JR: Recently at The Millions, Josh Ferris talked about Changing My Mind, a collection of essays from Zadie Smith, and I realized the galley was still sitting on my desk.  I randomly picked one essay to read, and was I surprised that the essay was written for me.  Warning: On Beauty, for my money, is one of the finest books of the last 100 years, not even up for debate.

Sure, it wasn’t really written for me, but for an audience of students at Columbia, as this is a speech she’d once given.  She talks about the craft of writing a novel, and she sets down a simple set of rules for writing, at least how she writes.  Talking about past tense, first person, and how she always comes back to third person past tense, but it takes her forever to get there.  How there are micro and macro writers, (read it, and find out which one you are) some start in the middle and other start at the beginning, she’s a first sentence gal, and works to the end, but she doesn’t know the end until she gets there.  Then the essay ripples out a little more and talks about the first twenty pages, how writers slave over those pages, for months, even years, and once you get that in order, find the voice, she can write the rest in five months.

It’s hard for me not to vomit this entire essay out onto the keyboard right now; you really have to stop what you’re doing and read the book.  Smith talks about leaving finished novels in the drawer after you’ve written them, because you are either a writer or a reader of your own work, you can’t do both at the same time.   She finally reveals what it’s like to re-read her own novels years after they’ve been published, and it’s an eye opening experience.


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3G1B is the collaboration of four friends and colleagues in the book business. Together, they review books and stories, interview authors, and maintain an ongoing conversation about publishing, bookselling, writing, pr, and nearly anything else.

JONATHAN EVISON is the author of All About Lulu and West of Here and TNB's Executive Editor. He likes rabbits. He also likes being the ambiguous fourth guy in the “Three Guys” triumvirate. He is the founder of the secret society, The Fiction Files (if he told, he’d have to kill you). He has a website, but it’s old. Just google him.

DENNIS HARITOU has bought books for Barnes and Noble for seven years, for warehouse clubs for five, and has led a book club. He is currently Director of Merchandise at Bookazine.

JASON CHAMBERS has been in the book business for over fifteen years, including tenures as General Manager/Buyer at Book Peddlers in Athens, GA, and seven years as a Buyer and Merchandise Manager at Bookazine. He now works as an bookstore consultant and occasional web designer.

JASON RICE has worked in the book business for ten years at Random House in sales and marketing and Barnes & Noble as a community relations manager. Currently he is an Assistant Sales Manager and Buyer at Bookazine. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines online and in print. He was once the pseudonymous book reviewer Frank Bascombe for Ain’t It Cool News. He’s taught photography to American students in the South of France, worked as a bicycle messenger in New York City, and for a long time worked very hard in the film & television business in NYC. Production experience includes the television shows Pete & Pete, Can We Shop ( Joan Rivers' old shopping show), and the films The Pallbearer, Flirting With Disaster, and countless commercials---even a Christina Applegate movie that went straight to video.

One response to “Zadie Smith and Her Craft”

  1. Andy Johnson says:

    On Beauty!? Are you out of your mind? She’s got some wonderful things to say, but pretty much none of it is in that book, as far as I could see.

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