I think there are two different kinds of lectures on craft, the first more useful than the second. The first is solid and practical: it concerns the technical craft of certain novels, and is best given by critics and academics qualified in their field. The second type is given by novelists, with the hope they will draw on their practical knowledge and say something intelligent about the way they write. At this point—in my experience—a disconnect occurs. For though I have a private language for the way I write, as every writer does, as I’m sure all of you do, it’s not particularly intelligent—in fact, it’s rather banal. It feels strange, airing it in public, inadequate, unfit for a classroom. I think even if I had been crafting away at a novel for ten years, and then, on the final day, an email arrived asking me to give a lecture on “some aspect of craft,” I still wouldn’t quite feel qualified to give it. Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas. So naturally the temptation is to gussy it up a bit, to find a garment to dress your private language in, something suitable. You borrow the quantifying language of the critic, maybe, or the conceptual analysis of the academic. And then, with a queasy, fraudulent feeling, you try and pass this off as an accurate representation of what it is to write a novel. The result is convincing and has every rhetorical advantage, except one: it isn’t true.

For there’s an important difference between the way a writer thinks about craft, and the ways critics and academics think about craft. Critics and academics are dedicated to the analysis of craft after the fact. Their accounts are indispensable for anyone who reads fiction and cares for it, but they are not truly concerned with craft as it is practiced. What I mean is: they can’t help a writer as she writes.

That Crafty Thing, Zadie Smith

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