Zadie Smith on the Politics of Fiction

“I wouldn’t have thought that I would write on political subjects,” she says. “But I have, quite a lot.”

Sergio Dionisio / AP

Zadie Smith is best known as a novelist, but she’s also, in the fullest sense of the term, a public intellectual. Some of her most striking work in recent years has reached outside the realm of fiction, including essays about 9/11 and fear of words, and the soaring language of Barack Obama, and the political soulcraft of Facebook. It’s work that, on top of so much else, serves as a reminder of how profoundly politics is insinuated into literature, and into culture, at all their heights and depths. It’s work, too, that highlights how futile it can be to think about politics as its own category of discourse and experience. Politics is the water we swim in, and the air we breathe. It is around us, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

At a discussion in Washington, D.C., on Thursday evening—part of the book tour for Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time—the interviewer and NPR host Michele Norris asked Smith about all that: the connection between the politics and ... everything else. We are living, Norris noted, in “interesting times.” And “I wonder,” she said, “if that changes your approach to your work in terms of feeling some sense of responsibility, but also opportunity, to help people.” Can fiction—and words, in their simultaneous starkness and warmth—“help people see things that maybe they wouldn’t see otherwise?”

“I guess I look at it historically,” Smith replied. “I think of what happened to writers, or at least British writers, after the second world war.” Those writers became, essentially, politicized: Their times were simply too interesting for them to be anything else. “Writers who are, by temperament, not political writers find themselves in these situations,” Smith said, and they then have little choice but to become, in their way, political actors. Take E.M. Forster, one of Smith’s role models as a writer (On Beauty, she has said, was an “homage” to Howard’s End). “In peaceful times,” Smith noted, he “was not a man to stand up, not a man to make an argument.” But Forster did not live, finally, in peaceful times. So “he ended up on the radio having to speak in a way that he was not quite used to speaking. And I think he did a very effective job. But it was interesting to watch. In another life, he would have been much quieter.”

Today, too, Smith said, writers are playing that same role: They’re offering not just escapism from the world’s realities, but immersion within them. And some of them are doing that not necessarily by being activists or commentators, but by also by doing something both simpler and more complicated. They’re acting, sometimes, as journalists. They, too, are recognizing how thin the line can be: the politics, and the everything else.

It’s a recognition that is especially powerful at this moment—this week, this month, this coming year—as professional journalists, too, are considering their own relationship to the many, many people who see them as “out of touch,” and “biased,” and “elite.” To the many people who mock them, essentially, on grounds that they’ve failed both at objectivity and at empathy. Smith suggested that, as with most things, reporting—which merges objective fact with an honest effort at empathy—can be an answer.  She pointed to George Saunders and, in particular, the literary analysis of Trump supporters he published in the New Yorker. To write that story, Saunders went out and spoke to people, Smith noted—he tried to empathize and understand—and because of that effort, in retrospect, he “saw what was obvious.”

Reading that story, Smith said, “reminded me, personally, of my own father, who was a middle-class white man, but not an angry or racist one.” Especially because “many of the things that happened to these people also happened to him”: unemployment, divorce, illness. Things that shatter lives and, too often, break the people who live them. “But those things happened within the context of free health care, free education, and welfare,” Smith noted—so when her father fell ill, for example, it didn’t bankrupt him. There was not one misfortune standing between things are okay and utter despair.

The politics and the everything else, bound inextricably to each other. And the I and the you and the we, similarly fused. “For me,” Smith said, “reading those pieces”—Saunders’s, and similar works—“reminded me to make the connection between those people and someone I knew very well: my own father.” Those stories used reality, rather than fiction, to encourage her to bend her own imagination toward empathy. “That kind of journalism, I think, is very useful,” Smith said. And engaging in it means that writers like Saunders “are ready for the times—and they are essential.”

“I don’t think,” Smith added, contra the many magisterial novels and essays and speeches that would seem to suggest otherwise, “I’m one of those writers.” But “even comic novelists have to find some way to get their act together,” she said. “So I’m surprised, sometimes, by what I write now, by the pieces I write. Because I wouldn’t have thought that I would write on political subjects. But I have, quite a lot. It must just be experimenting with the times, really.”