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On February 2, 2011, Harper’s Magazine and New York University’s Creative Writing Program held a discussion between Harper’s New Books columnist Zadie Smith and Reviews editor Gemma Sieff. The following is a transcript of their conversation, which covered such topics as the influence of motherhood on female novelists throughout history, the peculiar pitfalls faced by authors who write both fiction and criticism, and the place of Eminem in the hip-hop canon. Smith’s first New Books column for Harper’s appears in the March 2011 issue, now available on newsstands and to subscribers on harpers.org.
Gemma Sieff: I am so honored to be here with Zadie Smith, who is one of my absolute favorite writers, and I still can hardly believe that she’s going to be writing for Harper’s every month, and I feel extremely privileged to work with her. And I’m going to start with a quotation. And the quotation is by Thomas De Quincey. It’s from an essay that he wrote in 1823 about Macbeth. “From my boyish days I had always felt a great perplexity on one point in Macbeth. It was this: the knocking at the gate.” And now I’m going to read something that Zadie wrote in Changing My Mind, in the very beginning of the essay she writes on Kafka. And she writes, “How to describe Kafka, the man? Like this, perhaps: ‘It is as if he had spent his entire life wondering what he looked like, without ever discovering there are such things as mirrors.’ ‘A naked man among a multitude who are dressed.’ ‘A mind living in sin with the soul of Abraham.’ ‘Franz was a saint.’” And there is a footnote, and it says, “Respectively, Walter Benjamin, Milena Jesenská, Erich Heller, and Felice Bauer.” And I wanted to start with that, because the reason I think Zadie is such a brilliant writer, and such a brilliant critic, is that she is extremely aware of the uncertainties in books, and she is not afraid to say that. That’s not really a question.
Zadie Smith: I guess what I feel about that is that that’s a kind of necessity of my own stupidity. You know when I’m trying to write a piece, I’m not able, not capable of deciding beforehand, my angle or some overarching theory. And just personally, when I’m reading reviews or when I’m reading nonfiction, I’m wanting to see somebody thinking, you know? My favorite kind of criticism is of people thinking aloud. And so that’s what I’m trying to aim for. And also probably out of a kind of spirit of autodidacticism, which kind of follows me around, because my own education was kind of basic, and then suddenly very involved. It went from a kind of general state school, two thousand kids. A kind of messy, random education, and then, through what used to be a kind of British meritocracy, no money and you’re passed into a very fine university. But in between those two things, for me there’s like an enormous gap. And that gap is filled with fear of not knowing—of constantly not knowing. So I feel when I’m writing, I’m still in that place. I don’t think you ever completely get out of that place when you feel that you haven’t known.
GS: And do you think that would apply as well not just to criticism, but to, I don’t know, fiction and all great writing?
ZS: Fiction is a completely different kind of terror. Like the thing I’m attracted to when I’m writing nonfiction is that you don’t know, but you can know, right? There’s a possibility of knowing. You can control the area in which you write. And to me it feels like a small formal garden and I can make it as nice as possible. Whereas novels are absolutely chaotic and messy and embarrassing. Like I always note when I’m teaching students or younger people, they’re always very keen to tell me how much they prefer my nonfiction to my fiction. It’s a very popular comment in New York. And I don’t disagree with it, but what strikes me about it is that it reveals how difficult novels are, how embarrassing they are. People are always dreaming, when they are reading novels, of some kind of perfection in them, some kind of purity. So am I. And so I think most novelists are. But novels don’t play that way. I mean historically they don’t play that way. Defoe didn’t write in that way. Richardson didn’t write in that way. They are kind of personalized, messy objects. So it doesn’t surprise me that people are attracted to criticism, because it feels like this pure place. But I guess I’m kind of constitutionally tempted to mess up criticism too. To make it slightly—
GS: Because you are a novelist.
ZS: Yeah, I have a kind of—I just feel suspicious of the idea of pure writing, of something that never embarrasses you, which is completely clean. It’s just, in my experience, writing which is completely clean is writing that has had shorn from it almost everything that’s of interest.
GS: So could you tell us about one novel or two novels that feel perfect in an imperfect way, or imperfect in a perfect way? Like, your favorites.
ZS: I mean there are novels like the novel I mention a lot: Pnin by Nabokov, which is overdone, slightly overheated, too short, lopsided, written on the hoof—it was written for the New Yorker at some speed, and then slightly tidied up afterwards. But those imperfections in it, and that kind of imbalance, is what I enjoy, I suppose. But when I’m writing criticism, I’m also subject to that idea that I can get rid of all that messiness and write something within a page, two pages, three pages, that doesn’t make me want to be sick, which I think is the aim of all writers. You want to feel as un-nauseous as possible. Misuse of the word there, thank you.
GS: So now I’m going to embarrass Zadie by reading a fantastic paragraph of the first column she’s written for Harper’s, for New Books. It’s about Javier Marías, and I think it does exactly that: It does not make you want to throw up at all.
GS: This is about While the Women Are Sleeping:
Marías’s literalism is especially striking. Characters tell their tall tales awkwardly, stating the obvious, describing the same detail multiple times. The implicit becomes explicit. A butler who practices black magic on the boss’s wife describes her fetish for precision a little too precisely: “She likes me to wear my silk gloves all the time, in the belief that a butler should be constantly running his finger over every surface, over the furniture and along the banisters, to check for dust, because if there is any dust, the gloves will pick it up immediately.” Why not put a period after that first “dust”? Elsewhere—in a story about a man obsessively filming the perfect wife he means to kill—this technique is obliquely revealed, mere “looking” contrasted with “the capacity to see, which is what we almost never do because it is so at odds with the purely temporal. For it is then that one sees everything, the figures and the background, the light, the composition and the shadows, the three-dimensional and the flat, the pigment and the line, as well as each brushstroke.” The fantastic is made credible by its banal clarity, its lack of shade.
Which is really, really smart.
ZS: Marías is a great example of what I mean by . . . there’s a real awkwardness sometimes to his prose, which if you are only listening for cadence, if you only care about the sound of a sentence—there are moments in that book where I do care about the sound of a sentence, and I kind of wanted to push him away. But the kind of reviewing that I like or aspire to takes another moment. You know, it’s easy to feel contempt for writing or to feel—or to get one over on it. I guess I’m trying to read a book along its own grain, and not always against its grain. There are certain books, the sensibility is so opposite from your own, there is no hope, you can’t read with it. And in those cases, personally I’d rather not review it, because I don’t have enough energy to write about things I hate. I think that’s a particular kind of motivation I don’t have. But books you have a kind of troubling relationship, or a complex relationship with, that I find interesting. And Marías is like seeing a writer who has moments of what to my own sensibilities feel like failures, and then you realize that within his context are deliberate, are useful, are there for something. They might not be the same things you would use in your writing or that you understand. What I’ve loved so far about writing the column is having to make that jump into another writer’s sensibility, to try and have sympathy with it, even when it runs against your own.
GS: Even when it’s Thomas Bernhard.
ZS: Even when it’s Thomas Bernhard. I’m a big Bernhard fan, but reviewing the book My Prizes, I had a little bit of a hard time. To me there’s a writer who’s kind of embroiled in a self-fetishization. To me that book is too much of the same tone. But then again, my instinct is to defend the novels that I love, and to try to see the—sometimes, I said in Changing My Mind, sometimes a writer’s failures are the most distinct part of them, and not just to be thrown away or discarded. It’s kind of what interests me. That might be a vocational defense, because I need to be interested in my own failures. But that engages me, I think.
GS: That’s very smart.
ZS: Everything I say is very smart today. Lucky me.
GS: I wrote down a few questions I had, and some you’ve brought up already a little bit. But something you said to me that I found very interesting was about—the two questions are sort of related. One is terminology and title: whether you want to be called—when you are writing in a critical vein, do you want to be called a critic, do you want to be called a reviewer, do you want to be called an essayist? And you said you did not like the word “critic,” which is interesting, and I think relates to things you just said. And another thing you said was when critics or reviewers assume a certain tone, does it feel of their age, and you mentioned Geoff Dyer as somebody who sounds of his age, contemporary. And then you said you thought you sounded like someone from the fifties; whereas I think you sound incredibly contemporary.
ZS: I guess the difference to me between a critic and a reviewer is that I just prefer “reviewer” because the people I admire, people like Hazlitt, people like Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, were doing a much more everyday job than the ideas we connect with “critic.” The idea is that you have a book that is put before you. You engage with that book and you write about it. And I think once you self-identify as a critic too seriously, all kinds personal dangers of the ego, if I might put it that way, come into play. I think I’ve been guilty of them myself. You start to feel you need an overarching theory, which to me, when you’re being confronted with books, each of which is so different, which have completely different sensibilities—to approach them with an argument, with a decision, about what kind of prose you’re looking for, what kind of prose you believe in, is already disastrous. And also book reviewing in the everyday practice, the way Virginia Woolf did it, keeps you honest, and keeps you lively.
ZS: The great thing about Woolf is that she reviewed books that most of you would consider very bad, like, you know, Victorian penny dreadfuls, awful books by completely obscure women. But Woolf was looking for the thing that interested her. Sometimes it was the cooking habits of people in the East End, or what people wear on Oxford Street: tiny details that for her were worth the time reading this book. And the number of books she read every day, and the amount of effort she put into it, without ever coming up with anything as overarching as a theory about writing. Woolf never really approaches that. She’s much more interested in the individual book, the individual writer. So that I’m attracted to that just because I think I, like a lot of people interested in books, have vainglorious tendencies in the other direction. So book reviewing kind of keeps you to the book in question. And then the tone thing, I guess we were talking about Geoff Dyer, whom I really admire in this department, and he has a book called Working the Room—it has a different title in America, it’s coming out next month—which is a collection of his reviews over the past decade. And it just always strikes me with Geoff that when he writes, his tone, while being absolutely intelligent and absolutely acute, is completely of its time. And I don’t know if you—I’m talking to five hundred people: “if you feel this way”—often for me when I’m reading criticism, people, they have Wilson in mind, they have Trilling in mind, and the tone takes on this kind of patrician sound or, even worse, goes back to a kind of nineteenth-century tone, as if it’s the only way we can write about books. And Geoff is so revealingly straight, without lacking any kind of intellectual complexity. He says exactly what he means, as directly as possible. And the results to me are stunning, and also a kind of—the thing that I envy in Geoff, and aspire to hopefully, as I get a little older, is just the variety of his interests.
You know, that book covers photography, philosophy, family memoir, film books, always slightly off the beaten track. I think I was saying to Gemma earlier, Geoff and I are from similar backgrounds, working-class backgrounds, both on these kinds of scholarships, to Oxford in his case, Cambridge in my case. It’s my experience that people in that situation, they are usually so keen just to kind of break even with everyone else, right? So I spent a lot of time reading the classics, trying to know what everybody else knew. And what I like about Geoff’s writing is that he did do that, a lot of that, but he wasn’t constrained by that thought, that the first thing I have to do is read what everybody else has read; he was always willing to go to here and there, to strange places, strange corners. And to me that is kind of a great responsibility of a critic, that Geoff has a great working brain, and then the idea is, How many weird things can I put through it? How many things can I process with this functioning instrument? And that was one of the reasons I took the column, because when I finished Changing My Mind, there’s the record of my youth, you know? And it was a very, I don’t know how to say it, it was a very like a best-student-in-class type of youth, you know, just trying to cover all the bases that I thought somebody should cover.
GS: It doesn’t read that way.
ZS: Well that is sweet, but that is how it felt to me. And then you think, you know, I’ve read Middlemarch four times, I want to move on with my life—to stranger waters, you know, after you’ve proved to yourself that you can sit in class with other people and not be a fool. But you may waste a lot of time trying to be like everybody else.
GS: And I always feel that—Dyer’s interesting, because people think he’s tricksy, but I don’t think he’s tricksy at all. I think he’s extremely straightforward. He’s just weird.
ZS: He’s genuinely weird. I always say that to him when I see him: it’s a fantastic, undisguised weirdness. And that another thing I suppose I’m looking for in the books that are sent to Harper’s: people who are able to write genuinely out of their own sensibility, not out of nostalgia, not trying to sound like somebody else, not fearful—people who write frankly, and Geoff’s certainly one of those.
GS: So can I ask you about Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts? Because that’s a book that you would think would be—so Sharifa writes about Harlem in a book called Harlem Is Nowhere; that’s the book that Zadie leads with in her first column—and it’s very much, you might think, infected by or with nostalgia, but in fact you kind of disabuse us of that, or at least she engages with it as a problem.
ZS: Sharifa’s book was actually a really good lesson, because I haven’t written those kinds of book reviews for a long time, and the first time I wrote it—Sharifa’s sensibility and mine are quite opposite. I like things to be precise, I suppose, and she has a far more dreamy and loose way of writing, and my first response with it was a kind of annoyance. And I wrote a review which was, it was pointed out to me by a friend, slightly contemptuous. And then the same friend said, “You know what you’re missing? You need to come to Harlem and see what she means.” And we went on a walk on a Sunday to try and explain to me that this dreamy atmosphere she was trying to conjure up is something real. And my first reaction to it was in actual fact wrong. And after coming back, I read the book again. I went through it again, and again it’s that thing about respecting the gap between your own tastes and somebody else’s. The demand of quality is always the same: you don’t accept bad writing, because bad writing is bad writing wherever you find it. But sometimes there are gaps that are extraliterary that you need to be attentive to. And apart from anything else—I mean, I’m keen to write about first-time writers in the column because I was a first-time writer once, and there maybe a writer-reviewer can have something, a little more sympathy, or a little more understanding, for how that first act works out. You know it’s a messy thing writing your first novel. But what you are looking for is promise and interest and some integrity. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Perfect books are rare and sometimes lethal to their authors—first novels, anyway.
GS: And any part of it that is young, or that’s even sort of a line that you quote that might sound callow is actually just her figuring it out.
ZS: Yes. And that was the thing about that book I came to really like. You were seeing a figuring-out process happening. And that was another moment of kind of keeping Woolf in my mind, and remembering that the kinds of expressions of individual people who had experiences different than your own—even if the cadence isn’t quite as you might like it—is something of value.
GS: What did you think—because when you talk about Sharifa, there is this whole question of authenticity, and who does Harlem belong to, and I wondered, as an English person, a black English person, how you felt about Harlem.
ZS: To me, it’s completely an experience of otherness. I know black London, I know my family experience, but Harlem is completely itself. The book convinced me of that. The strongest experience I’ve had there is, I think, matched by Sharifa’s strong experience, and that was going to the Schomburg and seeing this extraordinary center of black culture, which—I’ve never seen anything like it in England, maybe there is something like it that exists—but to me that was an extraordinarily moving, the researchers and the librarians, people who kept playbills, in the case of a young spoken-word poet who died of AIDS in the early 90s. Very small figure, but the librarian had gone into the man’s house, rescued his papers from his grandmother, who had left them wilting in an attic. That kind of dedication to literature, even of the most fleeting kind—I mean, there were a few videos and a few tapes . . . .
GS: Okay, now I have to read a tiny little bit. I’m sorry.
ZS: That’s fine.
GS: About this exact library. The book is so, well, not centered around, but she relies on it in a really touching, wonderful, honest way. I haven’t read the book, but I’m going on what Zadie says.
ZS: The whole point of a book column is that you don’t need to read the books. I do it for you. It’s awesome.
The author is, by her own account, afflicted by “single-girl-doing-research fantasies,” and the inclusion of that word “single” is strange, being so unnecessary. It suggests a narrator in pursuit of a love object. This object turns out not to be Harlem itself as much as the library within it: the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Harlem maybe nowhere, but the Schomburg is definitely on the corner of 136th and Lenox, and within it Rhodes-Pitts pursues Black Madonnas, Haiti, Liberia, Black Communism, the African Nationalist Pioneers, and much more besides. Upon finding the same individual mentioned in two entirely unrelated portions of her research, she reflects upon the classic researcher’s dilemma: “One book held the key to another, though it solved a riddle I had not been trying to answer, and provided information I did not know how to use. What other mysteries might be unraveled the more often I came in and the longer I stayed?” Regularly she emerges from this beachcombing to display a substantial haul: the beautiful pebbles need no polish to shine. Take James VanDerZee, famous for his portraits of Harlem dandies, here rediscovered as a photographer of the bereaved and the deceased, in the same frame: a mourning couple, formally posed, with their dead child in their arms. Or the impresario Raven Chanticleer (1928–2002), inventor and creator of the African American Wax and History Museum (first statue: himself), and son of ‘a Haitian-born school principal and a Barbados-born concert pianist’—at least it seemed that way until, in death, he was revealed to have invented his parentage too (mother, sharecropper; father, sharecropper).
ZS: I have to stop you, and can’t read any more of this, hear any more of this.
GS: Okay, that’s enough, then.
ZS: The book is sensationally filled with details like that—little details of Harlem lives. What struck me about it, if you’ve read A Room of One’s Own, it has that sense—and also Geoff Dyer’s book about D. H. Lawrence—of a book that in the attempt to write it kind of unravels, and the book ends up being a written account of writing the book. I don’t know if Sharifa meant it that way, but it reads that way. I ended up finding it a beautiful experience. It’s a classic example—you know, you can choose to approach a book with an open mind. I approached it the first time with a closed one. And then you miss all kind of gems in it.
GS: Now I have a procedural question. When you are reading books, like any book that you get sent from us or anyone else, how do you read it? Do you take notes in the margins? Do you put stickies in there?
ZS: You know what I found really liberating? When I was younger, I was completely tortured by the banality of things you write in the columns of books as you read them. You know, you find it in the library, somebody has written “metaphor” or such. I agonized about what I was going to write in the corners of books, in case anybody ever read them. And now I am so freed. I just write “metaphor” or whatever it is, and those are like—they become reminders for you. Anything too thorough, any kind of extensive note taking, destroys the process for me. It’s the same with novels. If I’m planning something out to the nth degree, the novel writing itself becomes useful or pointless. It needs to be a kind of pointillist thing in note form, and then the thinking goes on on the page. And it’s not—I used to think all writers think they are unusual in this, but looking through archives in the New York Library, actually looking at Woolf’s archives (keeps on coming up tonight, don’t know why). But her plan for Mrs. Dalloway is like four points. It literally—it might not surprise you, having read Mrs. Dalloway—but it was incredibly delicate planning. Because the whole enjoyment is in the writing of the book. And to plan the thing out extensively to me feels disastrous; I just don’t have the energy to write the book if I know everything that’s in it. And the articles are the same. I need to make the lightest of notes, and then really get down to the work in the writing. But that procedure involves an enormous amount of despair, because then, after you’ve read four or five books, and don’t seem to have any notes, the column is due on Tuesday. But my husband said, and I think it’s probably true, that I obsessively recreate the atmosphere of college And that was the atmosphere, you know? It’s due on Tuesday, you’ve got no notes. Something of that anxiety is necessary I think for me to get—
GS: Do you think that I’m a good taskmistress?
ZS: You’re not bad. I was saying to Lorin Stein—I don’t know if he’s here, the editor of the Paris Review—trying to get work out of writers, that there’s a certain policy you have to pursue, it’s quite delicate. Too many emails is a disaster. Like five or six emails in a week and a half, the writer starts thinking of lies, stuff about their grandmother. I’ve done it many times; there’s a certain critical mass. Then again, one email sent at the right time, which is gentle, doesn’t push too hard, can be correct. It’s an art, I think. I’ve done anthologies with writers and learned, to my cost, just how—a certain amount of emails, and you get an email back, “My grandmother died.” You’ve been great so far.
GS: So can we ask you about the novel you’re writing?
ZS: Yeah, I mean it’s a very short novel by necessity, because that’s what childbirth does to you. Your time is reduced, but that’s a good thing for me. I was saying backstage to you that part of the process of being edited by American magazine editors and journal editors has transformed the way I write. I think, personally—I don’t know if readers will feel that when they read the novel—but I don’t completely believe in the American principle that shorter sentences are better. You know, there’s a sort of religion around that concept. But it’s certainly true that reduction has helped me, and control, and going over and over a piece. And particularly when I started with the New Yorker, having to cut things down, sometimes by one thousand, two thousand words, that’s a real lesson, you know. And that’s one thing I think my English education was brilliant at showing you: how to structure an essay, because that’s all they do all day long. But it wasn’t very good about learning when to stop. I mean, I know if you’ve read my new review piece, you probably think I still need to learn when to stop, but it could be a lot worse, you know, it could be several thousand words longer. Just learning control, and editing even more severely, has helped. And also getting rid of that principle of perfection. The two things have gone together for me. I guess knowing that the first draft is never perfect, and that editing, even if you edit 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 easier when you are reading dead men to assume perfection. And also, you give them perfection in retrospect. There are a lot of contemporary novelists who will be given perfection long after they’re dead. When they’re living, you see all their failures, you see all their weaknesses—and that makes me feel better, I guess. Is that schadenfreude? I don’t know. It’s just like the supportive failure of a creative commons: we all fail together, and that makes me feel better. There is this poem I’m always giving my students. I’m going to try and remember it, but I am going to fail. Do you know “The Novelist” by Auden? It goes—the line in it. It begins—in case anyone knows it, please shout out.
ZS: Meaning the novelist—
How to be simple and awkward, learn how to be
One who know one thinks is worth to turn
ZS: The second verse, anyone?
ZS: Sorry, I lost it.
GS: I’m not the person to help you. I could not remember “To be or not to be” at one point.
Just… the Filthy filthy
And in his own weak person
Dully suffer all the wrongs of Man
Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunderstorm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone.
They can dash forward like hussars: but he
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.
For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
It’s really beautiful, the idea that the poet is always able to be this hero, this perfect symbol. The novelist has to cultivate stupidity, simplicity, awkwardness, to be something that talks about things that seem beneath contempt, like love—such a tedious, lame subject. “Another book about love?” But that’s what novelists are engaged in. The business of everyday life, of things that seem beneath contempt. And that kind of slowing down to appreciate the simple and stupid I think can be very hard. We talked a little bit about what I learned from teaching. What I found over and over—and I’m sure other writers who have taught have found the same thing—is that your most brilliant student, the one who writes the most fantastic critical essays, and you think this person is a genius, and then you see their fiction, and it’s not, and it’s a completely different thing, and it’s not that the kid isn’t brilliant. The kid utterly brilliant.
GS: Is he just thinking too hard?
ZS: No, fiction needs intellect, it certainly does, but it can’t survive on intellect alone, it just can’t. It requires all these other embarrassing things, things that seem too banal to talk about, like empathy, like sympathy, like the appreciation of small details that other people leap over because they are not even worth discussing. A novel brings them back and says, “How about this? And how about this? And what about this? It’s much slower.
GS: That is why I love Mrs. Bridge. I think that is my favorite book for that reason.
ZS: A slow attention. And that is really hard. I think sometimes your most brilliant students, their feeling is, “Hey, I’m brilliant, what the problem? I’m clearly a genius.” And I want to say, You are totally a genius, but genius is a thing the novel can take only in very awkward forms. Like there have been geniuses. George Eliot was a genius, David Foster Wallace was a genius. But in both cases, making novels out of that genius was an enormous struggle. And for someone like David, it was also a kind of self-corrective process, realizing that genius alone was not going to swing this. But then I always feel like, particularly when I was younger, there are people who are very, very brilliant, and who enter the novel, and seem to have disgust for the form. I always thought, You know you don’t have to write novels; there are plenty of more intelligent occupations that you could indulge in. But the novelist has to be willing to look ridiculous, that’s Auden’s point, I think. Sorry—so badly quoted by me. But just, willing not to be the heroic poet. Poets do always get to be heroic. But novelists look fools most of the time, I’m afraid. It’s part of the job.
GS: Am I allowed to quote one more thing?
GS: This really brilliant essay at the beginning of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, an essay by Randall Jarrell. And it’s just exactly what you say. He’s talking about—Jarrell is talking about—Stead’s character Sam. The banality of life, these small things. “We can bear to read about Sam, a finally exasperating man, only because he is absolutely funny and absolutely true. He is so entirely real that it surprises the reader when an occasional speech of his—for instance, some of his Brave New World talk about the future—is not convincing. Perhaps different parts of his speech have different proportions of imagination and fancy and memory. It doesn’t seem that the same process (in Christina Stead, that is) has produced everything.” And then there’s this amazing thing he points out, which I marked stupidly, like . . .
One morning there are no bananas. “Sam flushed with anger. ‘Why aren’t there any bananas? I don’t ask for much. I work to make the Home Beautiful for one and all, and I don’t even get bananas. Everyone knows I like bananas. If your mother won’t get them, why don’t some of you? Why doesn’t anyone think of poor little Dad? He continued, looking in a most pathetic way round the table, at the abashed children, “It isn’t much. I give you kids a house and a wonderful playground of nature and fish and marlin and everything, and I can’t even get a little banana.’”
ZS: It’s a very good example. One of things about that kind of dialogue, it always strikes me with my students—to write dialogue like that, you have to give up for a moment the idea that every line you write is about your own intelligence. You have to give up. You have to show people speaking, and they’re not always going to speak like you. And the novels that I really abhor are where every single line of dialogue is the novelist’s voice, where not even the woman selling fruit on the corner is allowed to sound like a woman selling fruit on the corner. It’s so desperate, that kind of picture of fiction. And so monomaniacal. Letting go and allowing people to be stupid, slow, this, that, or the other, is one of the things I like. But the problem with that is maybe to suggest that all fiction should be of the Christina Stead school: about families, and realistic places. It’s not that I mean. For instance, when you are studying philosophy, you learn very quickly, the essential questions of philosophy are the ones that sophisticated people would find too dull to ask. Like “Am I really alive?” or “What is it to be good?” Like these are basic questions. But the sophisticated person thinks, Who asks that, what does it mean to be good? It’s just, be kind to your family. How do you mean “Are you really alive?” Just kick that stone. Just the simple—those are the supposedly simple answers to those questions. And novels don’t do work as thoroughly as philosophy, but some of the same principle is there. That you have to slow down for the questions that seem almost not worth asking. But then there are people like—there’s a book I’m about to review for Harper’s called Suicide by a guy called Edouard Levé, a Frenchman, who extraordinarily wrote this book and then killed himself four days later. It’s a novel, an astonishing novel I think. But one of his other novels, someone was telling me yesterday, is designed like a newspaper. So he was able rethink the novel, so each section is called Culture, Obituaries. I love this idea. I haven’t even read the book, and I am so dying to read it. Because someone is able to—that’s the second way of the novel, to rethink the novel itself. The most obvious answer to “What’s a novel about?” is “I don’t know, some people, they’re married, they fall in love.” But other people are able to stop there and think, Can the novel be something else, can it be a different kind of form, can it be read in a different kind of way?
GS: Well, that is what you said about Remainder, and I agree with you.
ZS: I love books that are able to rethink this incredibly well-trod form. To me that is extraordinary. And people again, when I was writing about Brief Interviews, what struck me about that collection of short stories, is that every single story is an effort to reimagine what a short story should be. You might not find all of them successful, you might be repelled by some of them, but someone sat down and has written twenty-odd short stories, each one of which tries to reimagine the form. And if you’re sitting in a writing workshop, you understand how hard that is. Most people, the best we can do, is just write a story which doesn’t make us want to throw up. We are not out there to reinvent the entire form. But some writers are. But that, when it comes along, is an incredible privilege, and you are hoping always from the book pile that you’ll find one of those books.
GS: That’s, it’s also generous, and that’s what you say about David Foster Wallace, is that his gifts were generous.
ZS: They were, but you also have to be ready for writers as adventurous as David who aren’t as generous, who are far more closed, and Levé is one of them. You know you have to make a leap to him. Quite common with French writers, I must say. You have to make a leap to them. But that’s not—that doesn’t discount them, you know? I don’t know about in America, but in English an instinct toward that kind of French fiction is to kind of turn its head in disgust, because we don’t feel we should have to make leaps to novelists. They should come to us on their knees. It’s a good education, that the novel doesn’t have to always be agreeable, doesn’t have to come smiling at you saying, Wouldn’t you like to sit in a chair by the fire and listen to this story? Some novels don’t do that. [Pause] Have I talked you out of questions?
GS: No, you haven’t. I know you didn’t want me to bring this up about French people, French writers, but I am going to now. Now that you’ve brought it upon myself.
ZS: I’ve brought it upon myself.
GS: John Jeremiah Sullivan, who used to be an editor at Harper’s and is a wonderful writer, he interviewed Guy Davenport, who used to write the New Books column. He was a really phenomenal critic—phenomenal book reviewer. So the question is, Is it the application of the theory that you take issue with, and Guy Davenport replies,
No, I think what upsets me is that I know good and well that these academics are sheep following the sheep in front of them, and I doubt if the people who throw around the names Bakhtin and Foucault have really read more than four or five pages of either or understand what’s going on. The French adore ideas. They’ve been playing with them since Thomas Aquinas. They sit in their cafés, and the more outrageous, the more clever you can be (like Derrida or whoever else at the moment), the more you are loved. But they don’t really take these things seriously. The young French student at the Sorbonne, excited by Lacan and Bakhtin and whatnot, his whole idea is to outdo these people, you know, in two or three years to publish his own book, explaining that everything we think is right-side up is actually upside down. Americans don’t possess this sense of play.
I think that’s sort of an interesting quote, given what you’ve just said. Or maybe it’s wrong.
ZS: I feel like each literary culture has its own sins. The American culture has sometimes the sin of machoness in novel writing, the idea of triumphing over the novel and banging it into the ground until its dead. And the French—I’ve just been reading a pile of French novels, contemporary ones—and quite often somewhere in the middle a character will explain to you that life isn’t like these novels where one thing happens after another and everything makes sense. And the French are very keen to continually remind you of the fact that life isn’t like a realist novel. Some might say in England we’re also aware of this fact. It’s not a complete—we’re not all deluded thinking we are living in Austen novels. I just find each culture has its own bad habits, and maybe the contemporary French novel has a bad habit of assuming too much, and having too much contempt for the idea that the English tradition is somehow childlike or childish or doesn’t understand that life is unorganized and confused and random. So there’s that, but then again, at its great points, like reading Suicide: this absolute commitment to a single voice, to an existential experience, that is unflinching, that is unromantic, that is not shaped in the way that perhaps in England we’re more used to having our novels shaped—that is relentless—is fascinating to me. But that’s the other thing, I don’t, I hope, people shouldn’t elevate one tradition over another. The principle is quality, wherever you find it, writing that’s good writing. But for me the challenge of the column is just to read what I wouldn’t normally read.
GS: I have only one more question. My question is, what critics do you admire? Or is that hard?
ZS: No, there’s a lot. Dyer I really do admire a great deal. We talked about Berger before. I really admire John Berger. You know, Hazlitt I really admire. Extremely dead, but I do admire him just for the variety and liveliness. Trilling I also like. Lots of contemporary critics as well, but you know, of course now I’m in the game, so my books are criticized by critics. So you really admire them until they destroy you. It’s a bit depressing. But I do think it’s actually a lively time for criticism, because it has to reestablish its purpose, and obviously on the Internet there are a lot of people who feel the main point of commentary is to give that final thumbs up or thumbs down, whether it—as a kind of immediate judgment. So anyone can do that. So it’s up to critics to show—or book reviewers—to show part of the act is not just thumbs up thumbs down, it’s writing something that is beautiful and equal to the thing that is put in front of you.
GS: That is it.
ZS: That’s the whole purpose. You should be ashamed to present in front of a book you admire something that’s not worthy of it. The book itself is a challenge. And the commentary that you’re trying to write towards, it should be—it’s not just a case of admiring the book, but of wanting to be equal to it. But in that sense, the quote you read, I’m always a bit wary of the kind of easy contempt for what people consider secondary literature, people like Bahktin or Derrida or Foucault, because those writers at their best are the equal of any fiction writer. The writing that they did at their best is beautiful. Roland Barthes was a beautiful writer, both in fiction and in nonfiction. And to me, when I’m sitting down writing, you’re trying to make the best sentence you can make. I’m trying to do that when I’m writing fiction, I’m trying to do that when I’m writing nonfiction. It’s certainly easier when I’m writing nonfiction. But the aim is the same, the attempt is the same. [Pause] I think we are going to take questions.
GS: “I think you’ve called Tom McCarthy’s first novel the future of fiction writing. Are there other books you think are trendsetters, or turning the corner and showing a new way of writing novels?”
ZS: I didn’t call it the future, I called it a future, there is a key difference in that sentence.
GS: This person did say, “I think.”
ZS: Yeah, a future. No, I think the books that show you a new way to go are really rare. There’s always a feeling when you’re outside of any of these systems, I always felt it, that there must be an unbelievable amount of good books that people are refusing to publish and not publishing; and then I was a reader for a little while for a publisher, before I was published myself, and it became very clear to me that that was not true. And now that I’m a reviewer, I think people underestimate how much people want to read good books. People who are in the book business would love to read a good book, love to review a good book. So whenever the pile comes, I’m hoping that there’s a masterpiece. Of course you’re hoping for that. Unless you’re the most spiteful type of reviewer who literally wants to keep the people down. You’re dreaming that a great book is going to come along. But it’s really rare, because I can’t emphasize this enough: novels are really hard to write. I find a lot of great nonfiction. Already, with the column, I’ve found myself writing about nonfiction, because there you have an arena that you can really—enough work, enough intellect, enough control, will do the job. But it won’t do the job in the novel. So Tom’s book just struck me because, it’s again the thing with Geoff, a sound that’s completely contemporary without, it seemed to me, a great deal of forcing or effort. It seemed to be a natural contemporary voice. And I’m sure there will be others. There are people, I mean, ten years ago when I first read George Saunders, I felt the same way. There a people who kind of knock you down. But I think it’s perfectly natural and normal for them to come round about once every ten years. I think that’s always been the way. And people are talking about the death of the novel: their memories are short. A decade doesn’t produce that many great writers. It’s not that common a thing.
GS: That’s a good answer. “I recently shared with my tenth-grade English class your review of The Social Network that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Unfortunately, the result is that I made you a lot of new technology-defensive enemies. What do you see as the role of the reviewer in defending the act of reading in this time of shifting tendencies in the ingesting of information?”
ZS: Well, I think people should absolutely defend the technology. My argument was not that the Internet is bad. The point was that it could be better, no? That’s the whole point—it’s not that the Internet is going anywhere. You are not going to get rid of it with a review. It’s just that you, if you are going to spend that much time on it, you want it to be better and better. And there are clearly artists on the Internet working, developing it, making it more and more interesting all the time. I was just interested in that, one of the largest things that we spend a lot of time on isn’t that interesting. That was my only thing about it. Also, I think in the defense, it’s again about not just admitting your own stupidity—which I was trying to do—but admitting your own bad habits. But I feel like now I didn’t go far enough: I’m saying that when I am using the Internet, I am addicted. I’m not able to concentrate on anything else. This is not like a fancy argument. I’m trying to be honest.
GS: You use Freedom, right?
ZS: I use Freedom, the program, I put my phone in another part of the house, it’s pathetic. Like a drug addict. I put it in a cupboard so that I can write for five hours. So I was writing saying, “That’s me; is it you too? Is it me alone? Am I making it up? Does nobody feel this way?”
GS: They are all just so addicted they can’t hear you.
ZS: I was walking down the street and thinking, Have I got an email, have I got an email, have I got an email. I had to get email taken off my phone. So that kind of experience. I was just trying to say—whenever you are writing, you are saying, “I have this experience, do you have this experience? Am I going crazy? Is it all of us?” So that’s all I was trying to say. But I think maybe when it come to addicts, as we all know when it’s pointed out to you that you have an addiction, it’s really annoying. Someone says I drink too much, I’m like, “Get out of my face.” And the Internet is the same scenario. Nobody wants to be told they have an addictive personality, an addictive habit.
GS: It’s like a mass addiction.
ZS: I have it very badly, and I have a feeling, from the amount of times I’ve walked down the street and people have walked into me with their phones, that I’m not alone.
GS: Okay, this is a good question. “Do you have thoughts on Eminem the rapper?”
ZS: Is that my brother? Are you in the audience? I interviewed him once and back then I had a lot of thoughts on him, but I think they may have faded—with my age, not his. The thing which struck me about him then, which maybe it’s a silly—again, it’s a very simple thought. But when I met him I felt that he gave me a poster. It was a big poster with all the history of rap, and he was there, and he was one of I guess four white guys, him and the Beastie Boys. So he was coming at that tradition from the outside and I thought I was coming at my tradition from the outside. And it struck me that if you are coming inside-out that way, that you have to work twice as hard. My mum always used to say to me, and I think a lot of black mothers perhaps say to their daughters, “Whatever you do, you’ve got to do it twice as well.” She was always telling me this. And I was always struck with Eminem that technically, when he was a young rapper, he was doing it twice as well. You might not like the backing music, you might not like the content of the songs, but in terms of the actual syntax, what he was doing in a line, he was doing it twice as well. He had had to prove that he could do this thing, because it was so easy to say, “Who the hell are you, you’re just a white boy from Detroit, who cares?” So he had to do fifteen times the amount of work, and that’s what attracted me to him as a rapper, because it seemed to me a real act of will on his part. He just decided he was going to be a great rapper, studied it, sat around with it, repeated lines over and over and over, completely obsessively, and finally achieved it. And I found that moving, I suppose. There you go, that’s my thoughts on Eminem.
GS: “Do you ever feel constrained by writing for an audience? Not so much ‘the public’—the readers—but by agents, editors, commercial interests, compared to, say, Kafka, whose work made him miserable, but it was so much about the work for its own sake, he even wanted it burned?”
ZS: There’s lots of facts about Kafka that aren’t, which aren’t actually accurate—he was obsessed with getting published, very, very jealous of his peers, and did lots of public readings and all that kind of stuff. He wasn’t—people have strange ideas about him in that context—but he was absolutely dedicated to his work, above all else, that is true. Maybe I’m in an unusual position, but my experience is the other way around. Agents, editors—that doesn’t bother me at all. They completely leave me alone to do my work. What bothers me is the first part of your question: having an audience, that does bother me.
GS: It is so much “the public.”
ZS: It’s the nature of the audience. I remember when I was first in America, going to see some of my peers read, and they read exclusively to hipsters between 25 and 27. I was like, “Where are my hipsters?” My audience was like completely, it was like a Benetton advert and aged from like 15 to 104. And I found that a difficult responsibility. When I finished White Teeth and I was back in Willesden after it was published, people came up to me, old Jamaican women on the street, and said, “When you gonna write another book about the Jamaicans? Or I have an old Irish neighbor: “When are you going to write a book about the Irish?” It’s that idea of having to please a lot of different people. But I used to find it very constraining, but now I actually think, for better or worse—my thing with writing is that it matters to me that it can be read by the people I came from. I can’t get rid of that idea. I can’t ever really leave to write some novel that is so dense or so complex or so obscure that I can’t have at least a hope that my family might read it. I have that in the back of my head, and that might be a weakness, but sometimes I find that it’s like a weird classed-based Oulipo constraint, which I kind of enjoy. Like I have to write a book that satisfies me, that I find intelligent and interesting, but that could also possibly be read by the people I came from. And that’s like a weird exercise, and I wonder what I would do with complete freedom—something awful, probably. So I like the restraint.
GS: The next question is fate: “How did you make the decision to rewrite Howard’s End?”
ZS: It was a retrospective decision, because I woke up one morning—I had been teaching Forster, but not that book, weirdly—but in Boston, I woke up and I told my husband I’ve got this fantastic idea for a novel. I told him the whole idea. He said, “I think you’ll find that’s Howard’s End.” I was like, Oh, really? So then I thought, You could give up that book, or you could think of it as a funny idea. And in the end I kind of loved making the connections, and doing that thing, it ended up being like what I was talking about before, this very traditional reading I had done to get to the point I thought I needed to be at. Writing On Beauty felt to me like a thank you for that experience, and also perhaps good bye.
GS: “After reading White Teeth and seeing the BBC adaptation for television, I was struck by how different these two are. As an author, how are you engaged in the adaptation process, and how do you feel about it? Do you feel possessive about your stories and characters after you have written?”
ZS: No, not at all. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a line of dialogue in White Teeth in that TV show, not a single line. And that’s wise, because the dialogue in White Teeth is very—it sounds nice when you are reading it; you try to say it out loud and it’s absurd. It’s not naturalistic dialogue, so they did well to get rid of it. But I don’t really have any feeling about those kind of things. It just feels completely separate for me. My only experience with White Teeth the TV show—I wrote about it—is that me and a load of school friends were in the party scene. Interestingly, I found out years later that the crazy hippie dancing round, pretending to shag my friend Sarah, was Russell Brand. So there you go. So we were in it briefly, and I—it was just a strange kind of vision of the opposite of what a novelist wants. The whole point of being a novelist is that you don’t have to be responsible for anyone: you don’t have a job, you don’t have any real decisions to make, your life is completely like a child’s life, a student’s life. And being on that set and seeing how this thing that I had written made all these things happen. People had to be fed, there were costumes: it made me feel like I was going to have some kind of seizure. So we stayed a few hours and then we left, so I think I just I can’t deal with that large-scale involvement of lots of different people.
GS: “Zadie, do you complete your novels by writing when you feel like it, or do you have a regular, everyday writing practice? And how has motherhood informed or impacted your writing? Congratulations, by the way.”
ZS: Thank you. I think my schedule, such as it is, is very affected by moods: sometimes it’s a good day, but then sometimes it’s a bad week or month, or not too long ago, years. It was really bad. So I wasn’t writing at all. I find it hard to write when I’m very sad. I know there is a connection, people think, between depression and writing, but in my opinion the two don’t really go together. Writers need to be slightly melancholy, but anything further than that does not help, in my opinion. The thing I’m fascinated by, the thing about motherhood and having children—excuse me, motherhood and writing—I had to write a piece about it for International Women’s Day. And so I was trying to find women writers who had had children, and of course the wonderful and terrible and extraordinary thing is that you have to wait until—it’s nothing, nothing, nothing, 1954, nothing, nothing, 1960, and suddenly this flood. So I feel like what’s about to happen, all the young women writers, so many of them have children. And that is so new, it’s such a new thing that’s happening. So we’re going to read books by people who have had children physically, themselves. That’s a new concept in writing, and I’m so curious as to how it’s going to affect literature, because there were so many extraordinary women writers of the twentieth century who, for so many different reasons, didn’t have children. And now it’s beginning to happen, and I’m just excited. I mean in my own experience, it makes you understand time in a way that you never understood it before. An hour for me used to be, “I think I’ll go into the kitchen—oh, an hour’s gone by.” And now four hours is all I have a day. And you learn that you can write a novel in that time, if you absolutely do not go on the Internet. So four hours a day is what I have and I really use it now, I don’t waste—I used to have days weeks ahead of me, and now I always get something done in those four hours.
GS: This is the last question, and it says, “A question for Gemma: Why Zadie?” And that is abundantly clear!
More from Harper’s Magazine:
Memento Mori — March 11, 2014, 1:51 pm
Remembering a contributor and friend
Harper's Finest — January 20, 2014, 8:00 am
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”