Isabel Duffy: Good evening. Hello everyone. Oh God, now it goes all bright and I can’t see a thing. Hello. Welcome to City Arts & Lectures. I’m Isabel Duffy, and this evening’s program is a benefit for the 826 Valencia college scholarship fund. Our guest tonight is the amazing Zadie Smith, author of five novels, two collections of essays, and now this, “Grand Union,” her first book of short stories. So that’s what I’m going to say. And we’re just going to welcome her out as only San Francisco can. Zadie Smith.
I know. It’s really bright. You okay?
Zadie Smith: Yeah. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: So I’m going to start with the idea that, just really quickly, and then I know you’re going to read for us, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. So, you know, you have to start with a little Aristotle, as you do. So could you tell us just quickly before you read, just the idea behind the book and how it came about?
Zadie Smith: It kind of came about from almost reading past stories of mine and thinking about a collection. And I just decided I wanted to do something which was, a whole. Exactly that. There wasn’t going to be just a load of old stories. I could see a few stories from the past that meant something to me in a certain way, which are all about failing to be human one way or another. And then I thought I could make a book about different versions of that failure. And so that’s what I did, cheerfully.
Isabel Duffy: Well, I think it would be nice to start with a reading from the book.
Zadie Smith: This is the first story in its entirety, but fear not, it’s only about eight minutes long, if that. It’s called “The Dialectic.”
“I would like to be on good terms with all animals,” remarked the woman to her daughter. They were sitting on the gritty beach of Sopot looking out at the cold sea. The eldest boy had gone to the arcade. The twins were in the water.
“But you are not,” cried the daughter, “you are not at all!”
It was true. What the woman had said was true in intention, but what the girl had said was true, too, in reality. The woman, though she genuinely refrained from beef, pork, and lamb, ate–with great relish–many other kinds of animals and fish, and put out fly paper in the summer in the stuffy kitchen of their small city apartment and had once [though her daughter did not know this) kicked the family dog. The woman had been pregnant with a fourth child, at the time, and temperamental. The dog seemed to her, at that moment, to be one responsibility too many.
“I did not say that I am. I said I should like to be.”
The daughter let out a cruel laugh.
“Words are cheap,” she said.
Indeed, at that moment the woman held a half-eaten chicken wing in her hand, elevated oddly to keep it from being covered in sand, and it was the visible shape of the bones in the chicken wing and the tortured look of the thin, barbecued skin stretched across those bones, which had brought the subject to mind.
“I dislike this place,” said the daughter definitively. She was glaring at the lifeguard who had once again had to wade into the murk to tell the only bathers– the girl’s own brothers–not to go past the red buoy. They weren’t swimming–they could not swim. There were no waters in the city in which to take lessons and the seven days they spent in Sopot each year was not long enough to learn. No, they were leaping into the waves, and being knocked over by them, as unsteady on their feet as newborn calves, their chests gray with that strange silt which fringed the beach, like a great smudge God had drawn around the place with a dirty thumb.
“It makes no sense,” continued the daughter, “to build a resort town around such a filthy and unwelcoming sea.”
Her mother held her tongue. She had come to Sopot with her own mother, and her mother had come with her mother before that. For at least 200 years, people have come here to escape the cities and let their children run wild in the public squares. The silt was of course, not filth, it was natural, though no one had ever told the women exactly what form of natural substance it was. She only knew to be sure to wash out all their costumes nightly in the hotel sink.
Once the woman’s daughter had enjoyed the Sopot sea and everything else. The candy floss and the shiny battery operated imitation cars, Ferrari’s and Mercedes that you could drive willy nilly through the streets. She had, like all children who come to Sopot, enjoyed counting her steps as she walked out over the ocean along the famous wooden boardwalk. In the woman’s view, the best thing about a resort town such as this was that you did what everybody else did without thinking, moving like a pack. For a fatherless family, as theirs now was, this collective aspect was the perfect camouflage. There were no individual people here.
In town, the woman was, on the contrary, an individual. A particularly unfortunate sort of individual, saddled with four fatherless children. Here, she was only another mother buying candy floss for her family. Her children were like all children, their faces obscured by huge clouds of pink spun sugar.
Except this year, as far as her daughter was concerned, the camouflage was of no use. For she was on the very cusp of being a woman herself, and if she got into one of those ludicrous toy cars, her knees would touch her chin. She had decided instead to be disgusted with everything in Sopot, and her mother, and the world.
“It’s an aspiration,” said her mother quietly. “I would like to look into the eye of an animal, of any animal, and be able to feel no guilt whatsoever.”
“Well then it has nothing to do with the animal itself,” said the girl pertly, unwrapping her towel finally and revealing her precious adolescent body to the sun and the gawkers she now believed were lurking everywhere, behind every corner. “It’s just about you as usual. Black again, Mama, costumes come in different colors, you know, you turn everything into a funeral.”
The little paper boat that had held the barbecue chicken must’ve blown away. It seemed that no matter how warm Sopot became, there would always be that northeasterly wind. The waves would be whipped up into white horses, and the lifeguard sign would go up, and there would never be a safe time to swim.
It was hard to make life go the way you wanted. Now she waved to her boys as they waved at her, but they had only waved to get their mother’s attention so that now she would see them as they curled their tongues under their bottom lips and tuck their heads into their armpits and fell about laughing when another great wave knocked them over.
Their father, who could very easily be, as far as anyone in Sopot was concerned, around the next corner, buying more refreshments for his family, had in reality immigrated to America and now fixed car doors onto cars in some gigantic factory, instead of being the co-manager of a small garage, as he had once had the good fortune to be before he left. She did not badmouth him or curse his stupidity to her children. In this sense, she could not be blamed for either her daughter’s sourness or her sons’ immaturity and recklessness. But privately, she hoped and imagined that his days were brutal and dark and that he lived in that special kind of poverty she had heard American cities can provide.
As her daughter applied what looked like cooking oil to the taut skin of her tummy, the woman discreetly placed her chicken wing in the sand, before quickly, furtively, kicking more sand over it as if it were a turd she wished buried.
And the little chicks, hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps millions, passed down an assembly line every day of the week, and chicken sexers turn them over and sweep all the males into huge grinding vats where they are minced alive. The end.
Isabel Duffy: So something that I think that story shows, and a lot of the other stories show, is this idea of wanting to be something and reconciling that with who we are. Can you talk a little bit about how that idea comes into all your writing? I mean, including essays, as well.
Zadie Smith: I was interested that there’s a story by Musil, a little story called “Flypaper,” which is about a fly stuck on flypaper. The old awful brown kind you used to roll down. And it’s like a brilliant fable. He just looks at the fly very closely and describes this fly first getting stuck, then struggling, then the leg, you know, getting caught and the way the little muscle in the fly’s leg blinks like an eye. And it’s like a perfect fable of like human will and human struggle, but all in this fly.
And I was kind of interested in that kind of fable structure. And that’s what I wanted to try and do in this story, particularly, is think about exactly that. How we construct our ideas of ourselves. I thought a lot about just the dialectic, right? Like in this example, animals.
It was inspired, the story, by having a conversation with Safran Foer who works in my building upstairs, and I went up to see him during a break between teaching and he started talking about you know, the Holocaust of animal death, which he does a fair amount, as you might imagine. And I totally agreed with every word he said, and then I came downstairs and ate a chicken sandwich. I thought, there it is. There it is. There’s the dialectic, like you try and resolve it in some third term, but really the third term is always some form of self deception or deceit. And I was kind of interested in that.
So yeah, I want to try and get a fable structure, but it struck me, it’s funny how people read, like I was reading a review of this book yesterday, and the review was saying, “Oh, it’s about a black lady on the beach with her children.” I realize that people read–they add so much, right. So it’s actually a story set in Poland. I imagine it’s a Polish family. But it’s so extraordinary.
I think maybe it’s my subject position means that fables are not my business, right? That I only write stories about my family–obviously I don’t have four children. I don’t spend a lot of time in Sopot. But I wanted to try and write that kind of fable that is in one way, very precise, but throws you back on yourself. Like that’s how I wanted to try and– I’m not explaining this very well–but get to that feeling that I have of daily self-deception. And it happens in almost every area of our lives. We think we’re resolving it in a positive term, but we’re usually just resolving it in a way that makes it easy for us to carry on eating things like chicken sandwiches. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: That’s so interesting that the reviewer thought, had projected onto the story.
Zadie Smith: I think it happens a lot. I know I, well, I do it when I’m reviewing, as well. That first of all, you have to review at speed. That’s part of the problem. You’re usually reading a book fast, but that’s true of all texts, right? Like it’s never a neutral. And perhaps if it was a different name on the book in a different–but when you come to the book that you’re reading, you bring so much with it. I remember doing a test with my students years ago where I asked them to think about, I think it was a Lori Moore book and a Franzen book.
Both very good books, but I noticed if I said to them, if you imagine switching the names on these books, you would read Franzen’s book as a book about an individual family, and you would read Lori’s book as a book about America. And it’s that kind of weird projection we bring as readers, so much information, which is not in the text actually, which is in our hangups, in our ideas. Yup.
Isabel Duffy: Well it’s kind of disconcerting, and now I feel like I should go and read it again.
Zadie Smith: No, no, it’s fine. The reader has all the power. You can’t do anything about it.
Isabel Duffy: Well, no, but actually on that note, I listened to–I can’t do audiobook, audiobooks send me to sleep. They just kill me. They’re just absolutely deathly. But I, they really are. They’re terrible. But I listened to–I’d read all the stories in the book, and then I listened to your recording on the New Yorker website of “Escape from New York.” And it sounded like a different story. And so what I had brought to the story and the voices I heard in my mind, and your–I’d like you to talk about that story in particular, but also about how we hear…
Zadie Smith: I mean, I think with that story, it came to my notice, a lot of people who, reading it, didn’t realize it was about Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor. So it must be a very strange story if you just think you’re following these three random people in the car, rushing from New York, during 9/11. But it was…
Isabel Duffy: And that’s the conceit.
Zadie Smith: That’s the conceit. It’s based on an urban myth that apparently this happened, that Jackson was doing a concert, on September the 10th, which, Taylor and Brando were at. And then when 9/11 happened, they all got in the hire car and fled to Pennsylvania. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But the funny part of the story is that Brando stopped to eat every other like hundred meters. So it’s a very slow journey. He kept on stopping at KFC and McDonald’s and all the rest of it.
It was really fun to read out loud, but in fact, in the actual audio book, because I–it’s always hard for me to record audio books around children, basically. There’s just not time. So I got my brother who’s an actor to do it. So I haven’t heard it yet, but he did almost all of the audiobook. I did the first story and the last. So he’s a much better comic actor, obviously. So he’s doing all those voices this time. Quite keen to hear it. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: So, and there is a lot of comedy in the book and there’s…
Zadie Smith: I hope so.
Isabel Duffy: No, there is. I’m telling you. There is, and there’s, you know, and that’s something that’s come across in all your writing. And it made me think about the essay you wrote about your father. Would you talk about that? This is a such a moving piece about your relationship with your father and the end of his life.
Zadie Smith: Yeah, I mean, I think part of that kind of self deception I was thinking about–as well as being tragic, I suppose, it’s also hilarious. And British comedy has worked very well with that kind of self deception, from “The Office” to Basil Fawlty, I mean it’s always, Alan Partridge, it’s always really about people who live in a bubble of delusion.
And that’s what the British find so funny about it. Look at this horrendous person who thinks they’re one thing when actually they’re another. And it’s also protection, right? For us as viewers, you’re able to like, you’re awful, but Alan Partridge is worse, and that’s part of the pleasure of watching these things.
And my father loved all that kind of comedy. And I grew up around it, and obviously my brother’s a comedian now. And for me, that kind of–it’s such a miserable comedy. You know, the things like Tony Hancock, like Tony Hancock is really, he was a comedian from the 50s and my father’s generation. And it’s really about a man who’s having the most awful life. Who has these delusions of grandeur. He thinks he’s an artist. He thinks he’s a writer. He thinks he’s a filmmaker. And he’s just nothing. He’s nothing, always, nothing ever goes right. And everyone in Britain thought this was the funniest thing they’d ever seen in their life.
But I like the British allowance for that. Like I was on stage recently in Brooklyn and someone else about my father and I, the thing which struck me about–and my father was much older than he should have been. So my father’s born in 1925. And so my grandfather was a Victorian. But when I asked my father towards the end of his life about his life, he was very, very clear in his mind: it had been a failure and everything had gone wrong.
And when I said that in Brooklyn, there was like an audible gasp. This American gasp of, “but you mustn’t say that. Like, it must never be said that a life trajectory goes…” This is so profoundly against the American idea of perfectability, you know, that everything’s always on the up and up. Even though of course, at the end of the up and up is death forever. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: Forever for everyone.
Zadie Smith: For everyone, everyone, Elon Musk, for everyone. It’s an infinite death til the end of this time. Yeah. So it’s that situation, that relation to death is funny. You know, it’s tragic. It’s totally absurd. People, the way people will and try is absurd given what’s coming. So all of that interests me.
And also, you know, within that extremity, the kind of existential pull is to make life meaningful despite this, you know, ultimate, full-stop. And that, in all the stories I’m kind of thinking about: is it possible to fail at that task to make a life worthy of its incredible brevity? Like it’s a beautiful, sacred miraculous thing that we’re all here. I mean, it’s a genuine miracle and it’s also incredibly brief. So it kind of behooves you to respect the human, you know. I do feel that. And I also feel all the ways that I personally, and I’m sure others, feel they fail to do that.
Isabel Duffy: I think one of the stories where that comes across most strongly for me is “Kelso Deconstructed.”
Zadie Smith: Right.
Isabel Duffy: Where you’re, it seems you’re really trying to connect to the person. So this is a piece of fiction based on fact, which you should explain, but where you’re really trying to connect to the person behind the story.
Zadie Smith: Right. And that’s hard for, I mean, you come from a family of fiction. I’m in this family of fiction. Your suspicion about fiction is that it’s part of the problem. You know, sometimes they think it’s a veil between me and reality. And in this case, it’s about Kelso Cochrane, who was a young man from Antigua who was murdered in 1959 by a group of racist thugs in the streets of Notting Hill, not far from where I live.
And I, I thought about the idea, like, I know it’s true for black parents and families in America too, that you have, even if you’re not always aware of it, a kind of subconscious fear, particularly about your sons and brothers. And I, even when I was writing, I was thinking about my brothers, and even now, now they’re not young anymore, but they look young and they dress young. When they leave the house, you still have the sense of this little anxiety, which I don’t have about myself because I don’t think, me in the world, I’m not in the same situation at all.
And I know simply from talking to my brothers–I’ve never been stopped by the police. My brothers were stopped regularly throughout their childhood. So you have this kind of feeling of anxiety I was trying to pinpoint. Obviously it’s the fear of violence, but more than anything, it’s the fear that someone you love goes out into the world with a name, who is a human, and is returned to you as a statistic of some kind or a fact in some racist ideology, or an accident or a disaster.
And so when I writing about Kelso, I really wanted to try not to do that. I wanted to try and retain the idea that this was a man who was loved and was a human being, who had a family and he’s not just a, you know, event in British history or in Black British history, he’s a person.
So that’s one of the things fiction can do. You’re like reanimating this person. But at the same time, I kind of want to retain this like Brechtian principle that you know that this is not real, what I’m doing. Even when, you know, if you have a gift for realism, you can fool people quite well. You know, it feels real. It smells real. It sounds real. But I think sometimes the problem with that is that you read the piece, you’ve have the emotions, and you feel that you’ve done something, and really you haven’t done anything.
So I was interested in whether it was possible to write a story, which is both fully felt–cause I remember all those like postmodern experiments of our youth. And you’d read it and you’re just like, “Oh, I don’t give a shit about anyone in this book. I don’t care about these characters. I don’t. Good for you that you’ve told me you’re an author and this is a novel, but I still don’t care.” But I’m interested in the idea of whether you could do both, like have the distance and also have the feelings simultaneously. Like, believe this man was real and also keep your critical head on, you know, simultaneously. So that was, that was the point. I don’t know if I managed it, but that was the idea. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: Well I think you did manage it.
Zadie Smith: You have to say that, we’re on stage.
Isabel Duffy: I, well, I do because I’m here. I think you did manage it. And I think that the other place where you manage that particularly well is in “A Sentimental Education.”
Zadie Smith: Oh, yeah. That was a really fun story to write.
Isabel Duffy: That’s a really fun story. And I read it four or five times because I felt so interested in and connected to that character.
Zadie Smith: Right.
Isabel Duffy: And she felt very familiar to me. She felt like someone.
Zadie Smith: Yeah it was the nineties, it was fun times. It was fun to write a story, like a college story, but I really wanted to kind of pay tribute to that time of theory. Like I grew up in that generation that spent the whole time reading French critical theory. And it formed the way I think and the kind of person I am. And it’s not easy to–in England, like I love England, but I think it, can we both admit its deep anti-intellectual instincts? It’s ridiculous to be an intellectual in England. It’s the most absurd thing you can be. No one. It’s just not a…
Isabel Duffy: It’s Hancockian.
Zadie Smith: It’s just you can’t do it. It’s an absurd thing. French people can be intellectuals. In fact, Americans could be intellectuals. But an English person who’s an intellectual is a clown and should leave immediately. There is no, there are no counterexamples. You can become like Murdoch for example, Iris Murdoch, but then you’re like considered a wizard or something. Some kind of strange, strange, intensely humorless person who thinks all the time. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: Yes. And there’s actually, that generation…
Zadie Smith: Yes. So, but there was a period, in the ’90s, where this French thought was coming over to England and it had a great influence on a whole generation. And I mean, it’s still, I think, still the case in England that you say Derrida and everybody rolls their eyes. And when I was in Cambridge, in fact, he was invited to speak by the students and the faculty stopped him.
Isabel Duffy: Why?
Zadie Smith: Isn’t that amazing. Cause they thought it was nonsense, French philosophy and they weren’t having it. And then he died soon after, so that was the end of that possibility. But I don’t consider it nonsense. And I think it was just extremely important in the way I think about what a person is, what a self is, what a moral responsibility is. And so it was just fun writing a story about all that kind of nineties stew of sex and drugs and French theory and fun. You know, a lot of fun.
Isabel Duffy: Sex and drugs and French theory.
Zadie Smith: Had a good time.
Isabel Duffy: Okay. So if that was the 90s. Where are we now?
Zadie Smith: You’d have to ask the young people–are they, I don’t know if they’re into sex and drugs and French theory. I didn’t know what their deal is. But…
Isabel Duffy: Well where are we as, where are we as, as England now for you? Or Britain?
Zadie Smith: I mean we were talking backstage, I feel like enormous nostalgia for it, but I think if we look at the history of British writers, this is about the age where the kicks in, and then the conservatism and then the kind of mental screeds. Yeah. So I’m looking forward to all of that. But I think it’s a warm nostalgia. Like I love like the actual physical country.
I felt the same way about Jamaica. It might just be a middle aged thing. That plants, trees, certain sites, food, is kind of overwhelming to me. But I’m also aware of it being somewhat in the past for me, you know, and I dunno, I have a sense of not belonging. I know I’m not an American. I don’t really feel at home in England anymore. But there’s a really wonderful tradition of the not-at-home writer, you know. And from like DH Lawrence and Joyce and all these people who had no home, I think it’s a kind of interesting mindset to be in. And I don’t mind it. I’m used to being uncomfortable.
Isabel Duffy: Do you feel untethered? I mean, sometimes I feel untethered between, yeah, between London and here.
Zadie Smith: I do, but I think tetheredness is overrated, personally.
Isabel Duffy: Well, yeah. No that’s a good point. I’m not sure I’d want to be tethered permanently to… Let’s talk about, let’s come back to the stories and talk about location in the stories and, and how location affects and influences the characters and how we feel about people in a certain place at a certain time.
Zadie Smith: I thought, I mean, I know there is a kind of writer who wants to write about, places that have great meaning and authenticity. But I’ve always found myself living in quite absurd, places like, Rome, fairly ridiculous place, Greenwich Village, ridiculous. So it’s quite freeing. You know, like it’s a kind of a challenge to me to write about a place which is so overly storied, and so–I mean, the only thing anyone ever says about Greenwich Village is that it’s over, right? It’s been over continually. And it was only ever cool 20 years before you arrived there. And that’s been going on for a hundred years. So it’s a kind of non-place, but I guess those kinds of places are exactly what interest me, you know, places which are completely uncool or about which you could think you could never write about.
Willesden was like that, you know? Willesden was a place of no interest to anyone, but I found it interesting. And so the Greenwich Village stories, it was just fun. It’s kind of in its way, like if Willesden, the great thing about it to me was like, it was a kind of microcosm of a hundred years of British history and immigration. Greenwich Village is a kind of interesting microcosm of, you know, unregulated capital, just wild gentrification, the denuding of cities, like a story which is happening all over has also happened in Greenwich Village. So in its way, it became quite inspiring.
And then I thought about all the writers, the history of writing there. I got very interested in like Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley. Like I kept on realizing on my walk to school, I was in all this ghost land of amazing writers, and the more I’ve started reading them, I just thought again, like, the moment we’re in felt quite conservative to me. Cause I was reading short stories, novels from the sixties or seventies, which were just wild, you know, wild in content, wild in voice, just incredibly exciting and strange.
There’s a book called “City Life” by Barthelme, which is just, it seems like he’s on acid. Like the whole book is insane. Strange cartoons and, probably pictures in it, and I thought how hard it is to publish something like that these days, you know, where everything has to make sense or be quite univocal or sound like somebody talking in your ear. And I just got very excited realizing I was living in a place which had a much more complex literary past than I’d imagined. And so I kind of dug into that. And a lot of the stories came out of that reading and thinking.
Isabel Duffy: Well, and that shows, I mean, the stories are, you know, they’re quite different from each other and they’re lots of different styles and forms. And I wondered if you could talk a bit about what, for you, makes a good short story. What are you looking for? They’re these kind of like highly condensed, intense flavors, not a spare, no fat, no spare lines. How does it work? What makes it good?
Zadie Smith: To me, like the ones I really love… Like George Saunders says this thing about walking into a kind of machine that changes you in some ways, you go through it. And the ones I used to love of Foster Wallace’s when I was young are more like bits of moral philosophy, you know, each one is kind of reaching out to palpate you. It’s trying to do something to you. And that’s a different movement from maybe we’re used to stories more passively, where we kind of fall into them and fall into the world. I do quite like stories that work like moral philosophy, that are trying to needle you or bother you in some way.
There’s another kind of story that I can’t write at all. Something like Alice Munro, which feels more secreted than written. You know, they have a kind of magic to them. Like, I don’t understand how she does that. They just, they just appear fully formed and they’re so beautiful.
Isabel Duffy: When you say fully formed, as in a sort of like a, like a mini, with a beginning, a middle and an end?
Zadie Smith: No but nothing moves in a Munro story like you think it’s going to. Time is very strange and manipulated and, but it feels existentially to me like how it feels to be alive. And I think that’s a very rare gift. And the ones that I’m more kind of constitutionally attracted to–Flannery O’Connor, for example– those are, they look like stories, but really they’re bits of moral philosophy–in her case, Catholic philosophy–out to get you. And they do get you. I’ve almost become a Catholic many times reading Flannery O’Connor. And that kind of story is, it’s what I’m interested in. I guess not the performance of something that feels like real life, but a kind of tool to bother you. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: How difficult was it for you to start? I mean, maybe you’d been, I don’t know if you’d been writing short stories in parallel to all your fiction and nonfiction or, yeah. How did that work? And also, but how do you transpose your tendency as a novelist perhaps to, you know, expand and go off in different directions? How do you, how was it to narrow that down into, in some of these, you know, the first story is just two and a half pages?
Zadie Smith: Right. It’s harder to be brief and more than anything, it’s hard to get yourself out of the kind of training we had in England into what a well-made story looks like. Which was very formal and has resulted, I think, not in the contemporary edition, but in, the English history of the short story is pretty poor. You know, you’ve got Katherine Mansfield, some not very good Forster stories, endless volumes of Somerset Maugham. Ever read them? No. But they’re always there in everybody’s house. So lots of…
Isabel Duffy: I put them in the audiobooks category.
Zadie Smith: Yeah. There’s no, it’s not a very vibrant tradition. And then we have this extraordinary tradition of the novel, which we’re so proud of and. But to me, the shorter fiction, it’s really been America where it’s been exciting. So a lot of it was just about, like a lot of late 19th century English short stories as far as I can tell, are just novels squished into 25 or 30 pages. And they’re unsatisfying for that reason.
So I was just trying to get rid of the deep structure of the novel, which in England you’re raised on. You’re raised on the hidden secret, the revealed moment, the will or whatever it is, the will that somebody hasn’t signed or whatever it is. These deep like Dickensian things that are in your mind that it takes a lot, I think, to train yourself out of just reproducing those things over and over again. And for me, it’s taken a long time, I think to get some of that, even though I loved the books I grew up on, sooner or later you have to kind of shake them off a bit.
Isabel Duffy: Can we talk about teaching?
Zadie Smith: Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: Tell us about your teaching life and, how long have you been teaching in New York?
Zadie Smith: 10 years in New York.
Isabel Duffy: 10 years.
Zadie Smith: And about eight years before that as well. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: And how has your teaching changed? What do you like about it? Not like about it?
Zadie Smith: I mean, I used to be, I mean, I was a terrible teacher and I know that because all the students that I taught at Harvard, some of whom have become famous writers, and I meet them and that’s the first thing they always tell me, “you were the worst, we all hated you, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Isabel Duffy: How were you’re the worst?
Zadie Smith: I didn’t know about America, so I didn’t have any experience of teaching, apart from the kind I had in England, which is, you know, in no way intimate and nothing to do with having a relation with the student or having any relationship with the student at all, you know, you teach.
Isabel Duffy: Just tell them stuff.
Zadie Smith: Just tell them stuff and they either take it or they don’t. And I just didn’t understand the thing, the kind of social or human element of it. Like I remember early on… Cause to me, writing I guess is quite like, of course it’s emotional, but particularly when I’m editing, I am quite dispassionate. I just think “I want to make this good.” I don’t get hung up on the fact that I wrote it, I suppose. I have a kind of editor’s opinion of what’s in front of me.
So I think early on I used to take the students–back when I did workshop. I don’t do it any more cause they’ve taken me off that gig, for obvious reasons. But I used to put the story up on a light light box and just edit it the way, you know, if you were in a publishing house, you would edit it and people would just be crying. Like, okay, okay, not do that then. But I mean, to me, obviously every student has to, in the end, be that person who can do that.
Isabel Duffy: Well they’re not going to cry at home. They might as well cry there around some friends.
Zadie Smith: But I just realized that I have not got the right personality for dealing with people’s emotions at close range. So I moved into teaching literature to creative writing students, and that’s been much better.
Isabel Duffy: Oh I see, that’s an interesting side step.
Zadie Smith: It’s great. It’s really great. I do 20th century fiction and philosophy and it’s, the students are brilliant. They’re smart. We have good conversations. They write essays. I mark them, and there’s less of the emotion or drama. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: All right. So talking about 20th century fiction. I feel it’s important too, to talk about Toni Morrison, who we lost, and I’m going to just quickly preface it with a cautionary tale. So I was lucky enough to be given a signed, dedicated first edition of “Beloved” when I was like…
Zadie Smith: That’s worth like 20 grand.
Isabel Duffy: Don’t fucking tell me that. So I had that, and it was a tremendous gift. And at the time I particularly fancied a boy and…
Zadie Smith: Oh no. Did you give it away?
Isabel Duffy: And I wanted him to kiss me as much as I wanted to kiss him. And so I gave him my signed ded–loaned, loaned–the signed dedicated first edition of “Beloved.” And not only did I not get my book back, he never kissed me so. Right.
Zadie Smith: That’s a terrible story.
Isabel Duffy: Thank you. And I’ve been carrying it with me as a huge burden ever since. And then when Toni died, I thought, that’s it. I’ll never get a dedicated first edition of “Beloved.” So he was a bad boy. And if you know, I know there are some students in the audience. If you fancy someone, don’t give them anything.
Zadie Smith: No. That’s a good point.
Isabel Duffy: Just nothing. Stick at your phone number. Snapchat or something. Don’t give them anything. Anyway, so that aside, my cautionary tale about Toni Morrison, I wonder, could you talk about what she meant to you and how you first read her?
Zadie Smith: I actually, I just finished reading “The Bluest Eye” again a few days ago. And it’s just actually a masterpiece. But what really struck me about it is the, I wonder how many, I hear people talking about Toni Morrison a lot, but I sometimes think they’re not actually rereading her because…
Isabel Duffy: Well because a boy stole their book.
Zadie Smith: Maybe that’s the reason. Because it really is astonishing. Like, I hear her talked about by students a lot as if she was a very autobiographical writer who wrote about her experience and, but it really is not the case. And “The Bluest Eye,” particularly in the version I have, she’d written a late introduction, a very severe and serious introduction, about defining the separation. Because she was certainly not the girl who wanted blue eyes. And she’s certainly not the girl from that incredibly brutalized and tragic family. It was an entirely fictional leap.
And also, I don’t know if you remember, but there’s a a long section of the book, which is about a pedophile, in which she creates this extraordinary, like sympathy for the devil. Like she takes you all the way back to his childhood. And it’s neither an excuse of his pedophilia, but it’s a kind of clear-eyed look of how such people are made, what leads them to become this way, but it’s not dogmatic. She’s completely hands-off in her editorial intrusions. It’s a really radical book and it’s a very hard book to read.
And I wonder, you know, writers get kind of secular sainthood, and whenever it happens, usually means people aren’t actually reading them. Because the books themselves are wild and tough and very experimental. “Bluest Eye” is really extreme. It has many different voices in it. She’s in many different places, many different heads. It’s got that kind of Faulknoresque thing that she was preoccupied with herself, this like leap into very extreme experiences.
And I was so glad to read it again cause I was just reminded of the incredible craft of it. Like the ability, the technique, and the moral seriousness and the absolute determination to be everywhere, anywhere she wanted to be, fictionally. So I took great joy in reading it again. And I’ve been reading her essays.
And I’m just, when something, someone like that leaves the world, it’s tough because it was for me like a pilot light, like just a demonstration of how tough you could be on yourself. She was very tough on herself. She didn’t write that many novels, in fact. Cause there’s a real preoccupation with getting each one as good as she could make it. Creating this elaborate language. So I don’t know. I just I want to know that my students are not just tweeting about her, but actually reading her. I want her to be actually read because I think the lessons in the book are bracing. Yep.
Isabel Duffy: Do you remember how you first discovered her or read your first book?
Zadie Smith: “The Bluest Eye” was certainly the first one I read and I found it wounding. Like I can tell in the introduction, she writes, she’s trying to protect, cause she, you must’ve been aware that as the years go by, the book becomes more and more difficult to read. Because it really is quite extreme.
And when I read it, I was only nine or ten, and when I first read it, I thought that by mentioning this desire, she was in some way sanctioning it and I didn’t want to hear about it. You know, I didn’t want to hear about people wanting blue eyes. That to me was a very distressing concept. So I read it like a child hurt, like wounded. Why, why is this the topic that she has chosen? Why this one?
Then I read as a teenager and was amazed. And then it led me to many other books. But it was funny reading it young, because you don’t have the critical capacity. You’re kind of shocked to be in this incredibly.
Isabel Duffy: Nine or ten is young for “The Bluest Eye.”
Zadie Smith: Yeah. It was really too young. I was always reading ridiculous books I shouldn’t have been reading very young. But then coming back to them, and it’s so–now at 43, reading it again and reading it as a writer, and being just blown away by the technique. Yeah. It’s wild.
Isabel Duffy: Can we talk a bit about the piece you just wrote for the New York Review of Books, which was really fascinating. It’s “In Defense of Fiction,” and timely. And maybe I’ll just hand over to you to just talk, you know, could you summarize what you were saying in that piece about cultural appropriation and the idea of how write what you know has become stay in your lane?
Zadie Smith: Well, you know what, I think, I can’t paraphrase it. That’s exactly the issue. Part of the problem with these arguments is that they’re paraphrased down to 140 characters until they reach absurdity. The thing with arguments, rational arguments, is that they take some unpacking and they take some time, and if you remove any piece of it, you remove the argument. So I can’t paraphrase it, but I was glad to write it, even if it was only as a kind of…
I think about it like E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers for Democracy.” Like he only thought two cheers would–that’s all that it deserved. And that’s how I felt about that essay. Like, I’m not a kind of, I have my suspicions about fiction, I always have, as a process. But I wanted to defend the psychological peculiarity of a certain kind of fiction writer, cause I know I’m not alone.
But I also know there’s two different, kind of–more than two different kinds–but there is a kind of broad split between what you might call the inward fiction writer and the one outward, and I think it’s something which happens in childhood.
I think of a beautiful example of the inward writer is Rachel Cusk, right? She’s an extraordinary, so she has a very strong sense of selfhood and then the books that are a kind of measurement of the other and the self. The self, in Rachel’s case, is usually correct. The others are usually wrong, but it’s a very formal relation. And it’s striking and the books are great because it’s, that’s genuinely her sensibility. That’s how she is in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of sensibility, but there is another kind of artist.
Actors are a very common example. Comedians are another. Who are always, from childhood, wondering about everybody else. And processing everybody else and taking everybody else through their minds. Ventriloquizing them, doing their voices. I mean, I saw it with my brother who’s a comedian. One of the things comedians have is a great ear. They can do everybody. Fiction has some relationship with comedy and some relationship with acting.
So I feel like even more than the defense of fiction, it’s a defense of this psychological peculiarity, the outward facing fiction writer, and just as I have no complaint about the inwards one, you know, this division is so old. Genet is an inward writer. Dickins was an outward one. It is possible for literature to contain these two different ways of being in the world without everybody fighting. It’s just two different ways of being in the world. But I wanted to defend the fact that I am this kind of person. But again, in the end, if this kind of fiction is no longer useful, if it’s no longer wanted, it will just vanish.
Isabel Duffy: So I’m going to challenge you on that, because I think these books show both kinds of–the stories in this book show both kinds of approach.
Zadie Smith: Yes. I think as I’ve got older, I’ve been interested in the borders of myself. Like who am I exactly? I still don’t have a particularly good answer, but it’s just slightly firmer than it was, certainly when I was 15, 18, 24, 32, when I really didn’t feel like anyone in particular. I felt myself just a vehicle of fiction. But as your commitments in life, you know, expand–I certainly am the mother of my children. That’s not a theoretical thing. It exists. So you are kind of pinned to the earth by these commitments. And that to me is like the existential principle. You’re thrown into the world and you make these commitments. And that in the end is what forms you. Not some essential biological entity inside you, what could it possibly be? Not something running through your blood. But the things you choose to be interested in, to be attentive to and to be committed to. That is what you end up being.
Isabel Duffy: I think that’s something that again, it really comes across in this book, in, I’m thinking about “NW” as well. I have a bone to pick with you about that, which is that it’s the only book that’s made me cry in a very long time.
Zadie Smith: I’m amazed by that. I always thought I didn’t have the ability to make anybody cry. But thank you for saying that.
Isabel Duffy: Books don’t make me cry. I can’t stand audiobooks and books don’t make me cry. Those just two facts. They just don’t, I’m much more likely to cry at a cat food commercial than I am at a book. I mean, books just don’t make me cry. And “NW” did make me cry because I had empathy for and connected with the characters, they were people I knew, I felt like I knew them because I do know them. And so I wondered if this is, you know, we could talk a little bit about that idea, coming back to the defense of fiction, about that idea of getting in and connecting with those people and sort of looking outward from the inside.
Zadie Smith: I mean, it’s catharsis. That is interesting to me. I had it recently reading this Elizabeth Strout book. I wept at the end. But I guess the feeling, even more attractive to me than that feeling, is the feeling I get when I’m reading philosophy, which is not tears, but like being opened out. I can’t really explain it, but being opened out to the world. That to me is the most significant reading experience I can have. You know, I have it when I read Kierkegaard, I have it sometimes when I read Baldwin, it’s like a feeling of being near the truth. It’s a religious feeling really. And that’s the most important sensation I can have in front of a book.
I’m much more likely to cry sentimentally at movies, you know, anything visual, and anything openly sentimental. I think those things are… I need those feelings, but the one I seek in a book is like, just a glimpse of reality. I really feel, particularly now pressed in on all sides, by a mediation, you know, mediated at every angle. And also, you know, kind of lonely in the world sometimes, like no nature, no animals, no humans. Cause you’re all pretty busy with your things. And so the feeling of wanting like reality. And sometimes when you’re reading a good book, maybe it’s just an impression of a consciousness, you feel like you’ve come in contact with something. And then I get quite excited whenever that happens. Yeah.
Isabel Duffy: Well, I think we have to go to questions from the audience. I think that we’ve reached that moment. I’m loath to do it, but I bet I think there is some yeah, there are some people out there. So people will come around. If you raise your hand, people will come around with a microphone and you can ask a question, please. Not a statement.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the front of the orchestra all the way to your right.
Zadie Smith: Oh, yeah. Hi.
Audience Member 1: Hello. I really enjoy your writing.
Zadie Smith: Thank you.
Audience Member 1: I’m struck by, you’re talking about being tethered and which is sort of geographical, and I’m wondering if there’s a difference between being tethered and being grounded.
Zadie Smith: Oh, yeah.
Audience Member 1: And if. Can you talk a little bit about the difference perhaps, and how they relate to each other?
Zadie Smith: I do like to be, you know, local and to, and right now, like probably my eighties, nineties nostalgia, but I like to touch things. I like anything physical at the moment. Food, trees, this chair, anything that’s not virtual, I’m really into.
But tetheredness in a sense, like, I guess things about kind of nationhood and these like invisible ties that people take very seriously, I think they can be overstated. You know, I do have this kind of ambivalence of belonging. But I don’t mind it. I think that kind of anxiety is, can be very useful.
Like I, again, I always think of Kierkegaard, like he says people want to resolve the anxiety of their lives in some third term. That’s the whole, Hegel’s whole idea. Like you’re feeling anxious, believe in Germany. Or believe in God, or believe, and Kierkegaard says no. That feeling you have of total daily terror, that’s human. And if you don’t have that, then you’re not human anymore.
So everything that I, people think of as a weakness in me, I don’t really feel that way about it, you know, not belonging anywhere, or not being certain of things. Or to me, that’s being alive. As long as I feel that way, I feel alive.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 2: Good evening. My question is about, is based on your essay “Joy” that was in the New York Review of Books, and it’s threaded a little bit to your comment right now about anxiety. In the essay you talk about joy, almost a terror of joy, right? And Brené Brown talks a little bit about that, like foreboding joy as well. And so I wonder, do all of these core emotions have that element almost as like at their extreme, there’s like a thrill, but also the danger of feeling that much? So I’m thinking about like…
Zadie Smith: Yeah, I think it’s freighted with loss, isn’t it? I was thinking a lot about, I was reading this book called “Re-engineering Humanity,” which is by two tech guys, just about various manipulations of data in our lives. And one of the phrases they use is “cheap thrills.” And I thought about that a lot, like cheap pleasures. We all know it, like in the food department, right? Like it’s always great to get a McDonald’s and then five seconds later it’s just not great. You feel terrible. Everything, it just feels awful all around. And you knew, you always knew it would have been better to have the more nutritious bit, but for some reason it was there. It was convenient. And I was thinking how many things in our lives, like, you know, that kind of synthetic pleasure? It’s just a, it feels comfortable and safe.
I think most of all, like if I’m, you know, mindlessly Googling on my laptop and my children are right there. Obviously the joy is over here, but the joy is stressful, noisy, relentless. Anything could happen to them. They might die. And then over here, it’s just Beyoncé Google hole. That’s much easier. And that they know that, the people who are providing these things for you. But the question is, how much is going to fall into that passive place of the cheap thrill, and how much is going to be siphoned off into there.
So I really try and just try to make a practice of choosing the other thing. And it’s not a moral question, because that’s a kind of false equivalence. It really is more joy in the other place. There’s just more humanness. And I feel it now, I’m only 43, but I do feel that there isn’t a lot of time. You know, the human span is not long. And I really feel like I don’t have enough time in my life to spend so much of it, I don’t know, the latest figures are like for teenagers, eight, nine hours, in that interface with the algorithm. I just can’t, it’s like a selfishness on my part, like hungry for that other thing. Hungry for joy now, even if it’s frightening.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the balcony towards your right.
Audience Member 3: Hi there. I was hoping you could speak about your first book, “White Teeth,” and how you wrote it in school and maybe what your headspace was like while you were writing it?
Zadie Smith: I must have been insane. I can’t even, what was going on? I don’t, I can’t really explain it. I can’t explain it. I don’t understand why I did that. I don’t know. I was doing my finals. I think there’s some part of me which works better when there’s more work. So I just thought, I don’t know, I just, I’d written a story. It was the first chapter, and then it just kept going. And I didn’t think I was gonna do very well in my finals, cause I hadn’t, hadn’t done well in the earlier part, completely disaster. So, I don’t know. I just piled on the pressure and I think I was in some kind of a mania, you know.
And yesterday I was in Portland and I saw some old friends from McSweeney’s days, you know, from 20 years ago, and one of them said to me, “you know, when you first passed through, age 22 or whatever, you were kind of, you were wild.” And I think I must’ve been a little wild, a little manic, to write that book at that point. But maybe all first novels are like that. It’s a kind of obsession. You write at great speed, like two, three-thousand words a day. I haven’t written a thousand words in a day in about 15 years. But then I did. I just had a lot of pent up energy and I don’t think I’ll ever have that much again, but it’s just what happens. Yeah.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the back of the orchestra to your right.
Audience Member 4: Hi. Another question about the recent New York Review of Books piece.
Zadie Smith: I have no idea where you are, sorry.
Isabel Duffy: By the doors.
Zadie Smith: Oh, okay. Hey, yes, hi.
Audience Member 4: Over here. Hi. Question about the New York Review of Books piece, the recent one in defense of fiction, there’ve been commentaries recently about what some see as excesses of sort of adopting ideas of cultural appropriation, which I know you’ve spoken about quite a bit before, but I’m wondering what you see as the state of fiction and fiction writing today that led you to write a piece called “In Defense of Fiction.”
Zadie Smith: It’s not, I’m very optimistic about fiction, like particularly this season. There’s like a lot of really great books out. So I don’t really worry about that. It was just more honestly, kind of conversations in the classroom. I wanted to try and give my students a feeling of some freedom. Like, it’s so difficult right now, because what’s happening at the top of the society is so corrupt, so perverse, so disgusting, that it’s dementing, you know, it’s dementing. And it dements me and it dements everybody, I think.
But there were certain parts of the argument. Again, it’s cause a lot of the argument happens in forums where there’s not enough space to logically pursue an idea. But that there are things about the way the argument was constructed, which I found personally–because I’m quite a proud person, annoying. Like it annoys me, the idea, for example, that I cannot appropriate or steal anything from this subject, this white male subject, because he has no culture. In this construction only I have culture. I have this vulnerable thing that can be taken by anyone at any moment. But he stands again, as just this neutral being.
So no one, like if I make a character like Howard in “On Beauty,” nobody says you appropriated white, Protestant male culture. Well, how come? I spent half the book in his body walking around, speaking for him, doing his thing? Can’t I take something? Can I be a thief? Do I have no power to theif anything?
I come particularly from kind of, maybe it’s a Jamaican thing or I, I think of diaspora history as very, very long and very proud and very powerful, you know, and I don’t, you know, when something happens, like, I don’t know, Marc Jacobs putting dreadlocks on the catwalk. My mother is a Rasta. And I can’t imagine my mother being offended. And of course then there’s the question of, my mother is of course also appropriating, cause she’s not an actual religious rasta. She is a fashion Rasta. But she has had dreadlocks down to her buttocks for 25 years. But my mother is not someone who can be made–like Marc Jacobs catwalk, she couldn’t care less. Like it doesn’t, it’s not even in her universe of things that she’s concerned with.
So I can’t place myself artificially in a role that I don’t experience. I understand other people experience it, but I wanted to try and move the dynamic a little bit, to say, “I am also someone who has power. The power to make people. To make characters. And to invent even, yes, invent even white gentlemen. I can do that.” So yeah.
Authorship is strange, and it’s not like being a citizen, it’s a different thing. It’s not a rational process. It’s completely insane to write a book about loads of people who aren’t you, with different names, speaking all kinds of different voices. It is a kind of insanity. But it’s my insanity and it has a long, proud tradition of these crazy people who feel voices flowing through them.
And as I said in the piece, it is always possible to do it badly. I’m sure that there’s many a white male professor who finds Howard very offensive. And not at all like him, but Howard is my Howard and I made him, and he’s probably not particularly nice guy, but he’s interesting to me. Everybody, bottom line, is interesting to me. It’s a promiscuous interest, but I’m a promiscuous person.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is coming from the balcony towards your right.
Audience Member 5: Hi, up here.
Zadie Smith: Yeah.
Audience Member 5: I’m also a creative writing teacher, teaching literature to creative writing students, and as it turns out this week, my students are reading “NW” and I have about 24 hours to get my notes together. Can you help me?
Zadie Smith: It’s a good one.
Audience Member 5: I wanted to ask specifically about the very different forms in each section of that book and your intentions behind trying such different formal things, and anything.
Zadie Smith: I mean what struck me about when I was writing that is that people are so incredibly different from each other. And I know that the differences, like there are the obvious differences. The way we look, our histories, our–but there’s also the difference of how we see the world.
Like Felix is a person who thinks of himself as the star of a movie that he’s in, and every day he walks through the world thinking it’s the Felix show. And that sensibility takes one kind of writing. Lear is a very kind of denuded person, who feels she barely exists in the world. That’s a different kind of writing. And Natalie is under, you know, the force of ideology and she thinks in a completely different way. So I thought, normally what happens is you gather all these different kind of veils through which we see the world in one narration. But I like–like Woolf is such a good example of someone who thought, no, you know, as the music changes, so does the dance. As the sensibility changes, the language should change. She tried to find a way to represent the incredibly different way we all think.
My only question sometimes now is that the differences are understated. You know, you kind of gather people together and think, well, they probably all think the same way. No, you and your child might as well be from Mars and Venus. You are as different as you, as your dog, and you and your comrade and you, and your–like the differences are infinite. If you were inside somebody else’s body for three seconds, you would be like, Oh my God.
And it’s beyond race, gender, all those things are contingencies that are involved, but fundamentally, it’s consciousness. You can’t really imagine how people view the world. It’s impossible to know whether the purple you see is the purple they see. So fiction exists in this impossible realm. It’s literally impossible, but trying to give access, which cannot be proved. I could not tell you definitively. It’s all imagined, but it’s like this moment of what if you could enter these various consciousnesses. And in “NW” I just wanted to make that difference explicit. They are like all of us, like me and you right now, living completely different realities in the same time space. That’s human life. It’s wild.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 6: Hi. I’m wondering, kind of going off what you’ve just said, in a world full of sort of binary opposites, how do you as a biracial author and individual kind of hold that identity while not conforming to or feeling kind of a societal pressure or just a desire to be boxed in by societal pressure from critics or what…
Zadie Smith: Everybody feels the pressure. I mean, I was thinking about like, we both have youngish children, teenagers, and what used to happen. Like if you just imagine for a moment a world without the internet, what used to happen is that a child emerges from the house, like 10, 11 into the world of the other and tries to figure, and presents themselves. Here I am, I’m 11, what does the other think? And it’s awful. It’s always been awful. Adolescence has always been a nightmare. In middle school the other tells you en masse, I don’t like this. I like this. And you go back into your house and you recalibrate.
And anyone who’s watched a teenager has seen this kind of monstrous process, but part of the saving grace is the sacred privacy of the house, right? That you get a place where you can recover. And when we were kids, truly recover. There was the house phone, but nothing else. They could phone you and tease you. But you had this moment of self formation and the process goes on for about eight, nine years and finally emerged in your 20s and the other is less pressing on you. It’s still an inhibition. You’re not going to take your clothes off now, and neither am I. We’re inhibited by the other. But we’re still going to be ourselves in a, we’ve learned to be ourselves. Typically in our forties. What happens now..
Isabel Duffy: And with therapy.
Zadie Smith: And with therapy. What happens now is that the same child walks into the other and the other is global. The other is continuous. The other is in your pocket. You’ve spent your entire time trying to accommodate this other. It’s deadly to your formation. And of course, first of all, you’ve let all your children do this, but then it’s the same for the adult. The adult becomes like a teenager wondering, do they like me? Do they like me? Do they like me? Do they like me? Do you like me? Modifying themselves, changing themselves, rewriting themselves, trying to present, is this novel okay? Is this okay? Am I okay? Is this okay? It’s really, and then the place where you used to go to recalibrate no longer exists. No privacy, no selfhood, no quiet. You’re in the other. And then the joke is, the other is an algorithm. It’s not even human. So that’s really hard core.
That’s a hard core way to live. So in answer to your question, like of course, I, like a normal human, I feel it, but I can’t enter into that global other, cause I don’t think any human is equal to it. I guess the dystopic nightmare or the transhuman utopia is that there will become a human who is, who becomes that, who just is like that, who can function perfectly happily in the algorithm, who doesn’t even notice the algorithm anymore. Maybe that’s the plan around San Francisco. I don’t know. But I think it would be a shame, personally.
I was saying to Isabel backstage, the thing which blows my mind is we were so focused on whether machines would become like humans, we never considered the fact that it’s us who are becoming like machines, simple machines. Who just respond to stimuli. Here, there, here, there. So in order to write, I really have to try not to let that other completely dominate me, but all the other kinds of other do of course, family, friends, readers, you know, real humans. And that’s modifying but on a human scale, that I can cope with.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the balcony in the center.
Audience Member 6: Hi. Thanks so much for your wonderful talk. I wanted to ask you a question. A while back, maybe I think three or maybe four or five years ago, you were doing an interview, I think with Terry Gross, and you said something that really struck me that I’ve held onto for a long time and it’s really informed my work as an anthropologist and my point of view. And you said that a society, or you can tell a lot about a society by the way that it identifies and defines one’s gifts, their rights, and their duties. To me, that was a very interesting frame to kind of view any given society or any given person. And in the interview, I don’t think that you answer the question for yourself. And I’m so, I’ve, for this time had been kind of wondering how you might answer that, that question to yourself of how you define your gifts, your rights, and your duties, and perhaps how that’s changed over time, as you have gotten further in your career.
Zadie Smith: That’s such a beautiful question.
Isabel Duffy: That’s a great question.
Zadie Smith: Thank you for asking me that. I don’t know about you guys, but my feeling is that the bit that you were so proud of when you were young, which is the gift, right? Whenever it was, the talent. Which everybody has in some form, just becomes less and less significant. It just doesn’t matter. A tool. I mean, I know, I know, it makes you money and it, but what becomes obvious and you feel it maybe from your relationship with others is your duties to others and your responsibilities to them.
Your rights, of course, are important and hopefully in a decent society they’re met, otherwise you spend almost all your lifetime fighting for what should be given. Basic rights. But in an ideal world where those rights are established, then I think gifts are the least important and duties the most.
I really grew up in a family of talented people. Everyone in my family has a talent of some kind, they’re singers and dancers and musicians and comedians, and it’s kind of extended, a gang of talented people. But I think as we’ve all got older, it’s become obvious that you can’t, you know, talent doesn’t love anyone back. Talent doesn’t raise children. Talent doesn’t help elderly parents sicken and die. It just doesn’t really do anything.
It’s entertaining. And it can sometimes be a avatar of other things. Like, I can write this book and you can read it and we can have this kind of weird relation, which is just in the book and not actually between us, but for most humans, I think in the end it’s the people closest to you and the way you treat them, the way they treated you, which become significant. That just overpowers everything else.
And then maybe, like when I think of like much older artists, sometimes you see them let go of talent as a kind of shiny thing. Like, “Oh, look how I can sing or look how I can,” and it deepens into something more interesting. I often find that with painters, for some reason. Rembrandt’s a good example of like all the teenage showiness goes away and in the end, those portraits of just his face are so stark. And I don’t know, that kind of art I’m very interested in, when talent doesn’t matter anymore really, and something else takes over.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 7: Hello. Thank you for this conversation. Right here. Sorry. I was wondering if you had any advice for someone who’s deciding if they should have children or not.
Zadie Smith: Oh.
Isabel Duffy: Oh my God, no pressure.
Zadie Smith: What would I think about that is, that even, even though. It’s so funny that it’s become like a lifestyle choice. That’s part of the world of capital and particularly late 20th century capitalism that it’s, we think of it as in the choice basket. But it’s really more an existential either/or thing. It happens or it doesn’t happen and both things are alive. Both things are a reality and an existence, but I don’t think it can be–Kierkegaard would say you can’t do it by making a list of pros and cons, you know. Like, “Oh, it’ll be this or be that, or I’ll have more time to work or less time to work.” It isn’t that kind of a decision. I don’t know how to explain it apart from it is a leap. It is a leap of faith. And there’s nothing that could prepare you for it. Nor should there be. And I am a firm believer in whatever version of life that is leapt towards, as long as it’s lived in full, is beautiful.
I, whenever I meet a friend without children, I think you better just live that life to live it because I can’t live it. And you gotta like, don’t waste it. Like, why are you even talking to me? Run around the world. Do something fun. But that was just the urge. And I feel the same way about mothering, like I really want to do it. I really want to be in it and be involved in it. And I just think the important thing in a human life is not to, how do you say, what’s the bloody word for putting something onto someone else to do? Delegation. Shouldn’t it–whatever commitments we choose this, try as much as we can within the limits of what, you know, practical lives, not to delegate everything. You know, like obviously the children, you need childcare, and I couldn’t have written my books without all of that stuff, but at some point you have to enter into like a commitment to something. So I can’t answer whether or not you should have children, but whatever you do, you should definitely do it to the hilt. That’s my feeling.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back and center of the orchestra.
Audience Member 8: Hi. I was wondering about the difference between the short story and the novel to you, what you were just saying about Rembrandt kind of struck me like things being stripped away. Do you view one as like a higher art or more difficult for you or both equal?
Zadie Smith: I think there are probably more perfect stories in the world than perfect novels. I think novels are, by definition, not– they’re kind of imperfect and the perfect ones are so unusual they become like freaks in the culture. Like “Great Gatsby” is like a freak event. Everyone still talks about it, like how does that happen? A novel is more of a a messy thing. I have to say, I love them for that reason. I kind of love their imperfections and I just love that access to another consciousness over the long run. It’s so interesting to me.
I was talking to Rachel Kushner recently, an extraordinary novelist. When I’m reading Rachel, I think it feels the same, when she’s reading me. The main revelation is, I don’t know how to put it, but Rachel is not me and I’m not Rachel. Like she thinks completely differently. Her whole way of seeing the world can be differently, and that’s the bit that I find amazing. And you don’t really get access to that. People don’t show you that much of themselves. It’s not that her books are autobiographical. They almost never are. It’s just the consciousness, the way she sees, is interesting to me and that you get to see it at length.
But short stories to me are about perfection. I’m not a perfect sort of story writer, but I can think of many examples and maybe foremost in my mind, George Saunders, here, and also the early stories of Toni Cade Bambara, who I mentioned a few times in this book, also has some extraordinary stories. So yeah, I think they hold out the possibility of doing something well briefly, which is always tempting for me. But a novel for all their embarrassing, you know, silliness is probably where my heart is.
Isabel Duffy: I think we’ve got time for one more question.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s coming from the center of the orchestra towards the back.
Audience Member 9: Hi.
Zadie Smith: Hi.
Audience Member 9: I was reading an article recently about publishing being affected by celebrity book clubs, like Oprah’s book club, Reese Witherspoon’s book club. And I feel like the time that “White Teeth” came out was so different from this era of, you know, being viral and kind of getting these intense shots of stardom. So if you were to be emerging at this point, what would excite you and what would frighten you about this time of publishing?
Zadie Smith: Well, as far as I remember Oprah was–that was still going when I started. And, you know, she has good tastes. Those are pretty good books. So, I think publishing is quite grateful for her interventions. But I don’t, I mean, I do, I think about it, I just don’t think I could have dealt with the onslaught of the other, I just could not have dealt with that many opinions. I wouldn’t have been able to write.
It amazes me when I meet young writers, how they’re able to write in that noise and respond to that noise continually. I mean we always got reviews, but they were kind of, you know, there were in the newspaper, you could pick them up or not, you could read them or not. And you certainly had no access to the individual minute by minute experience of readers. That’s, I mean, that really is wild. And I, and being someone who, particularly when I was young, wanting to please people so much, I think my books would look very different, honestly. Cause I would be trying to please the unpleasable mob. So I don’t know what my books would have looked like, but they certainly wouldn’t have been the ones I’ve written.
Isabel Duffy: Well, I think that’s, that’s about all we have time for. But thank you so much, Zadie.