Writing and Capitalism: Zadie Smith Ponders “Why Write?”

(published October 6, 2015)

Zadie Smith picture

Last Tuesday, critically acclaimed British writer Zadie Smith spoke in Finney Chapel, which was packed with student writers and community members.

Smith is a Jamaican-English writer, and grew up in a northern suburb of London. She is the author of five books, the first of which—White Teeth, published in 2000 just after she graduated from Cambridge—drew almost instantaneous acclaim. She has since been compared to Salmon Rushdie, particularly because some of her work (particularly White Teeth) includes themes like multiculturalism and assimilation. Unlike Salmon Rushdie though—whose works like Midnights Children and The Satanic Verses are widely considered magical realism—Smith’s work is more realist and post-modern. Her passion for truth and expressing reality— telling the world as it is— was a prevalent theme in her talk, as was her awareness of societal structures that could limit writers in this regard.

“I’ve worn the kind of shirt that’s going to need sweatpads as the night goes on,” quipped Smith as she took the stage before diving into her talk.

The title of this Convocation—“Why Write?”—Smith said, is an interrogative approach to George Orwell’s essay, “Why I Write.” Instead of remarking on her personal process as a writer (though one could read her essay “That Crafty Feeling”, based on a 2008 lecture at Columbia University, if they would like to know), she focused on the essential anxieties related to writing, particularly creative writing, from the stand point of her students at New York University [NYU], where she teaches in the creative writing program.

Smith began by evaluating the “creatives” of today. The people at literary festivals, for example, “aren’t fooling anyone anymore,” and such established institutions are reinforcing the status quo of writing. The term “creative” today has lost its meaning to one that is more consumerist; advertisers and people in marketing describe their work as “creative,” and this has diminished the meaning of the term in relation to being a “writer.” It has also contributed to the sense of having to “brand” oneself as a writer to reach an audience.

Smith remarked of her students at NYU “even the most brilliant intellectuals might be timid writers.” To Smith, writing that creates friction also creates “discomfort, distaste, and shock,” all of which is essential to exploring one’s command of language. Such a willingness to experience displeasure, Smith noted, is something that seems especially difficult for Americans, who are raised in a supply/demand consumerist system and who often do things that they know will please others.

Smith then turned to the subject of being innovative beyond established institutions. In her “adopted city” of NYC, she noted that even hip-hop culture has turned consumerist. “The white star legitimizes the black artist,” she noted at one point, referring to the now common-place pop song where rap stars who have “made it” perform with white female singers, mostly by “watching them dance.”

Rappers, who can be considered writers, often have a common goal of being recognized in a commercial sphere. One can see this if they look at the careers of Drake or Kanye West for example. Both are creatives, according to Zadie Smith, but they have chosen to monetize that creativity. “We started from the bottom now we’re here,” Smith quoted Drake’s lyrics. “I just wish,” she said, “Drake more fully analyzed what being ‘here’ meant.”

But can true innovation happen when we’re consumed with filling a niche in the market for “creative” people? What can we do to restore some of the vitality to specifically creative writing endeavors, when print, “our one central place for writers, has pretty much evaporated?”

Smith then turned to four major tenants of her lecture— the four reasons she agrees with from Orwell’s lecture why write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Part of these, she believes, were influenced the cultural forces Orwell was writing under in the 1950s—the notion that people over age 30 were no longer individuals, because their jobs and life purposes oriented towards serving others. This is inherently different in the developed world today, because “everyone’s creative project is their life.” Aesthetic enthusiasm is seen on a more microscopic level for writers—composing a syntactically successful sentence with carefully chosen words is thrilling for writers. And as far as political or historical reasons—there might be a sense to preserve something from history, or to highlight something to make a change in the future—science fiction is particularly notable for doing this.

Yet these reasons still do not diminish the doubts of consumers and of readers. So many people are inclined to not believe “the media,” whether that includes TV broadcasts, print or online news outlets, radio, even university publications. Perhaps this is because they believe everyone has a personal bias, or perhaps due to their corporate or other greater financial influences. In this case, the writer must resort to the fundamental mentality of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and needing to prove oneself as a part of the “reality-based community.”

Why write then? Smith answers, “Because you have a desire to see things as they are”—but even more so, “how things ought to be.”

A good novel or work of fiction is not a farce, but it “is not a photograph” either. Fiction is not real in the same way that a photograph is: if you photograph an object, you can tangibly understand that the object is real. You know that in order for that photograph to exist, the object was definitely placed in that particular space at a given time. In contrast, one compelling and concrete character might be more believable than a thousand magazine headlines declaring “What Women Want Now!” Telling the story of a fictional character might highlight an underlying theme of the human experience, a different kind of truth than a photograph. Writing can strike powerful chords and not just show things how “they really are,” but “how things ought to be.”

One must constantly fight nostalgia as a writer, and directly combat the notion of “Can’t you see? All the good writing’s been done!” so writing has become a consumerist activity. But—a quote that personally resonated with me—“What else does a writer have apart from sentences? Tending to sentences is like a refusal, since consumerism diminishes the utility of sentences.” The ability to manipulate your language allows you to express reality and show what you can do. The “all-seeing artist” doesn’t really exist today because there’s so much to see, especially with tools like the Internet and the general connectivity that we have today. “No writer can hope to capture that reality in full,” so why not hone your craft and tell one story rather than all stories?

“Writers are effective sentence makers,” Smith said. But above all, it’s a practice, an exercise that one must continue to pursue in order to be successful, and to be able to manipulate language at all. And the practice of writing sentences is essential—you can’t tell someone not to care about their sentences because “that’s like telling a builder not to care about their bricks!”

Why write then? Because this creative refusal is an act of rebellion, even if simply against our current consumerist notion of what it means to “write” or “be creative.” There are so many movements that are happening all around us—like Occupy Wall Street, or the Anonymous hackers—which actively refuse the systems in front of us. There are so many artists who are now refusing print or record companies because of such companies’ maltreatment of artists. To write, you must challenge your readers and yourself to question the word “creative.”

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