Zadie Smith: The Literary Material Girl

There are many unpardonable qualities within Zadie Smith’s recent New Yorker confessional, which should bother anyone who has even a shred of empathy for anyone making less than $50,000 a year.

There is the embarrassment in Zadie Smith blabbering about a very private matter with a “friend” in a very public magazine (did further calumny emerge when the New Yorker‘s notoriously thorough fact checkers contacted this woman?). There is Zadie Smith’s callousness in collecting a loan from someone who is clearly impoverished (particularly when the money was “no skin off my nose,” as Zadie Smith reports; it is certainly “no skin off my nose” to buy a homeless man a sandwich from time to time, but one would never consider asking for the sandwich back). There is Zadie Smith using her privileged position as a New Yorker contributor, where she will collect a check she really doesn’t need for an article in which her friend receives no compensation (indeed, if anyone who knows both Zadie Smith and “Christine” connect the dots, Zadie Smith’s friend actually loses some “value” in this Faustian bargain). Zadie Smith characterizes her previous self as “a working-class girl who’d happened upon money” with her “essential character unchanged,” which sets up Zadie Smith, a 34-year-old debutante, to come out to her discreetly charming bourgeoisie demographic. (We do know that Zadie Smith attended the Franzen party, where she was “surrounded” by Nathan Englander, Mark Ronson, and Patrick McGrath. It would be difficult indeed to detect blue-collar bonhomie from this bunch.)

In short, Zadie Smith has written a tremendously insensitive article that is essentially the confession of a selfish and stingy ablutomaniac who seems to possess little desire in comprehending the motivations of anyone outside her bubble. This is the same novelist (“Fail Better!”) who confessed that she couldn’t write fiction after reading David Shields’s Reality Hunger, but who didn’t even have the guts to stand by her words — much as she didn’t have the nerve years ago to stand by her characterization of England as “a disgusting place”. (Go to the Guardian site now and you’ll see that the Shields article “has been removed as our copyright has expired.” And isn’t it interesting that this essay, published in The Guardian, on November 21, 2009, didn’t appear in the paperback version of Changing My Mind, while there’s no such problem with other essays published at The Guardian. One expects such cowardly backtracking from an army of publicists surrounding an overly protective Hollywood actor.)

But it’s this George Sand mess that I feel the overwhelming need to clean up. From Zadie Smith’s article:

Until this episode, I’d thought of myself as a working-class girl who’d happened upon money, my essential character unchanged. But money is not neutral; it changes everything, including the ability to neutrally judge what people will or will not do for it. George Sand: “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it.” Well, it needn’t, but it does the way I do it.

Forget the split infinitive. The Sand quote, which Zadie Smith has lazily leeched from the shaky website, doesn’t appear in five editions of Bartlett’s Quotations that I consulted. And that’s because the quote doesn’t really come from Sand, but from a character within La Comtesse de Rudolstadt: a youthful-looking, middle-aged Zingara with a beautiful guitar beneath her cloak who is trying to express how she lives and relates to other people. Zadie Smith (like many self-published quotation books before her) leaves out a key part of the passage she’s quoting from. Here is the appropriate context:

Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it. All that is not a true exchange will disappear in the future society. We, I and my mate, practice that exchange and so enter the ideal.

This specific translated phrasing can be found in Joseph Amber Barry’s Infamous Woman: The Life of George Sand (New York: Doubleday, 1978), 284. Barry quotes from a three volume edition that was published in Paris in 1959. Regrettably, he doesn’t indicate whether or not this is his own particular translation from the French. (There was a three volume Classiques Garnier edition of La Comtesse de Rudolstadt published in 1959.) But other translations of the same passage suggest that Sand was getting at much more than some facile “leave them out in the cold because they won’t appreciate your succor” philosophy, as implied by Zadie Smith, the self-declared “financial illiterate.”

Here is the Gretchen Jane Van Slyke translation: “We, on the other hand, we have no need of the rich man’s money, we’re not begging; alms demean the receiver and harden the giver. Everything that is not exchange must disappear in future society. In the meantime, God allows my husband and me to practice that life of exchange and thereby to partake of the ideal.”

The Francis G. Shaw translation: “As for ourselves, we have no need of the money of the rich; we do not beg; alms debase him who receives and harden him who gives. All that is not exchange must disappear from the society of the future. In the meanwhile God permits us, my husband and myself, to practice this life of exchange and thus enter into the ideal.”

The Frank H. Potter translation: “We do not need the money of the rich, we do not beg; alms degrade those who receive them and harden those who give them. All that is not an exchange should disappear from the society of the future. Meanwhile, God permits my husband and me to practice this exchange, and thus to enter into the ideal.”

The Sand quote is one of the article’s most irresponsible components. For it paints George Sand — a literary figure who was very much concerned with charity — as a Reagan Republican. Let the bums starve on the streets. They’ll feel degraded anyway. And you, the benign charity giver, will harden your heart. It’s all about money, which isn’t neutral. Etcetera.

This clearly isn’t what the Zingara suggests at all. The rather idealistic viewpoint being promulgated by Sand’s characters is that all actions should be predicated upon exchange and that life, which does involve giving and receiving, would be more manageable with mutual consideration.

Zadie Smith chooses to view her exchange with her “friend” Christine as one that is centered around material goods. Give the “loan” to a friend and ask for the money back, rather than give the “loan” to a friend because it is the kind thing to do. Whoops! It was never about giving the money back. Christine then performs the charity of forgiving Zadie Smith, perhaps hoping that Zadie Smith will learn that what she did was extremely shitty. A fair enough exchange. But Zadie Smith hasn’t learned at all. Zadie Smith feels “degraded.” So Zadie Smith seeks a new form of exchange by memorializing this incident for the New Yorker in a professional capacity, where, presumably, others reading the incident will be able to pay this “exchange” forward. But it’s not really an exchange at all, because Zadie Smith will be remunerated materially for her inhumane solecism.

Writers routinely mine from their own personal experience. This has been true of artists as far back as Lascaux. But George Sand was very clear about how charity factored into her craft. Here is her epigraph to her autobiography, Story of My Life:

Charity before others; Dignity towards oneself; Sincerity before God. Such is the epigraph of the book I undertake. — April 15, 1847

The date is only five years after she had written La Comtesse de Rudolstad.

In an October 28th, 1854 letter, Sand would write to Armand Barbès:

But let me tell you what my sentiments are. There are actions which are beautiful and good. Charity may impose silence upon honor itself. I do not mean real honor, that which we keep intact and serene in the depths of our conscience, but visible and brilliant honor, honor as a work of art and as an historical glory. (Emphasis in original)

Barbès, of course, was an opponent of the July Monarchy — a period in French history when the haute bourgeoisie very much dealt the cards. When the Society for the Rights of Man was broken up by the police, Barbès created the Society of Avengers and was thrown into prison. There was also the Society of Seasons. In 1849, Barbès was sentenced to life imprisonment after attempting to bring down Auguste Blanqui, a one-time revolutionary collaborator who had become his enemy.

Barbès was, as many histories have shown, a fiery and colorful character. Sand was a friend. She was responding to Barbès’s sentiment (“I acted in a moment of surprise, when thinking more of my own interests than of those in the cause”) in relation to the Blanqui incident. She knew Barbès to be capable of charity.

In a May 11th, 1861 letter, Sand would write to her cousin Pauline Villot, in reference to the possibility of the Academic Francaise proposing Sand as a candidate for the Gobert prize:

I should not think it honest to accept a charity to which others in worse circumstances have real claims. Should the Academy accord me the prize, I would accept it, not without regret, but so as not to pose defiantly and to allow the morality of my works (which are said to be immoral) being openly declared. (Emphasis in original)

In other words, should any writer accept a great honor, they should view the honor as a form of exchange. The charity should be reciprocal. And as far as Sand was concerned, that reciprocity extended to not delimiting the morality contained within her work.

Aside from her experiential blunder, why then is Zadie Smith showing so little charity to the intricate moral questions contained within George Sand’s work? Why does Zadie Smith show so much dishonor not only to her friend, but the moral possibilities of writing?

It is because Zadie Smith does not appear to understand this vital “exchange” component of charity. It is because Zadie Smith blithely assumes that the New Yorker readership does too. It is because Zadie Smith has given George Sand a superficial read.

One must therefore ask how Zadie Smith will be able to take up the Harper’s New Books column with anything less than self-serving motivations. One of Zadie Smith’s predecessors — the late John Leonard, who wrote the same Harper’s column for many years — objected in 2007 to the sense of opportunism and entitlement that afflicted so many young critics. But now those young critics are growing up. Like Zadie Smith, the critics who remain entitled now approach writing not as a calling, but as a way to declare how little they care for viewpoints outside their own. That isn’t charity by any definition. It’s a writing approach that has the rare distinction of both degrading and hardening its practitioners.


[PREFACE: For those who are coming into this ridiculous issue (as quite rightly pointed out by Maud) late into the game, I apologize for giving into the kind of gossipmongering that passes so ignobly for journalism these days. In the end, all you need to know is this: Zadie Smith said something negative about England. It wasn’t really that big of a deal but Smith flipped. And the statement itself can’t really be corroborated because the journalist who initially asked the question keeps changing his story with additional points of “clarification” without producing any evidence. Thus, without hard evidence and with Smith’s hazy memories, the real answer as to what was said lies somewhere between the two extremes. This is neither an indictment of the journalist (Boris Kachka) nor of Smith. It is, rather simply, the only conclusion that can be drawn. And this has, contrary to the steaming dollops of high and mighty ethics being preached by all parties (including myself), become the most tedious issue ever exposed on this blog.]

Earlier in the week, I was prepping to have Zadie Smith on The Bat Segundo Show. Publicist Stella Connell, a sweet lady with an adorable Texan dialect, and I talked and we confirmed the details.

I hadn’t placed too much stock in the remarks and the subsequent press reaction that Maud had dug up. The remarks originated in this September 12, 2005 New York Magazine article written by Boris Kachka. Ms. Smith had said, “I’m not interested in being stared at in coffee shops. America’s a big country. In America only a few weirdos read. I mean, it seems like a lot of weirdos, but that’s because you’re a very big country.” But what really set the Sunday Times on edge was this statement about England:

“It’s a disgusting place. It’s the way people look at each other on the train; just general stupidity, madness, vulgarity, stupid TV shows; aspirational arseholes, money everywhere.”

The UK press had a field day. But maybe Ms. Smith was having a bad day. After all, no place is perfect. Everyone vents from time to time. As passionate as I am about San Francisco, I’ve bitched regularly about the vapid yuppies in Cole Valley, the horrid policies against the homeless, and the air of corruption and favoritism that fuels pretty much every political decision that many of these genteel crooks at City Hall make. And I suspect that Kachka caught Smith during a moment when she was bummed out. It happens.

But Smith had insisted during a Radio 4 interview that this statement was taken out of context. For those who don’t have audio capabilities, here’s the selective transcript:

INTERVIEWER: This morning, you’re widely quoted as describing England as “a disgusting place.” What is it that makes you say that?
SMITH: I didn’t say that. I’m incredibly embarassed it’s in the papers. And I’ve been a bit weepy this morning because of it. [choked up a bit]
INTERVIEWER: So it’s not what you think.
SMITH: No, of course not. I was asked by an American journalist. He kept on saying, “England’s changed a lot. Hasn’t it? And we get your trash TV.” And I said, “Yes, I love England, but the things which I don’t love about it are those things.” I don’t love trash TV. And I’m sad when I see people glaring at each other on the tube. And those things upset me. But they only upset you when you love your country so much. ‘Cause you’re sad when you feel bits of it to be in decline. But you know.

Maud wasn’t the only one looking into this. Galleycat’s Ron Hogan actually tracked down Boris Kachka and had him play the tape, noting, “[S]he certainly did say those words in that order, whatever the context might have been and whether she’s willing to stand by them now.”

But yesterday afternoon, I received a voicemail from Cornell stating that “all interviews are canceled.” She didn’t state a reason and was very apologetic.

But what was the source of this decision? Did it come from the head of Penguin or from Smith herself?

I telephoned Kachka and got in touch with him this morning. He said that, in hindsight, he shouldn’t have played the tape for Ron because it sets a bad precedent. He told me that the comments regarding England had come completely from Zadie Smith’s own mouth through a tangential riff.

I was particularly curious if Kachka had asked a followup question after Ms. Smith had said those words about England. After all, when you’re talking with someone during an interview, you want to get as complete a picture as possible.

Kachka did ask one followup question, “What’s so bad about England right now?” Kachka insists that the conversation didn’t come from trash TV, but from the more general rubric of politics and about Smith being in the States during 9/11.

He also noted, rather ominously, “She doesn’t realize that when journalists come under suspicion, we have the tapes to prove it.” He didn’t play the tape for me.

This morning, I also called Cornell back, hoping to get an answer. Cornell told me that Smith had been overscheduled and that she had been forced to cut back because she did not want to exhaust herself. The decision had come directly from Smith herself and Penguin supported the decision. But at the back of my mind, I wondered if the Kachka interview had something to do with Smith’s decision.

In Smith’s defense, it’s fair to say that Kachka was only one of dozens of interviews that Smith gave to New York journalists and that no author can be expected to recall the precise details of every single interview.

So what’s the answer? Possibly somewhere in between. Smith probably recalls that there was indeed a tangent, but may not recall the exact nature of said tangent. But if the question itself is, as Kachka states, a negative one (“What’s so bad about England?”), then it’s small wonder that a negative response was given.

[UPDATE: Maud points to this press release issued by Penguin Books on September 9, 2005.]

[UPDATE 2: Boris Kachka left me a voicemail this morning sometime after this was posted. To add an additional level of irony to this tale, he says that the report here has been taken out of context. Here’s what he had to say:

“Hi, it’s Boris from New York Magazine. I realize that I’m probably making this worse. But I read your account on your blog and it still misrepresents what I was telling you, which is that I did not ask her — I did not lead her in a negative direction. And I have the transcript up in front of me. I’m not going to read it to you. But I will tell you exactly how it went. I asked her whether she protested the war when she was in Boston. She said, ‘Well in the most minimal way. Just like anybody else. But it’s the most European corner of America. So I wasn’t, you know, being stood on my doorstep or anything.’ And then she said, ‘But in a way I’m glad that I was in America and not here. Because I would have been saddened to see what happened during that time. Now that I’m back and I can see it, it makes me very sad. It’s a different country. When I talk about England now, I just think about the England I love and it’s gone. It just doesn’t exist anymore.’

“And that’s when I asked, ‘What’s so bad about England?’ And she said, ‘It’s everything.’ Blah blah blah. You know the rest. So there you go. There’s your full context. And I really don’t think this whole thing should be scooped anymore. But there you go. I’m not going to let this be a he said, she said. That’s exactly what happened. So…thanks.”]

[UPDATE 3: Liz Spiers takes me to task for implying that Kachka was in the wrong. The criticism here is not about flattering a subject or even defending her (besides, I’m more focused on ferreting out the facts), but of uncovering the full complexities of what Smith was feeling about England rather than leaping to some grand assertion: SMITH HATES ENGLAND in 48 point type. I’d say that the “What’s so bad about England?” question, particularly after Kachka’s voicemail, still strikes me as a negative question. Was the interview conducted shortly after the London Underground bombings? If so, my hunch here is that Smith was going through some mixed up emotions. Why didn’t Kachka ask Smith, “Surely there are good things about England.” That would have clarified Smith’s position instead of reinforcing the negative line of questioning. Human feelings often shift into gray areas. And the problem with all the hype from this article is that it fails to even consider this.

If Kachka “has the tapes to prove it,” then why not release the entire tape or the entire transcript to set the record straight. Why pussyfoot around the question with the whole “And then she said” moment between two passages, as he noted in his voicemail to me. It suggests that Kachka is omitting some section of the transcript.

However, I should also note that Ms. Smith is an adult and thus fully capable of knowing what happens when she opens her mouth.

I still contend, without any favoritism directed towards Smith or Kachka (unlike Spiers), that the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. ]