Wait, Zadie Smith and Nick Laird host cocktail parties? Apparently if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Zadie Smith-Nick Laird cocktail party, you show up. No one declines. But I’m jumping ahead.
If you’ve been reading this blog a while you know my obsession with Zadie Smith. On Beauty is one of my all-time favourite books. She has a new book coming out next month called Swing Time (someone please send me an early copy!). I will – and I try to – read anything Zadie Smith writes. Her essay on Joy is one of my favourites and I recommend it often. Her essay on failing is bookmarked on every device I own. Sometimes, when I’m feeling extra dramatic, I cry when I get to the end of that piece when she empowers the reader to practise reading like a skill, to honour reading as a talent, to accept that to read is to be challenged.
But I also love when Zadie Smith writes about real people. She is responsible for, probably, the definitive profile of Eminem (for Vibe, and for some reason the link is now impossible to find) and her article on Jay Z for T Magazine is also acknowledged to be one of the most insightful profiles of an artist who has been profiled over and over and over again.
What happens then when Zadie’s on the other side and is profiled herself? In T Magazine. And by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the best thing I read yesterday and will probably be the best thing I will read all week. Because Jeffrey Eugenides has also shown up on this blog a few times. As I mentioned a few years ago, even though he and Jonathan Franzen (though they won’t admit it) consider themselves to always be in creative and intellectual pursuit of David Foster Wallace, for me, between the three of them, it’s unquestionably Jeffrey’s work that I’ve connected with the most. So when it’s Jeffrey Eugenides interviewing Zadie Smith and talking about what it’s like at her cocktail parties and pretty much fangirling Zadie in a way that isn’t pervy in that way Margot Robbie was perved on in Vanity Fair because he always relates his admiration back to her stories, it becomes a guide for how to do this. Even when he’s describing her physicality, it’s connected to her characters, how she’s loaned her surface attributes to the people she’s created. And when the discussion comes around to her own beauty – which is undeniable – it’s not so much of an objectification as it is an observation: that Zadie Smith is almost …apologetic about it, and certainly eager, so eager, to explain the effort behind it, the way you might break down a calculation. Here’s the final number, but please, please let me show you the work, let me give you all the math that went into arriving there.
But it’s not as easy to unpack the work that goes into the writing. In her new book, Zadie writes in the “I” voice. There are a lot of people who believe that high lit must be presented in third person. That only juniors write in “I”. Zadie acknowledges that she was one of them. But she says she was able to get there once she got over herself. I wonder though if that the obvious counterpoint here is that, well, she’s Zadie f-cking Smith. She’s already proven herself with White Teeth and On Beauty, so if she’s coming with an “I” novel, in her case, she’s already far ahead of the starting line. Amazingly, Jeffrey Eugenides in this piece has given us an answer to that question too. Because Zadie addresses the idea of privilege, of “check your privilege”, and that, relatively speaking, “I don’t think there’s anybody on earth for whom that isn’t true. There is no unimpeachable identity from which you can operate in the world from a position of righteousness at all times. Sometimes, at a certain moment in history, people have decided that you are close to that figure. How tempting it must be to grab it with both hands and be that person, the unimpeachable moral person of rightness and rectitude. But you know it’s an illusion”.
How do you resist though? It’s almost impossible. You see it every day not just among celebrities but on Twitter. And after presidential debates when a person in a red sweater with a great name grabs the temptation of the spotlight with both hands, forgetting in the intoxicating glare of fleeting fame that those hands were dirty too.
Seriously, we could delightfully analyse and dissect every sentence of this profile, do an entire podcast on it, I love it so much. Click here to read Jeffrey Eugenides on Zadie Smith in T Magazine.
Yours in gossip,