Zadie Smith: “People are always dreaming, when they are reading novels, of some kind of perfection in them, some kind of purity”
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.