October 27 is a mighty auspicious day to be born on if you happen to be a writer. Today we wish a happy birthday to Dylan Thomas (1914), Sylvia Plath (1932), Maxine Hong Kingston (1940), Fran Lebowitz (1950), and Steve Almond (1967). It’s also the 106th anniversary of the first New York City subway’s opening, which is certainly a place where much reading (and some writing) happens.
Both The Writer’s Almanac and Today in Literature list this as Zadie Smith’s birthday, but according to her Facebook page it was Monday—and I imagine she would know. But it’s still not too late to wish her many happy returns as well. Not that she needs any additional press from the blogs at this particular moment. The Outlet has recently run a couple of essays that posit the question: “Is Zadie Smith the Barack Obama of literature?”
The parallels between the two are trotted out: Both are biracial, ambitious, hold out the vague promise of bridging the racial divide; “both are figures who because they smoothly speak the language of progressivism (in Smith’s case, the language of progressivism is the language of avant-garde literature and abstruse academic theory) appear—or in the case of Obama, appeared—less cautious and conservative than they really are.”
There’s something slightly discomfiting about holding the two of them up together. The mild hero-worship gives me pause, if only because I’m feeling a bit played out on the whole vocabulary of hope. But I also don’t quite see the comparison, other than the obvious points. Don’t get me wrong—I think Smith is an adept writer and for the most part a good essayist, and I’ll always read what she has to say. I think she writes well about Obama. But I disliked her recent confessional piece in the New Yorker—was this her way of atoning for all her good fortune? And if so, why? It made me think of the way pretty girls in sixth grade used to say, “Oh, I’m so ugly I can’t stand myself.” I never quite got the point of that either; nobody wanted out themselves as such a brown-noser she would take that bait.
I’d rather read Smith the E.M. Forster scholar than Smith the class warrior any day. She writes so well on literature, its points of accessibility and its beauty. Maybe I’m guilty of not wanting my writers to color outside their lines, but I was hugely pleased to see Today in Literature’s misplaced birthday wishes because they included a piece from an essay of hers I’ve always liked entitled Fail Better:
A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that…. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer’s style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park. What I’m saying is, a reader must have talent.
I suppose this is a way of ingratiating herself with readers, in a sense, but it’s bait I will take. I’m a careful, somewhat ponderous reader and I like to think it’s in some way a sign of respect for those whose work I read. And I appreciate Smith’s taking the time to call that out.
So happy birthday all you writers, and a lovely fall evening to all you readers, whether it’s your birthday or not.