You gotta love seeing a writer draw a crowd, and last night at the U Zadie Smith absolutely packed them in. Every one of the 400 seats in Coffman Theater was full, and the aisles were crammed with sitting students (many carrying gigantic backpacks, as students so often do), as was the floor in front of the stage.
It grew very hot inside, and when Smith came out--tall, elegant, in a gorgeous red turban and lipstick so red I could see it from nearly the last row) one of the first things she did was slide her red and black animal-print scarf off her shoulders. "It's hot," she said briefly, before beginning her speech.
Smith delivered her "Why Write?" lecture, which she has delivered many times in the past but which is none the worse for wear. "A lecture about writing is a tricky thing," she began. "It tends to invite humbug.... It's strange that the title 'writer' should hold so much wonder for so many. ... There are few things that make you feel more ridiculous than sitting down in front of the computer to write a novel."
Except, she added, sitting down in front of the computer to write a poem.
"Saying, 'I am a poet' is like saying, 'I like gas lamps,' or 'I'm the town crier.' "
But she went on to prove that wrong, talking about the place of writing and writers in this new world of the internet and iPads and iPods, this world where everyone and anyone can--and often does--identify as a writer.
(And not incidentally, she noted that she cannot possibly be the only writer out there who has noticed that their readings are populated with people who define themselves as writers, but not as readers.)
She looked to George Orwell, to Alexander Pope, to Nabokov and to Gregor von Rezzori for understanding, in particular to Orwell's four motives for writing, one of which is an aesthetic enthusiasm for words and their right arrangement. That passion for "the beauty of words and their right arrangement" is one thing writers have in common.
Yet in a world where every man is a writer online, she said, "who will notice all this care you take with your sentences?"
Ultimately, she said, we write for the reasons that Alexander Pope wrote: because we cannot help ourselves. "Some absurd, inner necessity" that makes us create things that in this society it is quite possible the no one either wants nor needs.
And then there was cake.
Smith's appearance was part of continuing Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature, which has brought in (see cake) Junot Diaz (of course), E.L. Doctorow, Natasha Trethewey, Jamaica Kincaid, W.S. Merwin, and many others.