“the fictional and non-fictional – at war with each other”

Zadie Smith

Image from The Guardian’s review on Smith’s Changing My Mind, Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/ Getty Images

Zadie Smith is scintillating as an essayist. Her non-fiction pays homage and is a worthy rival of Woolf’s meditations. Her latest piece, “An essay is an act of imagination. It still takes quite as much art as fiction” published Saturday 21 November 2009, in The Guardian adds fuel to the blog-fire of why writing about writing, and reading, begets the pleasure of reading and writing. She makes a rallying cry for the simple truth that fiction feeds non-fiction and vice versa, while pointing out how dualistic dullards are short-sighted in their antagonistic approach to genres.

Why do novelists write essays? Most publishers would rather have a novel. Bookshops don’t know where to put them. It’s a rare reader who seeks them out with any sense of urgency. Still, in recent months Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Drabble, Chinua Achebe and Michael Chabon, among others, have published essays, and so this month will I. And though I think I know why I wrote mine, I wonder why they wrote theirs, and whether we all mean the same thing by the word “essay”, and what an essay is, exactly, these days. The noun has an unstable history, shape-shifting over the centuries in its little corner of the OED.

For Samuel Johnson in 1755 it is: “A loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regularly and orderly composition.” And if this looks to us like one of Johnson’s lexical eccentricities, we’re chastened to find Joseph Addison, of all people, in agreement (“The wildness of these compositions that go by the name of essays”) and behind them both three centuries of vaguely negative connotation. Beginning in the 1500s an essay is: the action or process of trying or testing; a sample, an example; a rehearsal; an attempt or endeavour; a trying to do something; a rough copy; a first draft. Not until the mid 19th century does it take on its familiar, neutral ring: “a composition more or less elaborate in style, though limited in range.” Which is it, though, that attracts novelists – the comforts of limit or the freedom of irregularity?

A new book by the American novelist-essayist David Shields (to be published here by Hamish Hamilton early next year) makes the case for irregularity. In Reality Hunger: A Manifesto Shields argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real – of what we might call “truthiness” – over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives. For Shields it is exactly what is tentative, unmade and unpolished in the essay form that is important. He finds the crafted novel, with its neat design and completist attitude, to be a dull and generic thing, too artificial to deal effectively with what is already an “unbearably artificial world”. He recommends instead that artists break “ever larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work”, via quotation, appropriation, prose poems, the collage novel . . . in short, the revenge of the real, by any means necessary. And conventional structure be damned. To make the point, Reality Hunger is itself without obvious authorial structure, piecing its arguments together by way of scattered aphorisms and quotation, an engaging form of bricolage. It’s a tribute to Shields’s skill that we remain unsure whether the entire manifesto is not in effect “built” rather than written, the sum of many broken pieces of the real simply shored up and left to vibrate against each other in significant arrangement. The result is thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do…

…An excited American writing student gave me a proof copy of the book, and during a recent semester spent teaching I met many students equally enthused by Shields’s ideas. Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about this kind of student enthusiasm. Generally speaking, there are few things more exciting to a certain kind of writing student than the news that the imaginative novel is dead (with all its vulgar, sentimental, “bourgeois” – and hard to think up – plots, characters and dialogue). When your imagination fails you it’s a relief to hear that it need no longer be part of a novelist’s job description. But if “cui bono?” is a reasonable question to ask of writing students who may fear fiction is beyond them, who benefits when it is the novelists themselves who are grave-dancing?

…This easy dismissal of well-made novels deserves a second look. In the first place, “well-made novel” seems to me to be a kind of Platonic bogeyman, existing everywhere in an ideal realm but in few spots on this earth. Reality Hunger wants us to believe that this taste for “novels that don’t look like novels” is in some way unusual, the mark of a refined literary palate.

But even the most conventional account of our literary “canon” reveals the history of the novel to be simultaneously a history of nonconformity. For as readers we have loved and celebrated not some hazy general idea of the novel but rather the peculiar works of individual imaginations. Even in those familiar lists of “great novels”, classics of the genre, and so on, it’s hard to find a single “well-made” novel among them, if by well-made we mean something like “evenly shaped, regular, predictable and elegantly designed”. Is War and Peace, with its huge tracts of undigested essay, absurd plotting and obscene length, a well-made novel? Is The Trial? And those neat Victorian novels we’re now expected casually to revile – is it not only from a distance, and in the memory, that they look as neat as they do? Which of them is truly “well made”? Jane Eyre seemed hysterical and lopsided to its earliest readers; we now think of Middlemarch as the ultimate “proper” novel, forgetting how eccentric and strange it looked on publication, with its unwieldy and unfeminine scientific preoccupations and moral structure borrowed from Spinoza. In our classic novels there always remains something odd, unruly, as distinctly weird as Hardy’s Little Father Time. Novels that don’t look like novels? When it comes to the canon – to steal a line from Lorrie Moore – novels like that are the only novels here. And though it may well be the case that the pale copies of such books to be found in bookshops today are generic and conventional and make the delicate reader nauseous, is the fault really to be found with imagined narrative itself? Will the “lyrical essay”, as Shields calls it, be the answer to the novel’s problems? Is the very idea of plot, character and setting in the novel to be abandoned, no longer fit for our new purposes, and all ground ceded to the coolly superior, aphoristic essay?

In these arguments the new received wisdom is that all plots are “conventional” and all characters sentimental and bourgeois, and all settings bad theatrical backdrops, wooden and painted. Such objections are, I think, sincere responses to the experience of reading bad novels, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of Shields or Coetzee or any writer who responds strongly to Reality Hunger as a manifesto. A bad novel is both an aesthetic and ethical affront to its readers, because it traduces reality, and does indeed make you hunger for a kind of writing that seems to speak truth directly. But I also feel, as someone who just finished a book of more or less lyrical essays, that underneath some of these high-minded objections, and complementary to them, there is another, deeper, psychological motivation, about which it is more difficult to be honest. In “The Modern Essay” Virginia Woolf is more astute on the subject, and far more frank. “There is no room for the impurities of literature in an essay,” she writes. “The essay must be pure – pure like water or pure like wine, but pure from dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” Well, yes, that’s just it. An essay, she writes, “can be polished till every atom of its surface shines” – yes, that’s it, again. There is a certain kind of writer – quite often male but by no means exclusively so – who has a fundamental hunger for purity, and for perfection, and this type will always hold the essay form in high esteem. Because essays hold out the possibility of something like perfection.

Novels, by contrast, are idiosyncratic, uneven, embarrassing, and quite frequently nausea-inducing – especially if you happen to have written one yourself. Within the confines of an essay or – even better! – an aphorism, you can be the writer you dream of being. No word out of place, no tell-tale weak spots (dialogue, the convincing representation of other people, plot), no absences, no lack. I think it’s the limits of the essay, and of the real, that truly attract fiction writers. In the confined space of an essay you have the possibility of being wise, of making your case, of appearing to see deeply into things – although the thing you’re generally looking into is the self. “Other people”, that mainstay of what Shields calls the “moribund conventional novel”, have a habit of receding to a point of non-existence in the “lyrical essay”.

These are all satisfactions the practice of writing novels is most unlikely to provide for you. Perfect essays abound in this world – almost every one of Joan Didion’s fits the category. Perfect novels, as we all know, are rarer than Halley’s comet. And so, for a writer, composing an essay instead of a novel is like turning from staring into a filthy, unfathomable puddle to looking through a clear glass windowpane. How perfectly it fits the frame! How little draught passes through! And naturally writers who feel a strong sense of nausea towards their own fiction are even more likely to feel it when reading the fiction of their peers. It’s hard to read a novel with any pleasure when you can see all the phoney cogs turning…

…call on Woolf again as witness for the defence. “Literal truth-telling,” she writes, “is out of place in an essay.” Yes, that’s it again. The literal truth is something you expect, or hope for, in a news article. But an essay is an act of imagination, even if it is a piece of memoir. It is, or should be, “a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking”, but it still takes quite as much art as fiction. Good non-fiction is as designed and artificial as any fairy story. Oddly, this is a thesis Reality Hunger readily agrees with: in its winding way it ends up defining the essay as imaginative at its core, and Shields wants to encourage its imaginative qualities – it seems to be only in the novel that the imagination must be condemned. It’s a strange argument, but I guess the conventional form so many imaginative novels take has been enough to give fictional imagination itself a bad name.

For myself, I know, now that I’ve finished them, that I wrote my own essays out of exactly the kind of novel-nausea Shields describes. I was oppressed by a run-of-the-mill version of that narrative scepticism Kafka expresses so well in one line in “Description of a Struggle”: “But then? No then.” Simply put, my imagination had run dry, and I couldn’t seem to bring myself to write the necessary “and then, and then” which sits at the heart of all imagined narratives. When you’re in this state – commonly called “writer’s block” – the very idea of fiction turns sour. But in a strange circular effect, it has been the experience of writing essays that has renewed my enthusiasm for the things fiction does that nothing else can. Writing essays on Kafka, on Nabokov, on George Eliot, on Zora Neale Hurston, I was newly humbled and excited by the artificial and the fully imagined.

Suffering from ‘novel nausea’, Zadie Smith wonders if the essay lives up to its promise…

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