Zadie Smith on Writing, Reviewing, and Cultivating the Banal

Gillian Reagan | February 8th, 2011

Zadie Smith and editor Gemma Sieff at NYU

“Having an audience does bother me,” said Zadie Smith, the British novelist, on stage at New York University’s Kimmel Center, where more than 300 students, professors, editors and readers had gathered on Feb. 2 for her coming out party as Harper’s Magazine’s new book reviewer. Her editor, Gemma Sieff, editor of the Reviews section, had gathered papers to quote from — Smith’s first filed columns, passages from her favorite books and poems. Writers, readers and editors from the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker were in the audience, scarves still wrapped around their necks. A member of the crowd had asked whether it bothered her that the nature of writing has changed over the decades; they argued that what once was a creative endeavor is now a means to please the public. “I remember first coming to America, I was talking to some of my colleagues and they said they read exclusively to hipsters between 25 and 27, I was like, where are my hipsters?” Smith replied. “It seemed like I had readers aged 15 to 140. That bothered me.” The pressure to appeal a huge audience weighed on her, Smith said. Fans asked when she was going to write stories about their heritage — the Jamaican people or the Irish people. But having a wide audience became a defining limitation. “It matters to me that I can’t ever really write something so dense or so complex or so obscure” that her loyal readers, family and friends, couldn’t understand it, she said. “It’s like a weird class-based constraint”– a welcome boundary.

Smith has written three novels, including her much-lauded, bestselling debut White Teeth and On Beauty, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction. She was recently named a tenured professor at N.Y.U.’s creative writing program. Last fall, Smith was named the New Books columnist for Harper’s, the monthly literary magazine, taking the position from Benjamin Moser, who will continue to write for the magazine as a contributing editor. Her first column will be printed in March.

‘The process of being edited by, I have to say, American magazine editors, has transformed the way I write, I think personally. I don’t know if people will feel that when they read the novel. I don’t completely believe in the American principle that shorter sentences are better. But that’s a kind of religion that comes up.’

At the event last Wednesday night, dressed in jeans and a cropped, tan leather jacket, Smith spoke about what it means to be good a reviewer, what terrifies her about writing, and the first books she wrote about for Harper’s. Among them are Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ Harlem Is Nowhere, a part-biography, part personal memoir of the neighborhood, and While the Women Are Sleeping, a collection of ten stories by Spanish novelist Javiar Marias, spanning his thirty years as a writer who approaches psyche’s labyrintine, dark, strange corners.

“I don’t have enough energy to write about things I hate,” Smith said. “But books that you have a kind of troubling relationship or a complex relationship with, I find interesting. And Marias is like seeing a writer [that] has loads of — for my own sensibilities, feel like — failures, but, when put out in this context, are delivered, are useful, are there for something.”

“What I’ve loved so far about writing the column is having to make up judgments about the writer’s sensibility, and if I have sympathy for it, even when it runs against your own,” she said.

“Personally, when I’m reading a review or I’m reading non-fiction, I like to see somebody thinking, you know? My favorite kind of criticism is people thinking aloud, so that’s what I’m trying to aim for.”

While writing the columns, her husband, writer Nick Laird, says she “obsessively recreates the atmosphere of college,” complete with last-minute deadlines and few notes to work from, Smith said. As she recently explored in the New York Review of Books, in a review of The Social Network, she is addicted to the Internet, and has to download programs to restrict her Internet use and put her phone in another room to avoid checking it. “It’s pathetic — like a drug addict,” she said. She said her point with the column was not to say the “Internet is bad,” but commiserate with other digital junkies. “It was me, asking, that’s me, is that you too?” she said. “Am I alone? Am I making this up? Is nobody feeling this way? Walking down the street are you checking [your phone] and wondering, ‘Do I have a new one? Do I have a new one? Do I have a new one?’” Zadie, you aren’t the only one.

Smith said she only has a few hours a day to work on her new novel, which is “a very short novel by necessity because that’s what I think having a child does to you. Your time is diffused.” (She gave birth to her daughter, Katherine, in 2009).

“But that’s a good thing for me,” she added. “The process of being edited by, I have to say, American magazine editors, has transformed the way I write, I think personally. I don’t know if people will feel that when they read the novel. I don’t completely believe in the American principle that shorter sentences are better. But that’s a kind of religion that comes up.”

Smith said she experienced the discipline of compression when writing for the New Yorker — she had to cut her own pieces down by a thousand, sometimes 2,000 words. “Learning control and even editing more severely has helped,” she said. “And, also, getting rid of that principle of perfection. I guess knowing that the first graph is never perfect, and with the editing, you need to get it down to a very tight thing, this perfect novel you’re dreaming of will be completely elusive. Now I read so many contemporary novels, it’s easy when you’re reading dead men to assume perfection, and also you give perfection in retrospect.”

“When they’re living, you see all their failures, you see all their weaknesses,” she said. “And that makes me feel good I guess. It’s like a supportive failure, that we all have in common together.”

She recited lines from W.H. Auden’s “The Novelist:” The writer “Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn / How to be plain and awkward, how to be / One after whom none think it worth to turn,” Auden wrote. This is what it means to be a good writer, she tells her students: Give up attempts to prove their brilliance in every line and let their characters be silly, evil, stupid.

“Fiction needs intellect, but it can’t survive on intellect alone,” she said. “It has to arrive at the other embarrassing things, things that seem too banal to talk about in like the appreciation of small details of things that other people leave at home because they’re not worth discussing…Questions that intelligent people would find too dumb to ask like, ‘Am I really alive?’ or ‘What does it mean to be good?’”

“The novelist has to cultivate the filthy, stupidity, awkwardness,” she went on, “that talks about things that seem beneath contempt, like love, the tediousness of love. Novelists are engaged in the business of everyday life. That kind of slowing down to appreciate the simple and the stupid, I think, can be very hard.” Yes, but hard work worth doing, according to Smith. A slow attention: a trait of modern brilliance.