Zadie Smith: It’s really beautiful, the idea that the poet is always able to be this hero, this perfect symbol. The novelist has to cultivate stupidity, simplicity, awkwardness, to be something that talks about things that seem beneath contempt, like love—such a tedious, lame subject. ‘Another book about love?’ But that’s what novelists are engaged in. The business of everyday life, of things that seem beneath contempt. And that kind of slowing down to appreciate the simple and stupid I think can be very hard. We talked a little bit about what I learned from teaching. What I found over and over—and I’m sure other writers who have taught have found the same thing—is that your most brilliant student, the one who writes the most fantastic critical essays, and you think this person is a genius, and then you see their fiction, and it’s not, and it’s a completely different thing, and it’s not that the kid isn’t brilliant. The kid utterly brilliant.
Gemma Sieff: Is he just thinking too hard?
ZS: No, fiction needs intellect, it certainly does, but it can’t survive on intellect alone, it just can’t. It requires all these other embarrassing things, things that seem too banal to talk about, like empathy, like sympathy, like the appreciation of small details that other people leap over because they are not even worth discussing. A novel brings them back and says, “How about this? And how about this? And what about this? It’s much slower.
GS: That is why I love Mrs. Bridge. I think that is my favorite book for that reason.
ZS: A slow attention. And that is really hard. I think sometimes your most brilliant students, their feeling is, “Hey, I’m brilliant, what the problem? I’m clearly a genius.” And I want to say, You are totally a genius, but genius is a thing the novel can take only in very awkward forms. Like there have been geniuses. George Eliot was a genius, David Foster Wallace was a genius. But in both cases, making novels out of that genius was an enormous struggle. And for someone like David, it was also a kind of self-corrective process, realizing that genius alone was not going to swing this. But then I always feel like, particularly when I was younger, there are people who are very, very brilliant, and who enter the novel, and seem to have disgust for the form. I always thought, You know you don’t have to write novels; there are plenty of more intelligent occupations that you could indulge in. But the novelist has to be willing to look ridiculous, that’s Auden’s point, I think. Sorry—so badly quoted by me. But just, willing not to be the heroic poet. Poets do always get to be heroic. But novelists look fools most of the time, I’m afraid. It’s part of the job.
—Zadie Smith, interviewed by Gemma Sieff