Interview with Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s biography is one of contemporary writing’s fondest and most famous
yarns of precocious and meteoric literary success. As a student at Cambridge she writes White Teeth (2000), an ebullient, epically proportioned novel about multicultural London. It gets picked up by Hamish Hamilton, and on the strength of eighty manuscript pages a two-book, six-figure deal is struck before she’s even graduated. Rapturous praise and a glut of awards follow. Millennium hangovers have scarcely subsided and Smith is already being hailed as the ‘voice of a “new England”’. It is a perfect literary storm.


All this would be enough to turn anyone’s head, but Smith, very wisely, kept hers down. Two more novels – The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005) – arrived in quick succession. She spent the next seven years establishing herself as an essayist and cultural critic of notable range and sensitivity, writing pieces for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian, The New York Times and the Sunday Telegraph – many of which are collected in the volume Changing My Mind (2009). As a literary critic her roving mind and resolutely un-buttoned-up enthusiasm for fiction in all its forms have significantly enriched some of Brit Lit Crit’s otherwise tediously dogmatic debates about what novels should be like and what it is that they do. For a while Smith spoke of herself as a ‘recovering novelist’, but before long returned to writing fiction – and to her old stomping ground, Willesden – with her most recent novel, NW (2012).


Our conversation took place over email during June and July of this year. When we began, Smith was busy teaching fiction-writing workshops in Paris, but these days she is generally to be found in New York, where she has been Professor of Creative Writing at NYU since 2010. In our correspondence, she reminded me very much of the authorial presence sometimes glimpsed in her novels: affable, modest and wise. Her responses to my questions were thoughtful and precise, and ranged widely over topics including the nature of literary innovation, Hollywood musicals, her move to the US and what lies ahead in her writing.



The White Review

— In your 2008 essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ you describe an ‘ailing literary culture’ dominated by what you call ‘lyrical realism’. Have things changed at all since then?



Zadie Smith

— I think the binary thinking of that essay has been elegantly exploded in variety. Just looking around my desk I wouldn’t know where to place, in the terms of that essay, Daniel Kehlmann, Jenny Erpenbeck, Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner, Ma Jian, Peter Stamm, Michel Faber, Joshua Cohen, Nikita Lalwani, Teju Cole, Katie Kitamura or indeed the latest Joseph O’Neill. Despite the shrinking of our industry some really extraordinary writing is being done, and because many writers now have pseudo-academic jobs by which they live, I suspect one positive consequence of this is that they may feel a little freer than before to write as they like. It’s the same freedom poets have always had: the freedom of being irrelevant within the market (when compared to J. K. Rowling, E. L. James, Jamie Oliver and so on). My view on that essay now is, I guess, that polemics are temporal, good for shaking things up at a particular moment, but that they wilt and fade beside the incommensurable reality of individual books. I’d rather read any of the writers mentioned above than ever look at that essay again.


Another thing I feel has changed since 2008 is that the fashionable argument against ‘realism’ has become a bit simple-minded. The now familiar idea that realism ‘is just another literary genre’ or that realistic writing is always and everywhere unexamined and unconsidered – a form of philosophical naïvety – is in itself, in my opinion, somewhat over-stated. In fact I think we are rather sophisticated in our understanding of the limits and illusions of language, and that this is again largely due to our familiarity with the literary uses of language in everyday life. When you hear, for example, two girls at a bus stop and one is telling the other a ‘story’ – ‘and she was like… and I was like… and they were like’ – the story-telling girl is not doing this because she imagines that with this act of mimesis, with this ‘realistic’ re-telling, she has fooled her listener into believing that what she is presenting is ‘authentic’ or an unvarnished truth, in some sense essentially ‘real’ – no. She is performing a speech act in which both parties understand, at least to some degree, that what is happening is a form of ‘performance’, a bracketed and partial reality.


The problem with the argument that all realism is naïve is that it assigns to both parties in the literary exchange – the reader and the writer – an almost childlike innocence in the face of literary artifice. I’ve been guilty of this myself. As if only writing that calls attention to its own constructed and artificial nature can be considered writing-without-illusion. Behind this idea lurks a puritan instinct that I think abhors the mixed and fundamentally impure material we work with: language. Like many writers I definitely have this puritan instinct within me, this dream of a writing that would be pure form, or pure sound, or purely logical, or purely refer to itself. That would never smuggle values and prejudices through the back door: a language that is clear-eyed, stripped of ‘belief’, utterly material. But as I get older and keep writing I find this dream, too, to be a kind of illusion, and perhaps just as large an illusion as the dream of perfect Stendhalesque mimesis, that is, of believing your prose could be a pane of glass through which reality is perfectly reflected.



The White Review

NW seems in part to address the end of an era in British culture: the final collapse of the social democratic settlement and with it the old certainties about upward mobility and possibilities of achieving the ‘good life’. Did the desire to respond to these social changes in any way drive the writing of the novel?

Zadie Smith

— Explicitly. That’s what the novel is about, the end of exactly that social compact. It was in large part directly inspired by a sentence of Tony Judt’s which I must have read in the NYRB – or maybe in one of his essay books – about Judt feeling himself to be a representative product of a meritocratic experiment that began in 1945 and ended, as a positive project, around 1975. I was born in 1975, and I wanted to add an addendum to that; I felt that my generation was really the last of the last. Throughout my childhood (though I didn’t really understand this until much later) there was a fierce war going on to remove precisely the safety nets and ladders I was at that very moment using. I was incredibly lucky to get through before they all got pulled up. Free schooling, free healthcare, and then free university – coincidentally at the same college Tony went to: Kings, Cambridge. By the time White Teeth was published and I looked behind to see if the kids were coming up behind me it was already mostly finished. NW for me was an expression of my own heartbreak at the end of one version of England, the one I knew, and the beginning of another. It could just as easily be called Goodbye to All That.


Jennifer Hodgson is a writer and an academic. She is currently writing a book about the 1960s experimental novelist Ann Quin, and editing a collection of Quin's unpublished short stories.



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