Not to overshadow the presence of British novelist Zadie Smith ushering in 2012’s year of Babel, the sobering news that Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s Michael Kelleher was stepping down as Artistic Director to head up a position at Yale came with some shock and a well-deserved standing ovation. The man who really spearheaded the series five years ago was taking the next step in his professional career and was able to give one last glowing introduction for the night’s international guest artist despite choking up a bit during his thank yous.
A soft-spoken and humble Smith took the stage and did something I don’t believe any Babel visitor had done: she read from a prepared set of notes. Before now all speakers shared a mix of candid musings on craft with readings of their work-never a lecture specifically geared toward the audience at hand. Titled “Why Write?” the piece looked at a few authors and their disparate answers to the question. Alexander Pope did so because he was a writer, a Russian contemporary of Nabokov looked to find an identity and voice, George Orwell had purposes of ego, aesthetic, history, and politics, and Smith herself saw the process as a conduit for language rather creating it.
Beautiful in her reading and prose, Smith delighted with witty humor and an inspired list of examples. Talking about literature becoming a fantasy job instead of the legitimate career of the past, she accepts the fact her peers have become absurd. Centuries ago writers would write about the things they knew and disseminate information and experiences through novels without the need to tour or speak to audiences. Now it’s all part of the game-and a help to make sure they exist. Instead of readers coming to listen, though, other writers attend to try and discover tricks that will make them a success. No longer held in lofty status with artists, Smith equates her job with that of a craftsman. You must prove superior skill to distinguish yourself above the rest.
And while the internet has flooded us with information and created a new wave of collaboration, it has overwhelmed by allowing such accessibility. A loss of faith has formed for the media and educational institutions; the idea someone or something can possess all the answers is rendered moot. Everything is subjective and good writing can no longer be a photograph of the author’s viewpoint. To be good one must create a vivid reality and prove success through the work. Justifications are empty words to a distrustful populace with egoism becoming a basic human right. All Smith can do is make sure her current sentence is great and that the next one is too. She must use skill and natural ability to create and hope the public sees its excellence.
But beyond the thoughts Smith put to paper was a palpable desire to move forward. With a constant ambition to improve and evolve, she now looks back at her debut White Teeth‘s baroque, British passages and realizes her style has changed. Explaining how an author needs only to have a good ear to be great, thus hiding their shortcomings-“Kafka couldn’t write plot, so he didn’t”-she also speaks about the phenomenon that most writers are frozen at a fifteen year old mindset forever looking to have fun.
Deciding to change her outlook on writing by stripping away the narrative traditions she has held onto through her young career, her new novel will deal more with how she experiences life personally. Delving into the evil admired in Graham Greene and Muriel Spark, Smith hopes to shed light on how the world really is instead of the idyllic grays we’ve become accustomed to in her work. It’s a new chapter in her writing and a testament to the ever-evolving mindset of humanity and the desire to keep the craft alive.
Babel 2011/2012 Season:
Alexander McCall Smith (Scotland) – April 12, 2012
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Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.