I spent part of this snowy morning reading Zadie Smith’s 5,000 word essay in the Guardian about writing, and what writers do and don’t know about it. It’s a fine example of an essay. It’s not journalism: there is nothing current about it, nothing that ties it to 2007 rather than 2002 or 2012. It’s also not academic: there are no footnotes, no references to others. It is personal and yet well thought out, so that it contributes something original (something I have not seen elsewhere anyway) in an individualistic sense. Like the best essays, it is a contribution to a continuing conversation from someone you like to listen to.
Which got me thinking, where could you find a 5,000 word essay in Canada? Not a piece of journalism, not creative non-fiction, not research, not issue-focused writing, not as short as an op-ed, but a real essay? The Walrus, I suppose, but where else? I’ve seen occasional pieces elsewhere, but rarely of this length. And certainly not in widely-read publications. Seems to me this is a real lack of the Canadian public sphere. I’d be glad to be proved wrong.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the middle of the piece to give you a sense of its content and tone.
First things first: writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality or otherwise of their own work – God knows, most writers are quite deluded about the nature of their own talent. But writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it’s worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique. It’s what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man’s life to understand his work". But neither did they think of a writer’s personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don’t think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.