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Published: Wednesday, 3/5/2014 - Updated: 2 years ago


Zadie Smith puts value back in written word

Author Zadie Smith jokes with John Szuch, left, and Steve Szuch as she signs books at the 2014 Authors! Authors! series at Stranahan Theater in South Toledo. Author Zadie Smith jokes with John Szuch, left, and Steve Szuch as she signs books at the 2014 Authors! Authors! series at Stranahan Theater in South Toledo.
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Crafting a fine sentence is no small feat.

It costs next to nothing (the paper and ink Shakespeare used cost pennies), can be started and finished by oneself, and may be a powerful act.

“I’m writing to make this sentence as good as I can manage, and the next one too,” writer Zadie Smith said.

Smith, 38, spoke Wednesday night to an audience of 250 people in the Stranahan Theater, the first in the 2014 series of Authors! Authors! sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.


Born in working-class London in 1975 to a Jamaican mother and English father, she had the extraordinary luck of being discovered when she was in college.

Her first novel, White Teeth, was published to rave reviews when she was 24.

She’s since published acclaimed novels, essays, and edited collections of writing. She teaches literature at New York University.

Smith read a cerebral 45-minute essay she wrote and has presented to student groups about the value of being a writer at a time when words are cheap and often referred to online simply as “content.” (She noted that the sentence most frequently attributed to her on the Internet was in fact, written by her husband, Nick Laird.)

“I wrote [the essay] because I teach, and I noticed creative writing students are very temperamental,” she said, imagining themselves as cultural heroes one day and street vagrants the next. “This essay tries to suggest a middle way.”

She quoted Alexander Pope’s views on writing at length, and George Orwell’s.

“The role of the great novelist is a costume from an earlier time. No one can be all seeing now; there’s too much to see,” she said.

Writers were seen as benign idiot savants or cultural figures par excellence, but are neither.

They face their share of dark feelings such as pointlessness, absurdity, and despair, and are romantic, forever longing for a mythical, simpler golden age of writing. "The present always seems more difficult than the past," Smith said.

For some, such as Pope, writing is a compulsion. For others, it’s a mapping out of one’s inner space, a search for identity, for one’s voice. It can be a way to discern if the person at the age of 5 is the same person at 35 and at 75.

It’s egoism, it’s humbug.

The Internet is crammed with people writing about their lives for anybody who will pay attention.

Thousands self-publish books. Does that make them writers?

“I think it may be more useful to think of oneself as a specialist craftsman. Like someone who makes a beautiful chair.

“In the cacophony of words we’re bombarded with each day, a well-crafted sentence that is true, that describes things as they are and does it beautifully is no small feat. Writers demonstrate the skeptical, possess real knowledge, read between the lines and also read the lines,” she said.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.

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