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Zadie Smith, The Universal Writer: Techniques in Three Essays

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Zadie Smith, The Universal Writer: Techniques in Three Essays essay
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In her essays “That Crafty Feeling,” “F. Kafka, Everyman,” and “The Rise of the Essay,” Zadie Smith writes about the universal experience of writing using her own personal experience as the standard writing experience. Smith completely blends together her personal experiences with more generalized statements throughout her essays. Her use of the first person pronoun “I” and the second person pronoun “you” facilitate her transitions between her personal experiences and these generalized statements. She also uses hypophora to move logically and linearly through her argument. Zadie Smith’s use of hypophora and her personal appeal to her audience through use of the second person pronoun “you” in relation to the first person pronoun “I” in “That Crafty Feeling,” “F. Kafka, Everyman,” and “The Rise of the Essay” work to subtly universalize her own experiences with writing as the standard writing experience, thus strengthening her argument that the writing process is not unique to different individuals but rather that there is a standard writing process and that all writers are connected through writing.

Through her use of the pronouns “you” and “I,” Smith explicitly appeals to her readers as she writes, forming a personal link between herself, her writing, and the reader. Throughout Smith’s writing, she inextricably blends together her personal experiences and opinions with quotations from other authors and generalizations about writing. She feels as though everything–all mundane, ordinary aspects of life “flows freely into [her]” writing (That Crafty Feeling). She writes about writing and all that she “ha[s] to say about craft extends no further than [her] own experience” (That Crafty Feeling). Even the arrangement of this sentence, with her experience at the end of the sentence, shows how everything she writes and thinks can be traced back to her own personal experience. She also constantly uses the first person pronoun “I,” adding a personal aspect to her writing even when she isn’t writing about her own experience. In this way, Smith establishes a connection between her work and herself that readers pick up on whether consciously or subconsciously. Smith then also uses the pronoun “you” to establish a sort of familiarity with the reader that relates Smith’s experiences and opinions directly back to the reader, who feels as though Smith is speaking directly to them. Smith “[doesn’t] think [she is] alone in” wanting to write and to experience writing that “traduces reality, and does indeed make [the reader] hunger for a kind of writing that seems to speak truth directly” (The Rise of the Essay). By assuming the reader’s desire to experience the same feeling that she craves, she immediately establishes a connection with readers and links them to herself and her writing, and by extension, her writing, so that writing does indeed become the same shared experience for herself and for her readers.

Smith uses hypophora to guide the reader’s mind and lead them logically through her argument in a linear way, while accepting Smith’s answers to her own rhetorical questions as the truth in order to progress through the argument. Hypothetical questions are another way to actively engage the reader as they prompt the reader in the direction of the author’s train of thought. Answering her own rhetorical questions builds a sort of initial teacher-student relationship between Smith and her reader. She poses a question that sets the topic of the essay and then proceeds in a linear and logical fashion. Smith then shifts to a more conversational tone. She writes to readers informally, asking rhetorical questions such as “why didn’t [the reader] see that before?” that apply to both the reader and to herself (That Crafty Feeling). This kind of rhetorical question strengthens the connection between herself and the reader and assumes that the reader thinks in the same way that she does. She asks generalized questions such as “who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel?” that assumes that all writers feel the same way towards their writing and as that writers write, they share more or less the same experience (That Crafty Feeling). Smith initially acknowledges the possibility of differences in writing and and wonders “whether [all writers] mean the same thing by “essay” , and what an essay is, exactly” (The Rise of the Essay). Smith’s use of a noun clause reflects this uncertainty and lack of clarity. Her use of the pronoun “we” to stand in for all writers establishes a sense of unity among writers, and therefore an inherent universality in writing. Smith believes that over time, essays took on a “familiar, neutral ring” (The Rise of the Essay). In this case, essays serve an example for writing in general and by answering rhetorical questions aimed at the reader, Smith assumes a similarity to readers and to other writers. This assumed similarity turns into an actual connection as Smith forces the reader to progress through her argument as linearly as she herself does, leading readers by the hand to the same conclusion that she reaches through hypophora and thus perpetuating the idea of a standard writing experience.

Smith’s allusions to other writers also supports the idea of a universality in writers, a connection between different writers across time and genres through the simple act of writing. Smith often integrates the arguments of other authors in her own writing, giving the impression that writers are sometimes interchangeable. It must then follow that if writers are interchangeable, so too is writing, with “pages of similar sentiments” (F. Kafka, Everyman). Writing in itself is universal and therefore sounds “repetitive; there is something mechanical in [writing]” (F. Kafka, Everyman). The remedy to this sameness for writers is to use “other people’s words [as] the bridge […] to cross from where [the writer] [was] to wherever [the writer is] going” (That Crafty Feeling). The remedy to the sameness is to make other writers and other writing more personal, to connect it to one’s own personal experiences, to find “the little magic left in that ancient formula” of writing (The Rise of the Essay). This “formula” is the same basic, standard, form of writing that all writers have in common. The “formula” is the basic idea that writing creates and it is the act of putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, and writing. It is this “formula,” this basic standard of writing, that connects all writers and makes writing universal. The “magic” is the personal aspects writers add to their writing, the link between personal experience and the universal experience of writing.

In her essays “F. Kafka, Everyman,” “That Crafty Feeling,” and “The Rise of the Essay,” Zadie Smith argues that all writing is universal. She clearly demonstrates the way to turn a more generalized topic of writing more personal, relating everything back to her own personal experience without fail. In this way, Smith sets the standard for all writing, using her own personal experiences to make universal truths about writing. Her use of hypophora along with the pronouns “I” and “you” only strengthen her claim. Her insistence on personalizing writing in order to make it more unique to the writer demonstrates a somewhat egotistical tendency characteristic of writers, who must be somewhat self-absorbed in order to effectively make their writing personal.

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Zadie Smith, The Universal Writer: Techniques in Three Essays. (2018, April 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from
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