Zadie Smith on Radical Work
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
Novelist Zadie Smith is one of the most acclaimed and beloved writers of her generation. Editor David Remnick has called her “a blessing not merely to The New Yorker but to language itself.” Author George Saunders has praised Smith’s work for its “heart and moral ambition.” I, too, think she’s quite good.
And so today we’re joined by Smith to discuss her prescient historical novel The Fraud, her instinctive writing process, and the role of projection in her work. Then, Zadie reflects on her upbringing in Northwest London, the art that influenced her growing up, and the media circus that followed the publication of her debut novel, White Teeth.
On the back-half, we discuss her desire to frequently reinvent herself as an artist as a writer, why she prioritized pleasure after her book On Beauty, the nuanced politics of her work, her evolving relationship to humanism, a striking passage from Intimations, and what she sees in this next generation of novelists.
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: Beyond the personal reasons of making art, you’ve written pretty extensively about the perceived political power and “necessity of storytelling.” Because throughout the pandemic—and lockdown—many folks were making the case for art’s nobility; its capacity to change, to enlighten. And yet in an essay from your book Intimations, which was written in the throes of the pandemic, you seemed to have a very different view of the work you’ve been making for the past 26 years. Can we take a look at that?
Zadie Smith: Sure.
The more utilitarian-minded defenders of art justify its existence by insisting upon its potential political efficacy, which is usually overstated. (Artists themselves are especially fond of overstating it.) But even if you believe in the potential political efficacy of art—as I do—few artists would dare count on its timeliness. It’s a delusional painter who finishes a canvas at two o’clock and expects radical societal transformation by four. Even when artists write manifestos, they are (hopefully) aware that their exigent tone is, finally, borrowed, only echoing and mimicking the urgency of the guerrilla’s demands, or the activist’s protests, rather than truly enacting it. The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art. As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity—and to time itself. It is something to do, yes, but when it is done, and whether it is done at all, is generally considered a question for artists alone. An attempt to connect the artist’s labor with the work of truly laboring people is frequently made but always strikes me as tenuous, with the fundamental dividing line being this question of the clock. Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit. It is something to do.
You know, it has occurred to me on this tour recently that, when I listen to other artists talk, they use the word ‘radical’ every other word, they’re constantly stating these apparently progressive arguments. But then I know their kids are in private school, and it just really blows my mind that people have literally no shame about this rhetoric that has no relation to their lives— particularly in America. They continue to live these hot, bourgeois lives. So, I never speak like that because, embarrassingly, I realize my life is actually in the commons. I have a case.
SF: What do you mean by that?
ZS: My parents had their moments of activism when I was a kid, so I connect that activism to actually going out and doing it. They went out and marched, and they were involved at a grassroots level. So, that’s the thing I take seriously. I just cannot take seriously people speaking as if their very existence is radical. They’re just radical because they’re alive and willing to give you their art. I find that really hard to take seriously
SF: It sounds like the part that’s rubbing you the wrong way is that you have contemporary writers that are acting like politicians.
ZS: I realize that, in the age of the algorithm, politics are something that has to be legible. Because I haven’t said, I am this, and this is what I believe, I think I’ve allowed people to assume politics that I really do not engage with.
SF: Does that bother you?
ZS: No, it doesn’t really. The lesson I took from my parents is— do you want to label yourself endlessly in your armchair, or do you want to get on the streets and actually change people’s minds? To me, the arguments in my books are open enough that people can enter. Hopefully they enter and something happens.
SF: The thing I love most about your work is that it does feel inviting, and that it’s not particularly dogmatic. And perhaps in the absence of clear definition, others—especially on the internet—have tried to define you and your work for you.
ZS: I realize they have no idea where I come from, or the people I come from, because I’ve never said it. That’s because I believe in privacy. I just don’t understand this kind of public-facing person who’s a series of statements. I can’t engage with it. It surprises me that people think making radical work is saying, my work is radical. That’s not what I think radical work is. I think radical work is radical work. It does something radical to you as you’re reading it… to the way you think, and to the formation of your ideas.
SF: I can’t help but shake that headline that came about from a recent Vulture review, How Zadie Smith Lost Her Teeth, which did take issue with your politics— or how you think about politics, in relation to your work. What did you make of that?
ZS: I mean, I do slightly take issue with being judged on the level of my Black radicalism by someone who isn’t in that tradition. I think it’s about the principle of hospitality. When I was a kid, we used to hand out socialist work, and there was always this idea when you’re dealing with upper-middle class intellectuals, they have this idealized proletariat figure in their mind. And of course… we were the people. Watching the way they would talk to my father, there’s this disappointment that the proletariat, when you meet them, isn’t using the same language that you’re using. He doesn’t fully embrace the Marxist discourse in his language, is worried about his rent and his food, maybe doesn’t have the same aesthetics as you. I was always struck by that.
Even when I got to college, it was more intense. There’s this kind of leftist movement, and it’s inconvenient that the people they speak to, they don’t really like or understand. So, I come from somewhere else, and I do think I both like and understand the people I grew up amongst. I’m not ever willing to shut the door on them because their language isn’t correct, or they’re not thinking in quite the way I wish they would think. I’m trying to find common ground. To me, common ground is not a middling space; it’s like a radical space. It’s a space you can share in common. The commons is the thing that concerns me.
Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW and Swing Time; as well as a novella, The Embassy of Cambodia; three collections of essays, Changing My Mind, Feel Free and Intimations; a collection of short stories, Grand Union; and the play, The Wife of Willesden, adapted from Chaucer. She is also the editor of The Book of Other People. Zadie Smith was born in north-west London, where she still lives.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.