"The critic in me and the writer in me
are two different people"
by John Self
September 12, 2012
Zadie Smith’s new novel NW was – mathematically – one of the longest awaited of the year, and its mixed reception surprised me. For every 850 words of closely-argued praise, there was a crowd of cavils by a normally perceptive critic. I had expected critical near-unanimity on this one, with the only disagreement being which section was best. Anyway the attention paid to the book affirmed that any new work by Zadie Smith is a publishing event, and this time, in my view, a literary event too. I was grateful for the opportunity to ask the author some questions about NW and her writing.
NW is a novel in varied parts, about the lives of very different people in one area of London. Did you always know that their stories would be part of something larger? How did the novel find its form?
I didn’t begin with any stories, really. Just this single idea of a girl coming to the door. The novel found its form slowly, over a long period. I wrote the first lines almost nine years ago. And that’s really how it was built: sentence by sentence, hoping the shape would emerge by itself. But once I had the idea of the girl coming to the door, I started to read around the idea of guests and hosts… and there’s sort of a long philosophical history to those ideas, and inevitably they ended up being a part of the book, and shaping it. And from “Who gets invited?” I went to “Once you’re invited, what kind of hospitality is ideal?” – and that gets you into thinking about utopia and dystopia… And those ideas ended up being another room in the house of the book. It’s hard for me to explain, but I guess as a general rule I find the characters subconsciously, but then the conscious part of a novel are these larger ideas. The whole trick for me is not to let the ideas overwhelm that subconscious work, which is where I feel the real life of the thing is. But perhaps for 90 percent of readers all the larger framework goes unnoticed and all they see is a lot of uncouth Kilburn people, talking… I can never tell. It doesn’t really matter. I think that’s just the risk you take when you shape a novel round the present. People distrust the present – it looks formless, unserious. They want the security of the past, and of familiar forms.
Much of the strength of the book lies in the way it reports communication between characters, particularly those of different social and cultural backgrounds. Is NW a state-of-England (or part of it) novel?
I find that idea really boring: ‘state of the nation’. It’s one of those phrases that people who secretly dislike fiction use to pretend a novel is just a spring board to enter into some other, less embarrassing discussion: a political analysis or a sociological portrait. I really don’t presume to know the state of England. I’m a fiction writer. I’m interested in trying to find ways to depict experience through a medium that can never succeed in depicting experience fully: language. It’s a fool’s task, but I know that the pleasure I have as a reader is watching different writers attempt it. And this is just my attempt, to add to all the attempts by others that have come before it. Of course some of that experience involves ‘having been born and bred in England,’ but a sense of place is just one part of a larger concern, as it is with all novelists, no matter where they were born. How does language feel to hear and use? How does time feel? How can we know other people are real and not just projections of our own desires or fears? What does the thought of death do to us? These are the sort of vulgar, childlike question that novelists ask – at least, the kind of novelists I’m interested in. Because it’s just so odd to be alive! And fiction is about that. I think all good novels are about “the state of being alive.” Trying to make them act as national sociological descriptors isn’t the worst crime in the world, but focusing on that aspect ignores the very particular linguistic thingyness of the form. To me writing is deeply irrational, idiosyncratic, because its medium – language – has so much ambiguity built into it. That argument that Alice and Humpty Dumpty have about the instability of meaning that’s the epigraph of a million graduate dissertations… Language is the absurd bit of writing that can’t be entirely suppressed or controlled by journalistic ideas like ‘state of the nation’ novels. Maybe the phrase, if it’s used at all, is best used satirically, as Amis used it.
Sometimes it feels that in England and America especially there is this desire that the novel behave itself and exist as only a sort of mildly creative interpretation of the news. Faction. Solid, recognizable, like a TV sitcom written down. But a novelshould have a little witchcraft in it, don’t you think? It should be a little weird. It should try to do something that can only be done in this form, in language.
When reading NW, I thought of other books. London Fields(obviously), which is similarly controlled in its prose yet enacts the messiness of life even as it portrays it. Or Evan S Connell’s Mrs Bridge, which like the ‘Host’ section in NW, makes up a whole life in short discrete scenes. Does the book have any direct literary inspirations or influences?
Hmmm… When I think of London Fields I think of White Teeth. And there the influence is direct. But nothing could have been further from my mind writing NWthan London Fields… I see books in terms of their sentences and to me the sentences of White Teeth and NW are really from different planets! But this may be my own delusion. In the end, you have to defer to readers: you can’t instruct them to see a sentence your way – they have to see it themselves.
Anyway, Mrs Bridge was certainly in there, though perhaps not as much as Roland Barthes’ autobiography, Raymond Queneau’s variations, and various books of epigraphs I was reading. I became envious of that numbered structure – and then it seemed to suit Natalie so perfectly, with her determination to march boldly into the future. Originally her section was in a sort of fractured first person. Everyone who read it hated it – me included. Then another writer said to me: “You’re the only writer I know who can create no sympathy in the first person.” I thought: that’s right! When I write the pronoun “I”, I think of myself and end up being incredibly cruel. I’m not sympathetic to myself, as it turns out. I need the she and he.
NW is on the one hand psychologically acute and strongly character-driven, but also experiments with form and content – it’s littered with up-to-date cultural references, has typographical trickery and surprising appearances of the way we live now (such as a chapter made of Google Maps directions). Do these elements come easily? Or is “the culture doing strange things to novels“?
Oh, not so strange. You could find far, far stranger in 1918 or 1761. Nothing new under the sun. The novel has always been a weird form, full of oddities. If there’s trickery in this one, I’m sorry for it: I genuinely wanted to try and get closer to reality, not to obscure it. I mean, look: a version of the most realistic novel possible right now would be the one that took into account the fact that for much of each day in the west, the consciousness of many of us is projected outwards into a 14-inch lit screen, and any thought we have constantly penetrated by news, trivia, gossip, adverts, glimpses of content, and email, always email. I can’t figure out a way to do that, but some younger writer will. Not in the dull manner of ‘putting emails in a novel’ but some organic and genuine way of representing that reality. And stuff like that will always be called ‘trickery’ and accused of shallowness and then fifty years later it will be understood as pure realism. I remember David Foster Wallace saying somewhere that his ‘real’ life did not involve walking by a stream, pausing under an apple tree and having a deep internal monologue about the nature of the world – yet that’s what his fiction teacher expected of him and it’s true to this day that much contemporary fiction hangs upon what are actually quite unrealistic premises. But people still call it realism and think of it as completely ‘natural,’ not strange at all. To me it’s a little strange.
The same goes – at the most banal level – for content. When I first started writing, people often asked why I insisted on this ‘multicultural’ cast. To them it was a publishing ‘angle’ or some kind of post-modern trick. Slowly you realize:these people live in an entirely white social world. So to them it probably isexotic, it is an angle. I had interviewers – especially abroad – congratulating me on the “trendiness” of my family, as if I had picked out a black mother and a white father for fashion purposes. But to me what’s exotic is a world in which everyone is white. I’ve never lived in that world. Being mixed race is not some kind of gimmick: a third of the kids in my school had families like that, and nothing could have been more dull to all of us, more everyday. I remember, too, the shock of reading reviews that took it for granted that Willesden is a sort of piteous place to live, unutterably ‘grim.’ And if a character of mine isn’t living in a four storey house in Hampstead their lives are also described as ‘grim,’ or brutally modern, or whatever. It makes you wonder: where do these reviewerscome from? This is just bog standard London life I’m describing, the lives of millions. But perhaps the only ‘moral’ of my fiction is that one person’s strange is another person’s normal.
Your essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ attracted much attention, contrasting lyrical realism (in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland) with the ‘alternative road’ of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Where do you place your own work in this context?
I don’t really. The critic in me and the writer in me are two different people. The critic writes of what she would ideally like to read; the writer only writes what she can. Criticism is easy; fiction hard. I know what I’m doing when I write an essay. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write a novel. Fiction is a much riskier enterprise.
And then that essay is a polemic, and describes what I felt, at the time, to be an extreme situation in publishing. I think China Miéville – my Kilburn neighbour! – said recently that English fiction tends to privilege recognition over strangeness and alienation, and I think that has often been true. Personally I adore the recognition Jane Austen provides but I also love the strangeness of B.S. Johnson or Octavia Butler. In “healthy” times there’s no need for the polemic: it’s a wide church and both types of writers can exist perfectly happily in there. But it didn’t seem to me to be a very healthy time. I think it’s got a little better, at least from the books that I’m being sent. And the ideal – as I think I said in the essay – are those books that defy all categorization, that are great on their own idiosyncratic terms. I was describing two particular paths in the tradition of the novel, but what marks the most interesting novels is their absolute particularity. You can’t pin them down so easily. What kind of a novel is Invisible Cities? What kind of novel is [Naipaul's] Half a Life? I’m afraid real writing laughs in the face of polemical essays. They were rare four hundred years ago, two hundred years ago, fifty years ago, yesterday – great books will always be rare. Lolita doesn’t come around every day. Heart of Darkness doesn’t come around every day. Most novels are just “good enough”, and given that this is so, shouldn’t they be welcomed in their full variety? Great writing comes in a trickle, not a flood. And we’re not so drowning in riches that we can afford to dam up certain tributaries.
As for my own writing, I’m surprised to find I’m quite excited about the future, which I’ve never really been before. NW feels like my first novel in some ways, maybe because it’s the first I’ve written as what my mother would call “a grown ass woman.” So I’m just going to keep on shuffling down my own path, wherever it leads me. The next novel I have in mind is actually a sort of speculative fiction, set in the future, so I don’t know where that lies along those two paths. I don’t think I care!
As a reader, I’ve discovered that since becoming a parent, limited reading time means I’m much less forgiving of – or willing to continue with – mediocre books. Does parenthood have any comparable effect on writing? Are the short sections of NW an effect of this?
Sure. But that makes it sound purely practical. To me, the intense awareness of time that parenthood creates makes a different person of you, and necessarily a different writer. I hate waste of all kinds now. I hate padding. I want only essential things. A good analogy is party-going. I love to drink and I love to dance. I didn’t used to need an excuse to do those things. But now it better be the best party that man has ever invented, otherwise I ain’t going. Otherwise I’m not paying the babysitter, enduring the tears, texting to check the child hasn’t died, and so on and so forth. The same logic works on the page. If I’m going to write it, it better be a necessary word. It better be essential. Because otherwise I could be hanging out with my family, which most days is about infinity times more enjoyable than struggling over a paragraph in the library.
Parenthood is also a central subject in NW. Is this something that came from the essence of the characters Leah and Natalie, or from a desire to write about something prominent in your own life?
I began the book five years before I had a child. That seems to be a pattern with me. On Beauty is about a marriage of thirty years standing, but at the time I had been married only two. I don’t know the reasons. You’d have to ask a psychiatrist.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author for readers of this blog?
I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but someone just recommended it to me and I’m enjoying it. It’s got a great title, too: How to make love to a negro without getting tired by Dany Laferrière.