Intro for November 17, 2016
New Zadie Smith interview! New Zadie Smith interview!
Her book, Swing Time, came out this week. Have you started? Do you love it? I’ve about 100 pages to go to the end, don’t want it to end, and I didn’t have a highlighter with me on my trip so I keep folding over corners. Here’s one of my favourite passages, when the narrator describes her boss, a mega pop star, and her dance technique:
Usually when we compliment a dancer we say: she makes it look easy. This is not the case with Aimee. Part of her secret, I felt as I watched her, is the way she’s been able to summon joy out of effort, for no move of hers flowed instinctively or naturally from the next, each “step” was clearly visible, choreographed, and yet as she sweated away at their execution, the hard work itself felt erotic, it was like witnessing a woman cross the line at the end of a marathon, or working towards her orgasm. That same ecstatic revelation of a woman’s will.
You know who that reminded me of? Simone Biles. I don’t mean that Simone Biles wasn’t meant to be a gymnast, obviously she was. But Simone Biles’s style of gymnastics is not the style of the old school. They used to prize grace over strength, elegance over effort. “You’re never supposed to show that it’s difficult.” Then Simone came along and dominated the sport, emphatically proving that artistry and power can co-exist. And Zadie’s narrator is saying here that when a woman tries at something it makes her desirable. That a woman’s ambition is desirable – a truth that bears reminding because it has been seriously challenged in the last week.
Zadie, too, has been challenged. In a new interview with Slate posted yesterday, Zadie talks about literary criticism, specifically male literary criticism, when asked about book critic James Wood’s review of her debut novel White Teeth. She was 21 when she wrote it. And, frankly, it was patronising the way he reviewed her work, her talent. She doesn’t call it that outright but she does tell Slate that:
“I think male critics would like to believe that (they can influence me), wouldn’t they? Particularly with girl writers—that they’re constantly correcting them and improving them. What do I think now? Personally I think that to write White Teeth at 21 is not too shabby, actually. That’s what I think….but certain attitudes amongst male critics that they think perhaps I am vulnerable or unsure of myself.
The way that male critics write about women is always a little funny. It’s part romantic, part corrective, part, “now listen young lady.” [Laughs.] I think they can’t help it. It’s just so deep in our dynamic, in the culture. In middle age you just have a certain comfort in yourself and you just start moving in your own way. I’m quite determined in my own way.”
This is not unlike film criticism where we’ve seen that male critics review female-led films less favourably, the implication being that women have so much more to learn when it comes to storytelling, as if storytelling was a man’s world. I love Zadie’s self-assuredness in her approach. These are my stories. They will change, they will improve, they will sound different, and I will continue telling them. And teaching them. Her confidence as an academic is breathtaking:
“I teach great novels so that makes life much easier. There are no novels in the course that are not great novels, in my opinion, and I guess I take my opinion quite seriously when it comes to other people’s fiction.
You can of course decide that you don’t like Kafka, you just find him boring. But I can still show you the way these stories work, their operations, and I still know that will be good for you, even if you dislike him. It’s like bad-tasting medicine or whatever.”
I TAKE MY OPINION QUITE SERIOUSLY. God! Can you imagine saying that? As a matter of fact? Oh hi, I take my own opinion quite seriously. To go back to that passage in Swing Time, I find it erotic, I find it so desirable.
This entire interview is worth an entire 5 or 6 individual blog posts, maybe more, so you should probably just read it for yourself. But! Before you go! Two more quick points:
Zadie claims that she’s not political. That her preoccupations are focused elsewhere:
“I don’t think I’m a particularly political person. I don’t have a political intelligence. My husband’s like that, I have lots of friends like that, but I’m not a political animal. When I’m looking around, I’m thinking intimately about people’s intimate life. That’s my business. Sometimes people’s intimate lives reflect the political world, but my first concern is always people.”
Her interest in the intimate life, her business in the intimate life, is what makes her a gossip. And it’s because she’s a gossip that she’s able to make the observation later on about the Trump family and, in particular, the Trump children.
And finally, when she’s not writing, she’s reading. And one of the best books Zadie Smith read this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing which I’ve been telling you about for months! If you haven’t read it yet, make it a holiday gift to yourself.
Click here to read the full Zadie Smith conversation with Slate.
Yours in gossip,
Brian Dowling/ TOBIAS SCHWARZ/ Getty Images