November 14, 2009

"I think of reading like a balanced diet..."

"... if your sentences are too baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka as roughage."

Says Zadie Smith in an analogy that makes me wonder if her writing is shit.

32 comments:

Synova said...

She's talking about reading other writers while she is writing herself.

Many authors will not do this because it's very easy to unconsciously let the voice of those writers influence your own. (Or else they will only read non-fiction.) I know that if I read novels with a strong voice different than mine everything I write changes. My sentence structure and word choices, my whole vocabulary is altered.

As I read it, she's just saying that if "your" meaning "her" sentences get too much one direction, too baggy and baroque as an example, to read something different to even it out.

This is a practical solution to a common problem.

Synova said...

I couldn't possibly say if her writing is shit or not.

It sounds a bit like it might be pretentious.

EDH said...

And read David Corn for texture?

Youngblood said...

It took me a minute, but when I actually got the joke, I laughed.

Bissage said...

Surely reading Zadie Smith counteracts the tendency to write with precision.

ricpic said...

Benny Hill was beneath our collective consideration.

Right there I know she's the enemy.

Theo Boehm said...

Reading the excerpt seems like eating three plain rice cakes from Whole Foods.

br549 said...

She teaches fiction at Columbia. I thought all the professors there did.

Zachary Paul Sire said...

The best writing technique I ever received was "Get in and get out."

She could've just said that.

traditionalguy said...

I'll have three Shakespeare tragedies and a double Whitman poem with a side of Steinbeck novels served with Mitchner sauce please. And to drink a Tennessee Williams play, and super size it for reading at home.

Kirk Parker said...

ZPS,

"Get in and get out" is fine for fiction and other entertainment.

But for technical writing, it's:

Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em
Tell 'em
Tell 'em what you told 'em

Jason (the commenter) said...

A story from NPR about balancing your intellectual intake, isn't that rich.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Kafka is her roughage and Foster Wallace is her junk food. What a restrictive diet she is on. Sounds like she needs to crack open a comic book or a romance novel and get out of literary fiction hell.

p.t. fogger said...

Smith was quite the fashionable literary darling there for a while in the U.K., celebrated for being young, hip, bi-racial and female by all the approved celebrators of such things, during the period when people still actually talked about "Cool Brittania". I'm guessing her writing isn't shite, but overated.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Since the smashing success of White Teeth in 2000 when she was not quite 25, Smith has been asked to take public stances on everything from movies to writing habits.

So, no one values her opinion on pretty much anything.

knox said...

synova:

I know that if I read novels with a strong voice different than mine everything I write changes.

LOL. I know what you mean. Sometimes I find myself accidentally writing like one of my favorite commenters!

jason tc:
get out of literary fiction hell.

What I was thinking.

Penny said...

Synova, there's an example of her work following the article. I thought it was quite good, telling much about the British class system in a 'simple' family story.

Penny said...

Oh, and also a mention of Dylan's "It's All Over Now Baby Blue". Sadly, it's the song her dying father requested be played at his funeral.

Andrea said...

I tried reading the excerpt from her book but I couldn't -- it was just too boring. Mybe it's because I'm not really interested in the in-depth analysis of the comedy tastes of older British males. I mean, I could write something about how my father despised Hogan's Heroes because he thought no one should make light of Nazis, but he loved M*A*S*H because it reminded him of his experiences in the Korean War (he was in the Army Core of Engineers, and apparently his experiences involved a lot of drinking). But it would be exactly that long and no more. Oh -- and when I was a kid we all watched The Red Skelton Show, but then again back then we only had about three television channels.

wv: grantl -- a grant to go to Yeshiva school?

Jason (the commenter) said...

I read the excerpt. Try reading this sentence out loud:

The series was Hancock's Half Hour, a situation comedy in which Hancock plays a broad version of himself and, to my mind, of my father: a quintessentially English, poorly educated, working-class war veteran with social and intellectual aspirations, whose fictional address — 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam — perfectly conjures the aspirant bleakness of London's suburbs (as if Cheam were significant enough a spot to have an East).

Terrible writing!

The story reminds me of a bad movie I just saw, 2012, where the writers tried to make the audience care about the banal relationship details of people they don't know because of some dramatic event which happens concurrently. In the case of 2012, that situation is the apocalypse; in the case of this story, it is the author's father's death.

What's particularly lazy about Smith's writing is that she doesn't really express emotions. The reader is supposed to assume certain emotions were felt because that is what they would feel if their father died.

Zadie Smith should get some friends and tell them, they might care, 'cause I don't; and I don't appreciate being emotionally manipulated in such a cliche and obvious manner.

John Lynch said...

Uh, bad pun.

wv- rawdope

Wow, blogger is making up some good words lately.

Joe Hogan said...

I tried to read her much acclaimed novel, On Beauty, but just could not get through it. Her writing is too boring to be called shit. It is more properly called gaseous, in a wind passing sense.

It struck me as an exercise in navel gazing at the deeply important issues of big time academia. This, I think, explains the book's warm welcome in the university and literary set. Maybe Ann would like it, she does sometimes perseverate on university politcs.

For this non-academic it all seemed just too silly and meaningless.

Andrea said...

Oh hell -- that should be "Army Corps of Engineers" -- Virginia wine is stronger than it looks.

Andrea said...

"What's particularly lazy about Smith's writing is that she doesn't really express emotions. The reader is supposed to assume certain emotions were felt because that is what they would feel if their father died."

That's the thing I've noticed about "literary fiction" that is acclaimed by all the "right people" -- it's almost completely bloodless and without emotion. I've taken a couple of creative writing courses (and then I came to my senses...) and apparently the thing to do to be considered a litfic writer as opposed to some genre fiction hack is to strip your stories of anything that could excite the reader. They talk a lot of pabulum about "bringing out emotions" and making people think about situations people haven't experienced in their own lives, but it's all wind, because anything that might actually help the reader do that is prohibited by someone who wants one of those coveted writeups in the NYTRB.

True, a lot of genre fiction is over- (and badly-) written garbage, but so what? Underwritten garbage is just as bad.

wv: acrisgau -- a word describing the effects of litfic reviewing on rock journalism?

David said...

Given the metaphors, you could also say it's garbage. But it's better than Maya Angelou.

I like to stick with Alice Munro.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Andrea: True, a lot of genre fiction is over- (and badly-) written garbage, but so what? Underwritten garbage is just as bad.

Think about this: literary fiction is genre fiction. I'm sure every year it produces a few good books, but as you pointed out, they teach classes on how to write it. How can they possibly avoid being predictable and full of cliches when they produce authors that way?

Angst said...

This is from the concluding paragraph in a current on-line post at The Atlantic Monthly- I won't mention author's name.

"I am hypothesizing that what we celebrate as the virtues of independents are not so far removed from the vices attendant upon disengagement, discontent, and a view of electoral politics as a self-serving game."

victoria said...

Dudes, what writer isn't pretentious? Not a bad thing, per se.

Vicki from Pasadena

Angst said...

Shouldn't that be "Dudes and Dudettes"?

Jason (the commenter) said...

victoria: Dudes, what writer isn't pretentious?

A great writer, by definition. They can't be pretentious because what they do really is valuable.

Jason (the commenter) said...

I would love to see someone defend literary fiction; but the only way you can do that is by listing a bunch of recent great literary fiction books and I don't see that happening.

d-day said...

On Beauty was my first and last attempt to figure out what all that Booker Prize fuss was about. Joe Hogan is right . . . BORING.

Why can't literary fiction have plot anymore?