Breaking News: Snobbery Ain’t Cute

Dear Zadie Smith:

Well, this isn’t a difficult thing to write. Because the kind of sanctimonious attitude you espouse with your open letter really doesn’t tell us the whole story.* Really, what happened here? Did you actually read all of the entries? Or did you shoot them down on sight because the first sentence wasn’t some florid specimen of “originality?” You know, “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father” wasn’t exactly the kind of sentence I’d write home about. (And neither, for that matter, was Forster’s original line.) But I gave On Beauty a chance and stuck it out, despite its cheap reliance upon coincidence and a few implausible relationships, and I enjoyed it. But I gotta say that it took some hubris there to rewrite Howard’s End. Almost as cocky as Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho shot-for-shot. But then you’re Zadie Smith. And, hey, it won you the Orange Prize and got you on the Booker shortlist. And I’m just some crazed blogger who writes on a medium that you won’t deign to capitalize.

Anyway, this isn’t about your novels, which I think are fantastic. This is about something else. I don’t have a prize to hand out. I’m just a guy who likes literature. And I too look for quality and am known to masticate upon wretched manuscripts when the cupboards aren’t stocked with trusty tins and I feel a pressing need to be tortured by a dentist. But if you honestly believe that not one manuscript out of hundreds was worth something, then just what the sam hill were you doing judging a contest anyway? I mean, I thought that I was Mr. Crankypants. But you take the cake! And apparently you want others to eat it too.

So let’s conduct ourselves a little basic math here. There were 800 stories in this contest. And let’s say that the average length of each story was roughly ten pages a piece. So we’ve got ourselves 8,000 pages total. That’s a lot of reading material, I know. But let’s be utterly brutal and cut it down to 1%. That’s eighty pages left. Or eight stories out of 600. If you want to say .05%, that’s four stories. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, in your hard-pressed quest for “quality” could cop to .05% of all the material coming in being worth something. Surely, even you, Ms. Smith, could count one sentence in that crop as amazing.

So you and the judges don’t want to read all the other crap that comes in. Okay, that’s cool. But surely you understand that when you sign on to judge a reading contest, inevitably, you’re going to have to wade through a morass to get to the really good stuff. This is, incidentally, what an editor of a literary journal has to do. And, by editor, we’re not talking about asking top talent, who could write amazing things in their sleep if they had to, to submit stories for The Book of Other People. We’re not talking about having Dave Eggers email you some article that you simply say yes to for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. We’re talking about real editing by aspiring writers, good and bad, who want to be published. The kind of pull-up-your-dungarees-and-wade-into-the-septic-tank hard labor that involves vertiginous slush piles. Oh, they’re nightmarish. But if you’re a glass-is-half-full kind of person and you have even a remote love of literature, you’ll know that every now and then, something good comes through. And it makes the job worthwhile. Do you think you’re exempt from this basic vocational reality because you’re Zadie Smith?

And incidentally, who are you to complain about “pseudo-literary fictio-tainment” when your dear husband offered just that with Utterly Monkey? Not that I have any problem with “pseudo-literary” offerings. But I’m just saying.

Really, Zadie honey, you’re in your thirties now. You really should know better than this. Particularly after all the trouble you got into by declaring England “a disgusting place.” (Aha! A common theme here!) But if this is really one of those cases where you vant to be alone, then please, just stay away from journalists and judging reading contests and concentrate your attentions on what you’re really good at: writing novels.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Champion

* — The “whole story” was, incidentally, relayed by Bilal Ghafoor — if indeed this is the “whole story” and not just another case of CYA.


  1. I have to tell you, Ed. It didn’t seem snobbish to me at all, particularly, but not necessarily, after reading Ghafoor’s story that only two out of 850 stories were unanimously short-listed.

  2. But what if we make the assumption that Zadie Smith is right? (Which is an odd thing for me to say because I actually don’t care much for her writing. I thought White Teeth started out great, but then my interest in the novel and her characters waned before the pages did. “Here’s a good place to end,” I would think. But she had a lot more she wanted to accomplish with her mice of the future. And then, with On Beauty — I’m too much of a fan of the Forster novel to want to see it “re-written.” Oh, and it’s Howards End — no possessive apostrophe needed. The house/property didn’t belong to some guy named Howard.)

    (Oh — and because I nitpick: are you sure you “masticate upon”? Upon seems like the wrong perposition there. And I’m not sure that there’s a right preposition for there anyway. For that matter, what’s wrong with the word “chew”?)

    But back to my original point: what if there truly weren’t any good stories submitted? Judging by The New Yorker (not the most recent New Yorker — I’m not up to the most recent New Yorker. I’m still on the New Yorkers from several months back. It’s like every week with those guys) there aren’t a lot of great short stories. They all seem to be the same short story again and again: vaguely autobiographical, with something bleak, and then some sort of poignant unresolved ending. My standard there is, truly, no standard at all, I realize. But I would like to think that people who say they love literature actually love literature. And I’d rather not see a prize distributed than see a prize given to an entry that was only almost good enough.

    The part where Smith does seem a little too big for her britches is when she writes, “For I have thought, reading through these entries, that maybe the problem with this prize is that my name is attached to it.” Starting a sentence with the conjunction “for” generally sounds archaic and assy — and then, in Smith’s case, the rest of the sentence is a little assy. Zadie Smith isn’t the reason short stories these days suck.

    It does sound like more stories were read than you’re suggesting were read. And it also sounds like Zadie Smith was never supposed to read all the stories, just those on the short list. But this wouldn’t be the first time that you and I have read the exact same thing with wildly different interpretations.

  3. Er, does it not seem most likely that Ed submitted a story to this contest and got ignored? Plus also, what happened to the collaborators at this “new” blog? Seems to me we’re back to the same grievance-and-jealousy axe-grinding we always saw at “Return of the Reluctant.” Don’t let yourself develop hypertension, Ed. It’s really a dangerous condition.

  4. I fully agree with you. The tone of her blog post reeked of snobbery, but then she isn’t really know for being warm and fuzzy.

  5. There’s little to make of the situation causa ipsum; there were a few judges who couldn’t see eye to eye, or didn’t share standards or tastes. I’d be curious to read those lengthy crits they compiled on the shortlisted entries, but there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing – that’s why there’s more than one judge, right?

    Zadie Smith is quite the condescending little vitrioholic shit, though, coming across as one of those writing teacher whose criticism stops at “give me more emotion,” but who MEANS “make it more like one of my stories.” She’s pleading for deprogrammed writing (which Paled My Black Heart) and offering up an excuse right out of your state college’s MFA program. That’s lame, dude.

    (No offense to anyone enrolled in state-college-mfa-programs. Except there’s still probably time to drop out and unlearn everything they’re purported to teach you).

    And then she eulogizes the thing as a genuine “unsponsored” literary competition, evidently without the requisite social awareness to realize: she’s the damned sponsor. We’d hope ZADIE SMITH might attract a different sort of participatory demographic than the KING OF BEERS, true, but is it any bloody different? Would eight-hundred people have entered if her name weren’t behind it? Would word have reached the far corners of the internet in their marketing and outreach? It didn’t reach my block– maybe they should have asked Jonathan Saffron-Kunkenides or whomever to cosponsor.

    Cripe. I don’t usually get so out of sorts.

    — Mtte.

  6. You keep mentioning how much you like Zadie’s novels, like you’re going through some masochistic ritual – “I love you! Hurt me!”

    Don’t bother. Zadie’s novels don’t exactly possess the “greatness” she demands from amateur unpublished story writers.

  7. After reading the blog posts of the editors from the Willesden, I gave Zadie Smith a break. She was given ten stories that she didn’t like and I guess couldn’t pretend to like enough to hand out the award. The award is attached to her name so it’s her prerogative, though it would have been nice to encourage new writers. Since it’s a contest, she wasn’t under the obligation to edit. It was not the case where she was a guest editor for a literary magazine.

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