I write against things, I suppose, and the thing that doesn’t interest me is gathering a cabal of people exactly like yourself to read what you write. The thing which I like about my writing—I don’t know if it’s a symptom of its generalness or whatever—but I have old ladies e-mail me, or write to me, more likely, who are age eighty-five and then I have very young people: sixteen, seventeen. I like the idea that the writing has no precise identity. It doesn’t block people, it doesn’t force them to think, ‘Oh, this is me in a very precise way.’
Still doing your holiday shopping? Well we here at The Millions suggest that this year (and every year), you give the gift of great literature. And where better to find some book recommendations than straight from the authors you most admire? Zadie Smith, for example, says you should read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. Alexander Chee says you should read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. Our staff writer, Edan Lepucki, wants everyone to just bite the bullet and read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl if they haven’t yet.
In celebration of this Tuesday’s event with Chris Ware and Zadie Smith, we’ll be posting great comics throughout the day. Here is an excerpt from Ware’s latest, Building Stories. A few tickets for Tuesday evening are still available here…
“Several critics have already pointed out NW’s debt to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Both novels are concerned with female characters who are lost in their marriages and in their modern worlds. The pace of Smith’s prose, especially in the opening section, is reminiscent of Woolf’s, but in NW Smith creates a rhythm all her own.”
- K. Thomas Kahn, “Lamenting the Modern: On Zadie Smith’s NW.”
#LitBeat: Zadie Smith’s Sentences
It was Tuesday night and the room was packed. Because I was alone I sat in the front row. The crowd seemed young enough that the handful of gray haired heads stood out. Based solely on preshow eavesdropping, it seemed like easily half the people in the crowd were college kids or recent grads. The room, so close to the water, smelled like light beer and someone was definitely eating a burrito. But I didn’t mind at all because I was there, at my city’s Harbourfront, to see Zadie Smith.
The event was hosted by local books columnist Becky Toyne, and was actually a live recording of a future show for Elenaor Wachtel’s popular CBC radio program Writers and Company—it’s been on the air for 20 years!, which leant the whole conversation a strange distance. Wachtel would, occasionally, interject what had seemed like a natural progression of questions and answers with “I’m Elenaor Wachtel, here with author Zadie Smith,” or after Smith read from her new book, Wachtel would jump on her mic to add: “Zadie Smith reading from her latest novel, NW.” It was weird. But then again, the first page of NW describes a line, snatched from the ether of the radio waves, so perhaps it was the best way for us in the crowd to get even closer, somehow, to the text.
Which is, ultimately, what it’s about. Smith was very charming and funny, and her attitude on stage was generous and inclusive; she kept mentioning commonalities with other people in the room, be they black parents, or other writers. It’s been over a decade since White Teeth, and Smith seems to have grown more comfortable with her success with each book since. While her early public appearances seemed to have a nervous, shell shocked hostility to them, the only trace of this discomfort on Tuesday came at the very beginning, when she crossed the stage with her head down and her hand up, a waive that doubled as a shield. Despite 12 years of living in the semi-public eye, there remains the sense that perhaps she still kind of wants us to look past her to the work itself.
When asked about the specific use of different writing styles in each section of NW, Smith’s face took on the glow of serious delight. “I decided I really wanted to write a book in fragments one way or another,” she said, “I wanted to make the reader feel different things.” Smith shared a quote from David Foster Wallace, saying that she too wanted to do something to, in his words, “break the rhythm that excludes thinking.” Near the end of the show, Smith simultaneously cracked up and charmed her audience by describing the surprising power that the humble sentence still has over us. Gently mocking her critics, some of whom seemed to take particular interest in her decision to leave dialog untagged by quotation marks, she raised her hands in mock outrage. But no one could doubt her when she said that these sort of stakes made the form an exciting one for her to keep working in. “To me,” she said, “the story is always language.”
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This episode of Writers and Company will be available for streaming shortly after it airs on October 4th, 2012. See also: The Millions review of NW.