*83 Plotz and Ferry on Zadie Smith

In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do):  funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.

Discussed in this episode:

Tony Judt, Postwar

Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy

Nicholas Lehmann, The Big Test

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

Stephen McCauley (with JP on RTB) Barbara Pym and the Comic Novel

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black (and others…)

Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

J. P. Toussaint, The Bathroom

Virginia Woolf, The Common ReaderA Room of One’s Own“Moments of Being”

Philip Roth, The CounterlifeExit Ghost

Listen to the episode here.

Read the transcript here.

*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)


In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

Zadie and John also touch on the purpose of criticism and why it gets harder to hate as you (middle) age. She reveals an affection for “talkies” (as a “90’s kid,” she can’t help her fondness for Quentin Tarantino); asks whether young novelists in England need to write a book about Henry VIII just to break into bookstores; hears Hegel talking to Kierkegaard, and Jane Austen failing to talk to Jean Genet. Lastly, in Recallable Books, Zadie recommends Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom.

Mentioned in this episode:

Zadie Smith, White TeethNWSwing TimeTwo Paths for the Novel” “Embassy of Cambodia,” Joni Mitchell: Some Notes on Attunement” “Zadie Smith on J G Ballard’s Crash

Willa Cather, Song of the Lark (1915, revised 1932)

Elif Batuman, The Idiot

Charlotte Bronte, The Professor and Villette

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Pauline Kael, various film reviews

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Ursula Le Guin, “The Story’s Where I Go: An Interview”

Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child

Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black and Wolf Hall

Dexter Filkins, “The Moral Logic of Humanitarian Intervention” (on Samantha Power)

Patti Smith, Just Kids

Elizabeth Strout, Olive KitteridgeOlive Again

Gary Winick (dir.), Thirteen Going on Thirty (starring Jennifer Garner, not Anne Hathaway)

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Toyin Ojih Odutola

Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Bathroom

Listen to the episode here

Transcript of the episode here

Upcoming Episodes: This summer’s archival episodes are all fiction-focussed. Next up is John and Elizabeth cogitating on the conversation with Zadie. That is followed next month by a Cixin Liu interview John conducted with Pu Wang, Chinese literature scholar–and their postmortem to conclude the summer season. In August we leap into the new release of our busy Fall by speaking with Dana Stevens about her great new Buster Keaton book.

30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

Continue reading “30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine”

17 In Focus: Mike Leigh (JP)

The British filmmaker Mike Leigh puts the move into movies: he never stops changing, never stops inventing. In nearly 50 years of filmmaking, he has ranged from comic portrayals of ordinary life amid the social breakdowns of Thatcher’s Britain (Life is Sweet, High Hopes) to gritty renditions of working-class constraint and bourgeois hypocrisy (Meantime, Abigail’s Party, Hard Labour) to period films that reveal the “profoundly trivial” elements of artistic life even two centuries in the past (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner).

Leigh (did you guess he was our Mystery Guest from the grainy photo we posted last week?) contains multitudes. What Roland Barthes says about the novels of Marcel Proust is true of Mike Leigh films as well: you notice different things every time you return to them.

When he sat down with John in Columbus, Ohio (at a Victorianist convention, no less!) they were united by love for a hometown boy made good: James Thurber. The conversation ranged from recording working-class voices in the 19th century to Method acting to the pointlessness of fetishizing closeups to the movies John had never seen and should have–and that’s only the first twenty minutes. It cries out for footnotes, but maybe the best result of all this talk would be simply your decision to go off and see a couple of (or four, or five, or like John seven) Mike Leigh films you’d never seen before. You won’t be sorry.

Discussed in this episode:

Continue reading “17 In Focus: Mike Leigh (JP)”

15 In Focus: Zadie Smith (JP)

In this episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)
Continue reading “15 In Focus: Zadie Smith (JP)”

14 In Focus: Cixin Liu (in English, with Pu Wang, JP)

In this episode, John and Brandeis professor Pu Wang talk with the bestselling science fiction author Cixin Liu.

Mr. Liu is the author of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End, and other works. When he visited Brandeis to receive an honorary degree, Liu paid a visit to the RTB lair to record this interview. He spoke in Chinese and Pu translated his remarks in this English version of the interview: if you would rather listen to the original Chinese conversation, you will find it on the RTB website and in your podcast stream (see 刘慈欣访谈中文版 Episode 14c).

Continue reading “14 In Focus: Cixin Liu (in English, with Pu Wang, JP)”

7 In Focus: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)

loz_delany_2015

On August 6, 2019, an article based on this podcast interview appeared in our partner publication, Public Books. 

Fresh on the heels of our conversation with Madeline Miller, author of Circe,  John Plotz has a talk with Samuel Delany, living legend of science fiction and fantasy. You probably know him best for breakthrough novels like Dhalgren and Trouble on Triton, which went beyond “New Wave” SF to introduce an intense and utterly idiosyncratic form of theory-rich and avant-garde stylistics to the genre.  Reading him means leaving Earth, but also returning to the heady days when Greenwich Village was as caught up in the arrival of Levi-Strauss and Derrida to America as it was in a gender and sexuality revolution. Continue reading “7 In Focus: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)”

5 The Comic Novel with Stephen McCauley

On this episode of Recall This Book, John talks to Stephen McCauley, a novelist and Professor of the Practice of English and Co-director of Creative Writing at Brandeis. Nobody knows more about the comic novel than Steve, and there is no comic novelist he loves better than Barbara Pym, a mid-century British comic genius who found herself forgotten and unpublishable in middle age, only to roar back into print in her sixties. Steve and John’s friendship over the years has been sealed by the favorite Pym lines they text back and forth to one another, so they are particularly keen to investigate why her career went in this way. Continue reading “5 The Comic Novel with Stephen McCauley”