Zadie Smith is one of my top five favorite writers. Her non-fiction is just as wonderfully compelling and beautifully stylistic as her fiction, if not more so. This excerpt is from a longer essay titled ‘Fail Better’ and written for both writers and readers of fiction. That said, of course, it applies to any kind of longform writing and reading.
For me, longform/book reading has always been a deeply active engagement with the world, beyond simply “relatability”, and having my existing worldview confirmed and reinforced. It has been, from an early age, the primary way that I learned to reframe and comprehend the world in new and different ways.
So I have absolutely believed, as Smith says here, that readers fail writers when we don’t approach their work with more than a desire to be entertained or distracted. Reading, too, is a constantly-evolving skill and talent, such that it can enrich and improve our lives — unlike anything else, really.
Let me add this, though: I don’t think books and reading, by themselves, help us become better human beings. There are many terrible people in history who were extremely cultured and arts-minded, yet perpetrated unthinkable crimes on humanity — think of some of the original Nazis in 1930s-1940s Germany.
Beyond entertaining us, I do think that reading books (of a certain quality) can make us more critical-minded: help us learn to see different perspectives, arguments, and hold up a mirror to our own lives in ways that, often, no other medium can. The process of reading words, sentences, and allowing them to permeate and disrupt your thought patterns and established neuronal pathways cannot be replicated as effectively with other media. And the brain, just like a muscle, needs ongoing practice to improve this critical-thinking elasticity.
That said, if we keep reading the same kinds of things we have always enjoyed, or stuff that everyone else is reading, we are not opening ourselves up to this wonderful and necessary reconditioning. When we read beyond our comfort zones, about very different worlds/people, that’s when we get closer to a sort of cognitive restructuring within ourselves. This is the process where we can learn to recognize, to a certain extent, our own biases, prejudices, filters, etc., so we can not only understand our own behaviors/thoughts/attitudes better but we can also, yes, empathize with those of others, no matter how different they may be from ours. And this cognitive restructuring, if we allow our reading to take us there, is what could make us more humane.
In the United States, per a 2015 Pew Research study (in collaboration with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), the average American reads only about twelve books a year, and seven-in-ten American adults (72%) have read just one book within the past year, whether in whole or in part and in any format. So, as a country, we continue to devalue the art, skill, and talent of longform reading.
[As a side-note, sadly, what Tom Waits has said is also very true: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate.”]
10: A novel is a two-way street
A novel is a two-way street, in which the labor required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer, and the composer gives her.
This is a conception of “reading” we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practise reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer’s style so that, together, writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.
What I’m saying is: a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston’s capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland’s strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert’s faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it’s a conjurer’s trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.
— ‘Fail Better‘ by Zadie Smith