Duly Quoted

"A library is a hospital for the mind."

“These days, when reading critically, the fashion is to remain aloof from the human experiences of novelists.”

Book: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

I loved it for the most part. A few of the essays didn’t really pique my interest, but most of them did, and the ones that did were SO worth reading. She writes on writing (love), on writing about writing (relevant to my own writing of “reviews” or whatever these are), on literature, on politics, on voice, on memories, on David Foster Wallace. And she’s brilliant, witty, wise, and humble nearly the entire time.

Also, R.I.P. D.F.W.


These days “self-actualization” is the aim, and if you can’t do it alone you are admitting a weakness.

It is odd to diagnose weakness where lovers themselves do not feel it.

[Black female protagonists] are pressed into service as role models to patch over our psychic wounds; they are perfect; they overcompensate.

To his detractors, the small, mild oeuvre of E. M. Forster is proof that when it comes to aesthetics, one really better be fagged: the zeal of the fanatic is what’s required.

A mix of empathy and ventriloquism fuels the comic engines of his novels.

Forster worked hard to avoid this fate…by way of a willed enthusiasm, an openness to everything that itself skirts perilously close to banality. He did not believe in the “rejection of life,” not for reasons of irritability, asceticism, intellectual fastidiousness or even mystical attachments.

Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later. And then, twenty years after that, it wildly sentimentalizes them, out of nostalgia for a collective youth.

These days, when reading critically, the fashion is to remain aloof from the human experiences of novelists.

Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own…Not a refusal of meaning, then, but a quest for it….Nabokov is not God, and I am not his creation. He is an Author and I am his reader, and we are stumbling toward meaning simultaneously, together. Zebra cocktail!

Readers are incurable fabulists.

[On modern literature] A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked…It is perfectly done—in a sense, that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.

After each book is done, you look forward to hating it (and you never have to wait long); there is a weird, inverse confidence to be had from feeling destroyed, because being destroyed, having to start again, means you have space in front of you, somewhere to go.

Magical thinking makes you crazy—and renders everything impossible.

It’s awful, the swing of the literary fraudulence pendulum: from moment to moment you can’t decide whether you’re the fraudulent idiot or your reader is the fraudulent idiot.

I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea.

We feel that our voices are who we are, and that to have more than one, or to use different versions of a voice for different occasions, represents, at best, a Janus-faced duplicity, and at worst, the loss of our very souls.

For Obama, having more than one voice in your ear is not a burden, or not solely a burden—it is also a gift.

He had the audacity to suggest that, even if you can’t see it stamped on their faces, most people come from Dream City, too. Most of us have complicated backstories, messy histories, multiple narratives. It was a high-wire strategy, for Obama, this invocation of our collective human messiness.

For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians.

Mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

But to live variously cannot simply be a gift, endowed by an accident of birth; it has to be a continual effort, continually renewed.

I believe that flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things.

Christmas, childhood, the past, families, fathers, regret of all kinds—no one wants to be the grinch who steals these things, but you leave the door open with the hope he might come in and relieve you of your heavy stuff. Christmas is heavy.

But we do sense the more difficult truth: that Family represents the reality of which Christmas is the dream. It is, of course, Family (messy, complex, miserable, happy, so many gradations of those last two words ) that is the real gift, beneath the wrapping. Family is the daily miracle, and Christmas is the enforcement of ideals that, in truth, do not matter.

Where women are concerned…the dream is the truth.

[on David Foster Wallace]
He battled to share his gifts rather than simply display them, seeming to seek the solution in a principle of self-mortification.

What have we become when we “understand” ourselves so well all our questions are rhetorical? What is confession worth if what we want from it is not a solution but admiration for having confessed?

For the depressed person pain has certainly been fetishized, pathologized: she can’t feel simple sadness, only “agony”; she’s not merely depressed, she is “in terrible and unceasing emotional pain.”

He was always trying to place “relationships between persons” as the light at the end of his narrative dark tunnels; he took special care to re-create and respect the (often simple) language shared by people who feel some connection with each other.

He was always asking essentially the same question. How do I recognize that other people are real, as I am?

It’s young people who best understand his sense of urgency, and who tend to take abstract existential questions like these seriously, as interrogations that relate directly to themselves. The struggle with ego, the struggle with the self, the struggle to allow other people to exist in their genuine “otherness”—these were aspects of Wallace’s own struggle.

To Wallace, a gift truly was an accident; a chance, a fortuitous circumstance. Born intelligent, born with perfect pitch, with mathematical ability, with a talent of tennis—in what sense are we ever the proprietors of these blessings? What rights accrue to us because of them? How could we ever claim to truly own them?

Slowly, then suddenly?


Filed under: Zadie Smith,

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