Why Write?

Zadie Smith was the featured speaker (Lectio Magistralis) at the Writers Festival (Festival degli Scrittori) I attended in Florence the other day. It was an odd presentation as we were given a pamphlet of her talk upon arriving that I was halfway through as she began reading it, word-by-word.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of her remarks was simultaneously shown on the screen behind the podium. I had expected at least a bit of spontaneity from Zadie Smith during this important lecture. There was none.

The title of her talk was Why Write? (Perche Scrivere?) and what I found most striking about it was the emphasis she placed on social factors in answering the question. She set the background by describing the bleak situation that confronts writers today, arguing that it is almost ridiculous to write a novel any more

There are few readers and it takes years to write one, let alone finding a publisher. If that hurdle is passed, you struggle to preserve its copyright, suffer through all the criticism it receives and the abusive remarks of bloggers. At the same time she suggests this has always been true for the writers of any era.

…Keats suffered the barbs of a few critics but never had to contend with half the internet calling him an asshole; Emily Bronte struggled to find an audience, but she wasn’t competing with a global audiovisual entertainment industry, cinema, television, online gaming, iPods, iPads, and tricked-out phones loaded with a lifetime’s worth of two-minute distractions.

Do writers consider all this misery as they put pen to pad of paper or pound away at the keyboard? I had imagined they rarely did, that they wrote because it was second nature to them or with only themselves in mind.

Why write then? If the act is so attendant with misery? Pope’s answer will be familiar to writers of all times and all ages. Because he couldn’t help it, any more than he could help his hump or his height.

But then she returns to the social factors in considering the question. She says that Pope also wrote to secure the approval of his peers and the opinions of his fellow writers. More so than the opinion of readers, and certainly more so than that of critics, whom he denigrates in the traditional way…

She cites Gregor von Rezzori to illustrate way writers are ever mindful of their readers. “It [the value of writing] has created a reality—and people are touched by it. I have this feeling. Do you? I saw this thing. Can I make you see it? I had this thought. Can you understand it? I am in this elation to death. Are you? I am wondering whether writing is possible. Are you?”

(Rezzori was an Austrian writer who married an Italian woman and together they settled in Tuscany. To honor Rezzori after he died, she established a foundation that supports a retreat for writers at their Tuscan villa, four of whom are offered resident fellowships each year (in 2009 Smith was one of them). As part of Florence Writers Festival, the foundation presents the Gregor von Rezzori Prize for the best work of foreign fiction translated in Italian.)

Smith continued that we write for other reasons too—because we are concerned with the “beauty in words and their right arrangement,” to engage in a dialogue with the wider world, “to counter that overwhelming sense of one’s own pointless,” and finally to see if we can, “that we do still have abilities, ideas and means of communication that are our own…”

But her emphasis on the social context of the writing enterprise did surprise me. It is not an answer I would have given to the question Why Write? and I wonder how many real writers would attach such weight to it. Do Philip Roth or Ian McEwan think for a moment about their readers? Did Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen?

Writers will always write, regardless of the views or number of their readers--like Zadie Smith who still writes, even though she has her critics and must experience all the modern distractions she mentioned that compete with her best efforts.

However, Smith has not published a novel in six years. Her last book was a set of literary essays and recently she has become the monthly book reviewer for Harper’s Magazine. Has she given up on “the act that is so attendant with misery”?