You are just a fool with a keyboard: Zadie Smith, on writing fiction

In an interview Granta’s Ted Hodgkinson, the writer talks about composing tighter sentences, the ‘essential hubris’ of criticism and why novelists prefer writing in their pyjamas

Zadie Smith’s first novel in seven years, NW, focuses on the lives of four people trying to escape their past. The setting is largely Smith’s home neighbourhood, to which it is both love letter and the context that her characters are trapped by. In an interview with online editor Ted Hodgkinson, she spoke about why spending time in America has made England ‘usefully alien’, writing tighter sentences, the ‘essential hubris’ of criticism and why novelists prefer writing in their pyjamas.

This is your first novel in eight years, during which time you’ve published regularly as a critic, written a book of essays, edited a collection of fiction and taught classes at several writing programmes. Does this more critical work make immersing yourself into the long haul and in some ways subconscious process of writing a novel more of a challenge or does it enrich it?

It’s my feeling that the process of being edited by American journals improved my sentences. It was like going back to school. And with a tighter sentence I was able to writer a tighter book.

On the other hand, in what ways does writing a novel make you reflect differently, if at all, on your essayistic work?

Whenever I write a novel I’m reminded of the essential hubris of criticism. When I write criticism I’m in such a protected position: here are my arguments, here are my blessed opinions, here is my textual evidence, here my rhetorical flourish. One feels very pleased with oneself. Fiction has none of these defences. You are just a fool with a keyboard. It’s much harder. More frightening. At the same time, I work really hard on my novels, so when I return to reviewing I expect the novels I read to really have something going on. Not perfection, because I know that’s impossible and not really even desirable – but some kind of genuine urgency. Some risk has to have been taken. Something in the book has to be genuinely fresh: perspective, language, form, ideas, something.

Read the full interview here.
(Photo: David Shankbone/Flickr)

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