Zadie takes a stand

[11 February 2008]

By Nikki Tranter

Zadie Smith is the headline grabber of the day, with her comments on the Willesden Herald web forum slamming literary prizes. Smith is quoted in the Times:

Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature. They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies.

Her clear dismissal of the Whitbread, Orange, Costa, and Booker prizes comes following her inability to select a winner of the Willesden Herald short story competition. According to Smith, of the 850 entries, not a single one enticed her enough to give away the 5,000 pound prize.

Further comments on the forum suggest entrants pandering to Smith. The Times quotes her again:

To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering over it, it does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories about multicultural life on the streets of north London.

The post concludes (not quoted in The Times):

Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires.

Of course, not everyone appreciates this sort of to-the-point honesty. Ion Trewin, organizer of the Booker Prize, criticizes Smith for lambasting literary awards while accepting their financial benefits (Smith is a former winner of both the Whitbread and the Orange Prize). Author Joanna Trollope says Smith is utterly incorrect in her evaluations, noting that such prizes often dig better books out of potential obscurity, which makes it all worth it.

Good points, both. But Smith has a point, too. I can’t help but appreciate her honesty. Responders to her post are shocked and appalled that not even a shortlist could be culled from the Willesden entrants, and Smith has been chided that she’s simply incapable of being impressed. Read her comments a little more closely and what starts out as a bit of a catty backslap to the entire literary community becomes an impassioned plea for wannabe writers to immerse themselves a little more in research. To read better in order to write better. More from the Willesden post:

For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments—and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this Internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention… We got into this with a commitment to honour the best that’s out there, and we feel sure there is better out there somewhere.

We must do better. I don’t think this is a bad thing to say. I don’t think it’s particularly rude. If the entries weren’t up to scratch, try again. It shocks me that we all talk about finding truth in literature, in the moments, in the thoughts, and sensations, but when, in “real life”, someone decided to speak their personal “real life” truth, all hell breaks loose.

I only hope her frustration pays off, and those who submitted to her competition do try again, and do get better, rather than turning away in some kind of hoity disgust. We writers are sensitive folks, you know.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/zadie-takes-a-stand/