15x: Afterthoughts on Zadie Smith (John and Elizabeth)

Zadie Smith touched down at Brandeis because Swing Time was this year’s New Student Book Forum selection. It made for a busy day: on top of the podcast, she spoke to faculty and undergraduates at two different events. So, lots of material to discuss.

We do our 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 (or gestured at) 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 Reader, A Room of One’s Own, “Moments of Being”

Philip Roth, The Counterlife, Exit Ghost

Listen to the episode here:

You can read the transcript here:

P.S. Just before we hit Publish on this, Zadie Smith’s latest essay appeared in The New York Review of Books. It too focused on the arbitrary, contingent and altogether peripatetic nature of identity:

I could never shake the suspicion that everything about me was the consequence of a series of improbable accidents—not least of which was the 400 trillion–to-one accident of my birth. As I saw it, even my strongest feelings and convictions might easily be otherwise, had I been the child of the next family down the hall, or the child of another century, another country, another God. My mind wandered.

15: Zadie Smith (in conversation with John)

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)

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 Teeth, NW, Swing Time, Two 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 Kitteridge, Olive 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:

Pro Tip: Zadie Smith also generously recorded some PSA’s for RTB. You might even call them our first celebrity endorsements. Prick up your ears and try to catch their first public airing, coming soon…