Zadie Smith, the famous novelist and essayist, politely (and wisely) declined to be interviewed for this article.
Who could blame her? When I e-mailed her requesting an interview, I made the terrible mistake of being honest. What I should have said was that I was interested in talking about her work in advance of her appearance in Seattle (Wednesday, February 27, at Benaroya Hall). Instead, I wrote that I was interested in talking with her about call-out culture and the purity politics of the American left.
If you spend any time on social media, you know what I'm talking about with the term "call-out culture": a teenage girl wears a culturally appropriated prom dress, a cis actor gets cast to play a trans character, a white poet publishes a poem from the point of view of a person of color—and Twitter is set aflame with righteous indignation. The offender must be reeducated, immediately. The online left increasingly runs on outrage like this, and the reason I wanted to talk to Zadie Smith about the phenomenon is because she's written about it.
In a 2017 essay for Harper's, Smith wrote about the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz's Open Casket, an abstract painting of Emmett Till's mutilated body that inspired a heated protest at the Whitney Biennial. At the time, a number of black artists and activists and their allies argued that Schutz, a white woman, was appropriating black pain for her own profit. They urged the museum to remove the painting from its walls and, what's more, to destroy it. In a letter to the exhibit's curators, the artist Hannah Black wrote: "The subject matter is not Schutz's; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go."
The painting remained on the wall, but Smith's essay, which neither praised nor condemned Schutz's work, wasn't received much better than Open Casket itself. The essay was essentially about who is permitted to comment on what, and Smith's status as a British and light-skinned biracial woman was seen by some critics as (to borrow a word) problematic—although, as Smith pointed out in her essay, Hannah Black is both biracial and British, too.
A critic of Smith's piece, Candace McDuffie, wrote in Ploughshares: "While Smith acknowledges the complexities of being biracial, she doesn't probe her privilege of having light skin nor does she pay the same attention to what cultural appropriation actually is."
Other readers took issue with Smith's use of the word "quadroon" to describe her own multiracial children. "Are my children too white to engage with black suffering?" she writes. "How black is black enough?" It's a question she leaves unanswered.
Still, in some ways, Smith has insulated herself from criticism. She has been a major literary figure for more than a decade, ever since her generation-defining debut novel White Teeth. She isn't online, where most of the yelling takes place, because she doesn't need to be. Being inaccessible makes it harder for the public to bully a person out of their opinions.
But that doesn't mean Smith isn't aware of the backlash, and despite it, she's continued to write and to speak about the pressure to be, or at least to appear to be, woke. It's a trend that started to filter through the American left while Obama was still in office, and, post-Trump, has become a seemingly unstoppable force, drowning out the bad—the wrong, the unwoke, the impure—in its wake.
Smith explored this moment of shifting morality in a stunning piece of satire, "Now More Than Ever," published as a short story in the New Yorker last July. "There is an urge to be good," the story begins. "To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be."
This piece of fiction takes place in a world that resembles "woke Twitter" come to life. In the evening, people stand at their windows, holding signs printed with large black arrows. They point their arrows at people condemned as problematic—people who are "beyond the pale." Those sorry souls they're pointing to have been canceled, disgraced, publicly shamed for offenses that aren't immediately apparent.
Smith's narrator, a professor, lives at an unnamed university—in real life, uiversities are the epicenter of call-out culture and illiberal activism—and Smith jumps around between slightly (but only slightly) absurdist scenarios that might take place on today's woker campuses. All acts, people, and history are judged by the contemporary standards of what's okay and what's not, no matter what people may have thought 5 or 50 or 500 years ago, and while the narrator doesn't quite understand all the new unwritten rules and regulations, she knows she must obey them or risk cancellation herself.
And so she follows along, pointing her arrow at a colleague named Eastman. The narrator says, in explaining why she's shaming him: "Not only does he not believe the past is the present, but he has gone further and argued that the present, in the future, will be just as crazy-looking to us, in the present, as the past is, presently, to us, right now!"
Perhaps predictably, this story was not universally well received. The writer Isaac Chotiner, for instance, called it "an extremely reactionary piece of short fiction" on, naturally, Twitter. But for those who loved it, it was Smith at her best: observant, funny, full of character, and insightful, but also just a step removed from the tempest.
After I e-mailed her, telling her what I wanted to interview her about, she wrote back: "This e-mail should be filed under 'being offered enough rope to hang yourself.'" It's not hard to see why she would decline to open the particular can of worms on offer: The backlash to such an interview isn't just a possibility, it's almost a guarantee.
In her writing, though, she's able to comment on what's happening without, it seems, getting too bogged down in the muck. Is it because she's a British national commenting on American life? No. It's because she's Zadie Smith.