Thursday night, Columbia was lucky enough to host one of the most well-spoken contemporary authors. Zadie Smith, famous for her acclaimed novel White Teeth, took the time to share some thoughts on the role of the writer in the modern age. Her manner was so warm and relaxed that Bwog’s Literary Correspondents Suchith Vasudevan and Victoria Wills decided it would be too awkward to refer to her by her last name.
As a distinguished writer of award-winning novels and a recent collection of essays, Zadie Smith didn’t need much of an introduction to win over the audience in Miller Theatre last night. Nonetheless, the stunning and turbaned Zadie made every effort to engage with her expectant audience. “Don’t worry, I know the feeling,” she explained with sardonic humor, referring to watching a writer speak, missing her first words because you were either thinking how much she looked not at all or exactly like you expected (she’s really frighteningly beautiful).
Zadie Smith is also very funny, but what was most disarming about her droll demeanor was its perfect integration into a lecture. She commenced the evening with the question “Why write?”, and from her opening stabs at the stereotypical attendant of a creative writing lecture, Zadie segued seamlessly into an hour of deep reflection on the modern writer’s struggle.
She approached the question with compelling honesty. According to her, the modern writer is not happy. He is confused. His life feels pointless. His words float through cyberspace, misquoted or detached from his name. Even if he is a respected poet, like one of Zadie’s friends, he must hide what he really does and assume the title of the respectable job he quit ten years ago. In short, “the role of the writer has become absurd.”
Why then, does anyone write? In her exploration of this question, Zadie brought in Alexander Pope, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Orwell, drawing on their intellectual theories and testing them out on our modern day. Smith also made her own suggestions, including an audience favorite that writers were ugly teenagers who wanted to prove themselves to their belittlers. Yet in the end, Zadie’s antidote to the absurdity of writing was simple: writers exist to make a sentence the best it can be, and then the next one after that. A writer writes a sentence for the sake of the sentence itself, because the sentence is all a writer has.
For other questions, Zadie Smith had fewer answers. In response to the questions of a self-declared University Writing student writing an essay on “you know, the future of copyright…” Zadie answered “I barely understand copyright now!” Other questions ranged from simply “How long do you take to complete a book?” to “How much freedom of will do you give your characters?”, which prompted thoughtful insight into her own craft. For writers and non-writers alike, Zadie Smith offered an hour of eloquence, laughter, and measured reassurance that even today, writing still has value.
Zadie via Wikimedia Commons