On Voice, Writing, and Expectations from Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is a British writer of Caribbean descent, and with equal parts razor sharp wit and whimsical candor, Smith can draw us into any landscape, whether it is the love triangles, trials, and tribulations of immigrant families settling into the UK in the late 1990s, or the rather prosaic love affair of a college professor. Indeed, I’ve never forgotten this particular witticism from Smith on love:

It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

On February 2, 2011, Harper’s Magazine and New York University’s Creative Writing Program held a discussion between Zadie Smith, as a Harper’s New Books columnist, and Reviews editor Gemma Sieff. 

Smith comments about her awareness of the uncertainties of books, and how novel writing can bea means of thinking about process, when she says:

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.

Smith suggests that this attitude can be attributed to her upbringing at a time that merit was credited in British institutions of higher education:

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.

Speaking of her influences and novels that she enjoys a lot, Smith pinpoints to the great Russian novelist Vladmir Nabakov, and suggests that imperfection speaks to the process of editing crude writing:

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.

In another instance of speaking about her work, in 2012, after Elmore Leonard published “10 Rules for Writing Fiction,” and was reviewed by the New York Times, The Guardian followed this up by asking some of the most famous literary voices to comment on their own rules for writing fiction, amongst those, Smith, in late February 2012

When trying to get things done, it’s a no brainer that we should switch off from the net to meet deadlines. However, these words stand for their own in a way which needs little introduction. A mantra for all those looking for a template of do’s and dont’s.

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

What I love most about Smith is her refusal to be pigeonholed, because sometimes, you cannot tell the stories of the landscapes of where you’re supposed to be from, but embrace wherever it is that you’re meant to be.

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