It’s always good to incorporate stories into non-fiction because they are to the facts as salt and pepper are to a meal. Even if the facts are juicy, we won’t want to gobble them up unless they have a good flavor. Smith begins with the story of Clive, who is presented as a bit of an ass, then an insecure wreck as he drafts his novel, then a bit of an ass again when it’s published. That seems like a good picture of a writer.
Now, some writers and speakers are too lazy with this technique. They tell a rollickingly funny anecdote about their pet pig and then proceed to give a completely unrelated lecture on the science of wildfires. Luckily, Smith doesn’t do this. Her little tale of Clive briefly sketches the ickiness of human imperfection, connects it to the act of writing a book, and shows the gulf between the critics’ and the author’s judgments of the aforementioned book. This sets us up to agree with her thesis: the most vital part of a novel is not what the critics are concerned with—craftsmanship—but some aspect of the writer’s character.
It’s a bit hard to express what this aspect is, and Smith spends the whole essay explaining it, but it has something to do with vulnerability and a commitment to truth as most vividly experienced by the writer. To Smith, “writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self.” The failure of the writer is always inauthenticity, and the greatest literary success depend on “a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one’s eyes water just thinking about it.”
But although I appreciated Smith’s use of story in nonfiction, I wasn’t wow-ed by this essay overall. The language is elegant and clear. The content is valuable mostly due to the force of her name in literature. She is just speaking out her own experience and opinion, and we like to hear it because she’s famous. But when I come to these “Great Essays,” I want to read something I know I could not have written. And this looks like some hybrid between a reflection on my blog and one of my continental philosophy papers. The form is not exceptional. There were no clever sleights of hand. Even the language (pardon me for going back on my earlier statement) could do with some copyediting. She uses too many words. Here’s a simple example:
Smith: “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.”
My rewrite: “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.”
I don’t mean to say it wasn’t good. It’s probably better than anything I’ve written. It’s just didn’t teach me much except that even famous writers fail sometimes to write exceptionally well.