An Evening with Zadie Smith

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In early October, I received an email informing me that this February’s guest author for The Calgary Distinguished Writer’s Program, presented annually, was none other than Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is a name I’ve heard bandied around the writing world for years. Though I intended to read her book, White Teeth, I hadn’t yet gotten to it. Though I’d heard about her immeasurable ability with the written word, I hadn’t learned that much about her.

But I was intrigued, so I reserved a pair of tickets.

On February 6th I finished White Teeth. For me, it’s one of those books whose passages will forever be burned into my psyche. When I think back on it my gut will clench as I remember my reaction to its pieces and its whole. It’s a brilliant book, and that’s an understatement. If you’re curious I wrote about my fascination here.

An Evening with Zadie Smith

On February 12th I finally saw Zadie Smith speak. For me, it’s one of those nights that I wish I recorded because I could listen to it on repeat and never get enough. After trailing into the U of C’s Mac Hall, I did a double take because I thought the event would be packed. I shrugged and my friend and I found seats we liked near the back. I grabbed the program before I sat on it, setting it aside. When the lights went low and the Arts Department’s dean started his introduction to the mayor by declaring the lands we were meeting on, I decided to crack the program to see what I was in for.

At the very bottom of Smith’s biography a lone sentence stood as the capstone to the rest: In addition to her writing, Smith taught at Harvard and Columbia universities before joining New York University as a tenured professor of fiction in 2010. I should mention that she was educated at Cambridge. And that she’s currently 40 years of age.

I won’t lie, I had an image of her –personality included– in my mind as I listened to Nenshi introduce the next member of faculty who would finally introduce Zadie Smith. I’ve been around the literary and academic scenes long enough to know there are a lot of stuffed vests. Smith was such a pleasant surprise. She’s one of those people who just has to open their mouths and you know they’re intelligent. Yet she’s also one of those people who are very secure in their intellect. She’s not condescending or pedantic, she’s completely down to earth.

I’m taking a breath because uber fan-girl-dom is about to spew.

Smith covered so many topics that I find I’m having difficulty arranging my thoughts even though I took notes throughout. I’m going to condense the ideas I want to cover under three headers for all our ease.

Why Write?

Smith read a lecture she called “Why Write?”, a phrase she took from Orwell from which she removed the subject and added a question mark.

By introducing her topic, she delved into the semantics of her own question. Why Write? she believes it both too broad and nominally self-regarding. Quoting Raymond Williams, she brought up the etymology of the word “create”, which at one point meant counterfeit/imitation, a legacy that haunted artists across ages. But is art ever original? Doesn’t it primarily reflect the status quo?

But back to the question: Why Write? Attraction to the fantasy lifestyle? To please? To fill a pre-existing demand? These are the answers for many but they are not ideal answers. Smith believes, and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly, that a good piece of art refuses to see the world as it has already been seen. It should risk displeasure; it should refuse.

Returning to Orwell, there are four reasons one should wish to write aside from earning a living:

  1. Sheer Egoism (the desire to leave a legacy),
  2. Aesthetic Enthusiasm (love of the written word),
  3. Historical Impulse (the desire to see things as they are), and,
  4. Political Purpose (all writing is political and wishes to push an audience in a certain direction).

Smith focused largely on the third point, Historical Impulse, stating that a writer should be able to read between the lines, but also needs to read the lines. Skepticism must be balanced with a grip on reality so that one can counter the false reality that pushes on us from all around.

There is always a reason why one writes, whether it’s a self-focused answer or a widely based one. Regardless of what gets you writing words on the page, use those words to counter contentment with the common order.

Creatively Refuse

Smith moved onto the idea that writing is itself a radical practice defined by seeing things as they really are, not singularly, because it is an art form that deals in specifics and details, it doesn’t have time for generalizations.

By pushing against the status quo, an artist is rejecting generalizations. I think we can all agree that that is a positive? It may seem overly political on the surface but every creative choice is a political statement regardless of one’s genre. Smith brought up Le Guin, who uses fantastic characters and worlds to discuss very real topics like gender. She quotes Nabokov who in his writing had to “create America” by countering the reality of the admen of the 50s era.

By writing, by creating, you are throwing your voice into the noise. Refuse to make the same noise as everyone else.

Writer versus ReaderZadie Smith on stage

Near the end of her lecture Smith brought something up that really hit home for me, she wondered how many people attended this talk as writers because they don’t identify as readers. After all, reading is just as political a practice as writing. Prior to reading White Teeth, I was attending as a writer. Afterwards, a reader absolutely. And I can’t help but find the previous notion ludicrous!

How many readings have I attended as a writer thinking I will get something out of them? Too many. Anyone who has been writing for a long time knows that there is no secret to it, no magic formula to get you from point A of being a newbie to point B of being a NYT bestselling master. To be a writer, to be successful, you simply need to write. That’s it. Attending as a reader is far more rewarding, and as I’ve said before, I am a reader even before I am a writer.

We live in an era where every writer is expected to have a platform well developed prior to publication –heck, prior to writing! Honestly, why? We have developed into a legion of people obsessed with the writer, not the written word. Smith said she learns more about a person reading what they’ve put on the page than by any other means. I have to go one step further and wonder why we aren’t more interested in the product than the producer. But like Smith, I’ve spent most of my years reading writers long dead.

Smith tied her concerns about the cult of the writer to the commodification of creativity. While I agree wholly with her, I don’t share the widespread literary view that one can sell their work and become impure to it. I believe Smith is on the same page because she said more than once that success isn’t bad, it’s how one gets there that matters. The commodification of the product isn’t the problem, it’s the commodification of the process.

This is where we come back to that Why Write? response about answering a pre-existing demand. Are readers looking to hear the same thing they’ve heard before or do they desire a new answer?

It’s gotten a bit academic here, so this is my summary translation: write what you want to write because you have something to say, not because you think you’re saying what others want to hear.

I’ll wrap it up with this refreshing (and probably comment-inducing) idea Smith imparted: writer is not an identity, writing is a practice. Writing is something you do, not something you are.

All the people who could have filled those empty seats missed out on something special.

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