinion one should run, not walk, from any essay entitled “The Art of Fiction” that is not about the art of a particular piece of fiction, or several. I don’t believe in craft in the abstract—each individual novel is its own rule book, training ground, factory, and independent republic. The only time I feel I’m writing honestly about craft—either my own or craft in general—is when I have a specific piece of fiction in my sights, when I’m writing about Middlemarch or Take a Girl Like You or Libra or The Trial; when I, as Humbert Humbert put it, have some actual words to play with.
I think there are two different kinds of lectures on craft, the first more useful than the second. The first is solid and practical: it concerns the technical craft of certain novels, and is best given by critics and academics qualified in their field. The second type is given by novelists, with the hope they will draw on their practical knowledge and say something intelligent about the way they write. At this point—in my experience—a disconnect occurs. For though I have a private language for the way I write, as every writer does, as I’m sure all of you do, it’s not particularly intelligent—in fact, it’s rather banal. It feels strange, airing it in public, inadequate, unfit for a classroom. I think even if I had been crafting away at a novel for ten years, and then, on the final day, an email arrived asking me to give a lecture on “some aspect of craft,” I still wouldn’t quite feel qualified to give it. Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas. So naturally the temptation is to gussy it up a bit, to find a garment to dress your private language in, something suitable. You borrow the quantifying language of the critic, maybe, or the conceptual analysis of the academic. And then, with a queasy, fraudulent feeling, you try and pass this off as an accurate representation of what it is to write a novel. The result is convincing and has every rhetorical advantage, except one: it isn’t true. For there’s an important difference between the way a writer thinks about craft, and the ways critics and academics think about craft. Critics and academics are dedicated to the analysis of craft after the fact. Their accounts are indispensable for anyone who reads fiction and cares for it, but they are not truly concerned with craft as it is practiced. What I mean is: they can’t help a writer as she writes.
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