Zadie Smith Tells of Success, Story-writing

Two things are striking about Zadie Smith when she gives a reading. The first is her appearance—stylish but unobtrusive in black-framed glasses and big black boots with heavy soles—and the second is her voice. Her voice is deep and unhurried, while her narrative is anything but slow-moving.

Earlier this month, Smith read alongside novelist Caryl Phillips in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard’s Black Writers Reading series in the Barker Center.

Homi K. Bhabha, a professor of English and American literature and language and one of the hosts of the reading, characterizes Smith’s prose by its exceptional “zipping” quality. Her seemingly random, almost casual attention to detail is acute and unforgiving, he says.

In “Stuart,” the story she read at the Barker Center, a cheap shirt is “less subtle about body excretions,” and the guy who owns it “has a hard time with clothes in general; buying them, getting into them, getting out of them.”

Occasionally, when you least expect it, an underlying seriousness emerges from the flow of prose, but the same matter-of-fact voice is as capable of profundity as wit.

After a kid in “Stuart” is punched in the nose, “he can’t understand…that someone should hit him for no reason, that things happen in the city for no reason, and blood can spring from nowhere.”

In “The Trials of Finch,” an excerpt published in the December 23, 2002 issue of The New Yorker from her second novel, The Autograph Man, she slips in a description of a man’s confrontation with the prospect of a brain trumor.

“His death is like the soft down on the back of your hand, passing unnoticed in the firmest of handshakes, though the slightest breeze makes every damn one of the tiny hairs stand on end,” she writes.

Smith wrote The Autograph Man in the midst of the widespread public acclaim for White Teeth, but in spite of the commotion, she says she found that no writer can get away from the lonely task of writing. At some point, she says, “you just go home, and nobody calls you.”

She describes The Autograph Man as the antithesis of White Teeth. But both are true to Smith’s detailed, fast-paced style.

“The spirit of fiction,” she said at the reading, “is to defy what is possible.”

She insists that modern British culture—responsible for such television gems as Big Brother and The Weakest Link—is “trash,” but in her work she turns this very trash into prose.

“The problem with trash, as we all know,” she says, “is that you can’t stop watching it. It wouldn’t be so popular if it weren’t so tempting. Anyone reading White Teeth who’s watched British television can smell the sitcoms a mile away.”

Life has become what she calls “public television”—we watch one another, and, if at any given moment our attention is distracted from a particular person, it’s only because “something else must be happening on a different channel,” according to Smith.

Smith has found, too, that fame isn’t exactly the same on both sides of the Atlantic. When Smith came to the United States after the success of White Teeth, she suddenly found herself expected to answer some of the most perplexing questions facing American society, such as how to end racism. In Britain, at least, “they don’t expect 21-year-olds to know that kind of thing.”

It is the role of student, and not public figure or even writer, in which Zadie Smith is most at ease. “I have a university fetish,” she admits, saying that she is happy to take classes and read books.

This semester she is taking English 253, “Austen, James, and the Novelist of Strategy” and English 298, “Literary Theory in the Life of Literature” and reading E.M. Forster for her upcoming collection of essays on the ethics of the novel.

“I’m reading against the clock now,” she says, but you can hear the amusement in her voice. “I have a gun to my head.”

In fact, she says she would much rather be a reader than a writer—she is more interested in what I’m taking this semester than in talking about her writing.

“I write when I really want to write,” she explains, but “it’s essential to read what you don’t want to read.” She writes because she’s “okay at it,” in the same way an athlete keeps running the 400 meters not out of any sheer joy in the endeavor but because he can do it well.

Smith’s fellowship at Radcliffe will last until June.

And she says her Harvard classes have afforded her a stimulating contrast to her tutorial experience at Cambridge.

Between school and her own work, she still finds moments to marvel at a singular New England community, which has not always met expectations.

“My idea of Harvard came from bad ’80s films,” she says. “Some jocks, some cheerleaders, more beer-drinking in the Yard.”

And that’s not the least of Harvard’s peculiarities, according to Smith.

“Everybody’s exercising a great deal. In my university, nobody exercised. We just drank.”