Acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith addressed a crowd of 600 people Monday afternoon as she delivered the keynote address of the Windham-Campbell Literary Festival.
In a speech titled “Why Write?” Smith spoke about the art of creative writing in the contemporary world to a full audience of students, faculty and members of the public in Sprague Hall. Her talk referenced George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” and also described the creative process as a fight against normativeness. Smith is the recipient of numerous awards such as the Whitbread First Novel Award and Orange Prize for Fiction.
“The answer to this question ‘Why write?’ cannot be to satisfy a preexisting demand,” Smith said. “A good piece of writing should form its own necessary rules, create its own taste.”
Smith made an analogy between the development of writing and the rise of hip-hop and rap, noting that both initially rebelled against prevailing norms but now focus more on branding and conforming to market norms. She encouraged young writers not to find a “brand” but to be creative, even though working against the grain causes discomfort and friction.
Smith used Orwell’s famous four reasons for writing — egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose — to frame her own discussion. She acknowledged that writing stems from egoism, but suggested that egoism applies to all kinds of art. Smith also described writing as a way of seeing the world more clearly, though she cautioned against limiting oneself to one single perception of the world.
“Seeing clearly is not seeing singularly,” Smith said. She added that writers should always be considering alternative realities, either by writing fiction or gathering information from a wide variety of sources.
Smith addressed the role of creativity in pushing back against nostalgia and complacency. While innovators like Steve Jobs may create gadgets that blend seamlessly into the lives of consumers, she said, artists like Franz Kafka write novels that cause friction and contention in their audiences, which is the ultimate goal of writing.
Stephanie Farber, a New Haven resident who was in the audience, said she enjoyed Smith’s ability to quote a variety of people ranging from Orwell to Kanye West to Virginia Woolf.
Susan Katz, another New Haven resident in the audience, said Smith encouraged her to think about what it means to be a writer in this generation.
Morse College Master Amy Hungerford, who was also present at the event, said she appreciated Smith’s insights about young writers and the identity of the contemporary writer.
Smith was born in northern London in 1975 to an English father and Jamaican mother. After studying English at Cambridge, she wrote four novels, including the highly praised “White Teeth” in 2000. She has also written a nonfiction book and a collection of essays, and currently teaches fiction at New York University.
The Windham-Campbell Literary Prizes were established in 2013 by Donald Windham, a writer and supporter of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Each of the eight prizewinners this year received a grant of $150,000.