Posted by in Smith, Zadie

[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. ]

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