Books Film Writing

Zadie Smith as obscure object of desire?

On Twitter today, I saw an approving link to Alexis Madrigal’s response to Zadie Smith’s fine essay on Facebook and The Social Network (which I wrote about a little while ago). The title of Madrigal’s piece mentions literary writers and social media, and I’m always up for thinky writing about those things, so I spent some time reading it tonight when I really ought to have been dissertating. There are some assertions in the first part of the essay I disagree with, such as:

When professional writers, especially ones trained in the literary arts, see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse (or, you know, heteroglossic) societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window.

I’d like to see some evidence in support of the breadth of this generalization, and I’m not sure I agree, either, with some of the ways that Madrigal characterizes Smith’s arguments. (There are a few comments on the essay that point out the fact that Smith was reviewing Lanier’s book, not just citing it a lot.) But still, interesting stuff.

Then I got to the middle of the essay, and my head kind of exploded.

This middle section begins with a reasonable-sounding statement about the effects of fame on the way people engage with online communities:

Last idea: Smith is a celebrity, so she can’t and won’t ever have a normal social media presence. She could never just start a Twitter feed to post links to random stuff, nor a Facebook page where she receives updates on her niece. For example, this is what she wonders about the future Internet.

“Maybe it will be like an intensified version of the Internet I already live in, where ads for dental services stalk me from pillar to post and I am continually urged to buy my own books.” [in Madrigal’s post, the last phrase of this is italicized]

I don’t quite buy the main claim Madrigal’s making here — of course a celebrity’s non-anonymous experiences on the internet will differ from the average person’s, but celebrities can still create anonymous Twitter accounts, or use their own named accounts, say, the way Margaret Atwood uses hers (mostly to post links to random stuff, in fact).  Still, fair enough — the quote from Smith’s essay shows that her experience of the internet is influenced by her literary fame.

Then Madrigal begins describing his own memories of Smith’s physical presence. Apparently he was a student of hers, and wants to reminisce at length about the effect her physical presence had on him (and his fellow college students, of course):

While other writing professors seemed to go out of their way to seem kind, Smith was detached and aloof. It made her almost impossibly attractive to the undergraduate population, male and female alike. She was a wonder. It is not surprising that she has to remain a mystery, lest the world drain her blood looking for her essence. We would shamble towards her — online or off — to feed. Her true location must remain secret.

I think that’s a key part of her negative experience of Facebook. She trailed her beauty and brilliance with her, and experienced Facebook with their full weight pressing on her fingers and behind her eyes. Yet, it is precisely in the uniqueness of her experience of Facebook that shows that her fears will not be realized.

I’m hoping this is tongue-in-cheek — the vampire/zombie metaphors must be, but the second paragraph seems entirely earnest. Tonally, it’s weird and frankly a little creepy, and it makes it hard for me to accept the reach for poeticism at the end of the essay. I was still stuck back in the middle of the piece, trapped with poor Zadie Smith and her shambling horde of admiring students, who speak with authority about how her aloof beauty must make her feel.

And here’s my main question: what, precisely, does the author’s memory of Smith’s ineffable allure have to do with Smith’s arguments about social media? She’s too beautiful and mysterious to interact with social media the way the rest of us do? It’s hard for her to reach the keyboard from all the way up there on that pedestal? Seriously?

I know the context is different, but I couldn’t help thinking of Kate Beaton’s recent request that (links go to a series of Twitter posts) fans stop expressing their appreciation for female comics creators by offering marriage, sexual favors, etc., even in jest. Her body/looks/femininity, she pointed out, have absolutely nothing to do with her talent as an artist, and there are plenty of lovely compliments fans could give that don’t figure her as a sexual object. Predictably, Beaton got a lot of heat from fans for making this request. Many of them seemed to assume that she didn’t understand that the fans offering to have her babies “weren’t serious” or were just trying to be nice. And while I could see how her response might have seemed like an overreaction if it were prompted by one compliment of that sort, I’m guessing it’s the accumulation and repetition that led her to speak up about it on Twitter, in hopes that fans would think about what compliments like that actually communicated to her and choose to say something else.

I wish Madrigal could have made a similar choice and responded to Smith’s essay — to her ideas — without bringing her, physically, into the argument.


  1. Yeah. I can’t read that part of the essay without imagining how I’d feel if a student of mine decided to explain how I felt about social media — or rather, to reinterpret statements I’d already made about how I actually felt about social media — by describing my appearance in those terms. The answer is: not so pleased.

  2. Wait, so you’re saying you wouldn’t be flattered to have someone describe your trailing beauty and brilliance? Pfft.

    Creepy, odd, and puzzling. That’s all I can really say about it. Also, if someone suggests even in the slightest that he is “shambling toward me to feed,” I’m out of there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *