British novelist asks, “Why Write?”

Zadie Smith delivered the second lecture in the spring semester for the annual University Lecture series.

In a floral frock, pink head wrap and black-rimmed glasses covering a third of her face, Zadie Smith is anything but dull.

But the accomplished British novelist -- who still wonders how she manages to draw a crowd -- told a captive audience at Hendricks Chapel Tuesday night that writers’ lectures make her uncomfortable.

You just never know what to do, she said. “You glance around, look at your nails then back at the writer and wonder what she is saying.”

Photo: Glorianna Picini

In what was more of a reading than a lecture, Smith, best known for her first book, "White Teeth," delivered her eloquently crafted personal ruminations during Tuesday night's University Lectures in Hendricks Chapel. She reflected on the writer’s role and place in the world in a piece she calls, “Why Write?” The audience of writers and prospective writers, who undoubtedly ask themselves the same question and were clinging to each of Smith’s well-chosen words to hear the answer, did not have time to look at their nails.

“The role of a writer has become absurd,” she said. She added that writers feel everything acutely in the face of their craft becoming continuously less relevant. “Saying, ‘I’m a poet,’ is like saying ‘I like gas lamps’ or ‘I’m the town crier.’”

So, she said, why write then?

Without answering the question, Smith continued instead with a discussion of the challenges 21st century writers face that past writers did not. A 21st century writer spends most of her time “clawing back her copy from one line abuse” and arguing over the Internet with a blogger that gave a poor review of her last book, Smith said. Writers from before the age of visual entertainment, on the other hand, never stopped to ask, “Why write?” It came as naturally to them as breathing, she added.

In this world of forced realities where everyone is a writer and everyone is published, serious writers must distinguish themselves with skill, clarity and craft, Smith said.

“Many fake writers are published and many real writers exist only on the Internet,” she said.

Again she said, why write then?

This time, Smith satisfied the knowledge-hungry audience with an answer: we write because we are writers, because we have a desire to see things as they are, because of sheer egoism, she said.

“Writing is a kind of freedom,” Smith said. “Not a freedom of expression, but the freedom to escape from the partial subjective reality in which I live.”

Michael Tummings, an artist with Light Work visiting SU for a project, agreed with Smith’s notion of freedom. “It’s really great to see someone look at the world so beautifully and analytically,” he said. “When you listen to her, it’s nature speaking its words. It’s real.”

Smith did not end her reading with a definitive conclusion to the question “Why Write?” but rather something to consider. A writer, she said, “is an excellent chair maker who’s made a chair unnecessary to this economy that nobody wants or needs.”

There is hope for writers still, however, because she believes, she said, we are entering a revolutionary period of intimacy between the writer and the reader and that the “texture” of a writer’s prose, its uniqueness, will be what brings readers back.

“The greatest writing not only recognizes how things are," she said, "but demonstrates how things might be otherwise.”

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