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Pnin & Semicolons: Zadie Smith & Jonathan Safran Foer at NYU

Filed under: The Catbird Seat: Friends & Guests   Tagged: , , , , ,

Kirsten Andersen writes:

Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer sat down on April 30 at New York University for a ninety-minute discussion that began with a list—originally drafted by Smith in an email to Foer—of topics the two writers covered in a recent (and one assumes more private) conversation.

That list included foreskin, farting, and a nation's romantic love for its president, and it served as the springboard to a milder discussion moderated by Foer, during which Smith addressed the Internet's effect on writing ("an absolute disaster for writers"); writing about family ("writers come to destroy their families; there's no doubt about it"); and her insistence on writing in the third person, despite the fact that "it looks antique now."

The stage at Vanderbilt Hall remained unlit as the sun set in the windows along MacDougal Street, and it became difficult to see the faces of Smith and Foer from my seat in the middle of the auditorium. Still, I could easily make out Smith's red head wrap, peacock blue mini-dress, and yellow stack heels. She was, as Foer might say, luminous, and when the conversation was opened to the audience for questions, a group of adoring men in front of me smiled at each other and shook their deferent heads.

Asked about her definition of failed writing, Smith scratched her arm and rubbed her neck. "Indulgence, making a fool of one's self, caricature, overplotting, bad confused endings, too many semicolons," she said. She smoothed her dress and crossed her legs as she dismissed femininity as a code for "passivity and delicacy"; she cited Pnin as one of her favorite novels.

"I'm constantly feeling like I'm on the back foot," insisted the 2005 Orange Prize winner. Smith said that her forthcoming book, Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays, was an extended exercise in self-education. Citing her less than desirable primary school experience, Smith said she feels she is constantly learning "on the hoof." A few heads pulled back and the brilliant writer nodded in earnest. All things considered, it seemed unlikely. Still, I took her elegant, artful word for it.

Kirsten Andersen is a poet, writer, and editor.

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