Thursday, February 3, 2011

Zadie Smith In Conversation with Someone Distinctively NOT Wells Tower

Last night, Acton and I attended the much-anticipated NYU/Harper's Magazine Zadie Smith Event. The talk was ostensibly held to celebrate Zadie's takeover of the New York literary world. A two pronged attack, forwarded by her recent appointment to Creative Writing Teacher at NYU and her new New Books column at Harper's, which will debut in the March Issue of the magazine.

Acton is one of Zadie's biggest fans so as soon as we got the invite, we were quick to rsvp. Lucky we did as we were later informed that the event had a 300 person wait list.  Zadie was everything we had hoped for and more: Smart, witty, and with a soft spot for DFW and Virgina Woolf; two writers who get high marks with Livre Life.

A Pic of John MacArthur we snapped speaking at the event last night

That said, attending the event was a little like blithely walking into your parents bedroom only to find Mom and Dad at each others throats, claws bared.

Harper's has been having a public controversy over the firing of two senior editors Ben Metcalf and Ted Ross. The two were influential in helping Harper's Mag unionize last year and there's been a large uproar within the magazine's extended community about the, some say strategic, firing. MacArthur has maintained that the decision to let Metcalf and Ross go is purely a feduciary concern. The thing is Harper's is a non-profit. It's funded solely by John R. MacArthur, the charitable grandson of billionaire John D. MacArthur.  (John R. convinced his grandfather to buy the magazine back in 1980 when it was operating at a loss of around 2 Million dollars a year.) The Harper's Union insists that MacArthur could hypothetically resolve the funding issue by opening up investment opportunities to interested parties, as opposed to firing key members of the editorial staff. In an open letter that was circulated throughout the publishing community, writers such as Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, George Saunders and, yes, Zadie Smith admonished MacArthur for his actions pertaining to Metcalf and Ross thus far.

Last night while we were waiting inline, a sea of tweed and dark framed glasses between us and Zadie, a senior personage at Harper's cut in front of us to snap at the overwhelmed check-in gals that they should be passing out a pile of manilla memos to all attendees. The memo, it turns out, was a rebuttal from MacArthur discussing the recent Harper's issues and restating his committment to working with the union to negotiate contracts for Metcalf and Ross and securing the journalistic integrity of Harper's by refusing additional funding that came with strings attached.

There's more. When we sat down, a nervous looking man, furtively passed us a SECOND memo. Here's what it said:
"We, the members of the Harper's Union, would like to thank you all for coming out tonight and listening in on what is sure to be a wonderful conversation. We fully support Zadie Smith and are delighted to welcome her to the pages of Harper's Magazine. We would, though, make you aware that the Harper's management is currently refusing to bargain with us in good faith, and is insisiting on a retaliatory layoff that would be detrimental to the quality of our common project. To learn more, please visist HARPERSUNION.TUMBLR.COM. We will continue our fight for a fair contract, and we will continue, as always, to celebrate great writers like Zadie and great readers like you." Oh the drama!

After MacArthur's initial introduction, we were informed that Wells Tower would not be attending the talk. Instead, Rita Skeeter, Gemma Sief would be hosting. Sief was clearly too enamored of Zadie to moderate any sort of real discussion. But Zadie managed to respond thoughtfully and, we agreed, originally to every sycophantic superlative that Sief threw at her.

I thought one of the evening's best takeaways was getting to hear what Zadie believed made a novel great. She said that many contemporary writers felt that books to be great had to be easy*. But, to her, a book " doesn't always have to come smiling at you or say 'hey sit in this chair in the corner by the fire and read this book." Maybe this is just weighing on my mind at p.450 of Gravity's Rainbow. But I found it extremely inspiring and took it as a challenge to dig in and finish the rest of this mother-lovin book.

Did any one else attend this event? We'd love to hear your thoughts!


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