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Zadie Smith on the Intersection of Culture and Writing

by David Miller Dec 14, 2012
Out of all the writers working today, nobody zeroes in on identity, place, and digital culture as lucidly as Zadie Smith. Much of her nonfiction is available online. Read it.

1. “People of colour do not think of themselves as exotic or other to themselves. We think of ourselves as white people think of themselves, as central to ourselves, and not some stylisation, political points, added extras; none of those things. We are ourselves.”

    1. –Discussing

On Beauty

2. “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility.”

    1. –From the essay “

Generation Why?

3. “There’s a whole genre of people who can’t be represented by the New York Times, because their words can’t appear as spoken. That’s unfortunate.”

    1. –On interview with Jay-Z via

Francis Uku

4. “The search for an identity is one of the most wholesale phony ideas we’ve ever been sold. In the twenty-first century it’s almost entirely subsumed in its purest form of “brand identity” — for Levi to be “more black” would simply involve the purchasing of items connected with the idea of blackness. How can anyone be more black? Or more female?”

    1. –Talking about the novel

On Beauty

5. “We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”

    1. –An

article in response

    to James Woods’ critique of modern fiction in the wake of 9/11

6. “I just feel suspicious of the idea of pure writing, of something that never embarrasses you, which is completely clean. It’s just, in my experience, writing which is completely clean is writing that has had shorn from it almost everything that’s of interest.”

    1. –From

Harper’s conversation

    with Reviews editor Gemma Sieff

7. “In 2006, I went to Liberia for the first time. As with any trip by a westerner to the “developing” world, my attention was drawn to the gap: between these roads and the ones I had walked down, these houses and those in which I had lived, these schools and the schools that had educated me. Into this gap, well-meaning people tend to pour in two large groups (though there is a good deal of overlap): the Church Workers and the Aid Workers…. On that first Liberian visit, I was a guest of Oxfam, and being around them and their work illuminated another significant gap: the one between the language of development and the language of the rest of us. This is no special flaw in the world of development — every large organization has its technocratic lingo and unreadable reports. But it seemed to me a shame that between the highly technical, acronym-heavy documents written within the world of development and the often saccharine self-descriptions of the church workers, there were so few people writing development stories from a human perspective. Stories that were not especially concerned with a man’s eternal soul or his statistical representation, but with his life.”

    1. –From “Mind the Gap,” an

essay in Guernica

8. “Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

    1. –From “

Writing Rules from Zadie Smith

    1. ,” published by the


9. “It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it’s impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realise it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called “realists”, comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it.”

    –From “Fail better”

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