Some audio interference in the first 10 minutes of the track... Sorry.
Zadie Smith's Lecture "Why Write? Creativity and Refusal"
Delivered at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. Sept 20, 2014.
Previous transcription of a seemingly earlier version of this talk that I found elsewhere on the internet:
I have been asked to talk to you this evening of “creativity.” It’s one of those slippery words, popular with the organizers of literary events, and I confess I stared at it a long time without gaining any traction. ‘Identity’ is another word of the same type. We must have a genuine need for such terms – we use them so often – but like a pair of well-loved shoes they’ve worn right down to the soles, and now tend to let in more than they keep out. ‘Creativity’ has had an especially long fall from grace. If you pick up the modern culture dictionary Keywords, by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, you can trace its decline. As he tells it, ‘creation’ begins life as a prerogative of the gods (as in Augustine’s maxim ‘creatura non potest creare’; the creature who has been created cannot himself create) from which height it descends, in the sixteenth century, into a synonym for “counterfeit”, or “imitation.” “Or art thou,” asks Macbeth, “But/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” For the Elizabethans, whatever was ‘natural’ was the truth. Whatever was created in the minds of men was in some sense secondary, suspect. Which faint stain of shame lasted a long time – even the Romantics were not entirely free of it. More recently, Williams argues, we use the word to disguise from ourselves the fact that the arts are dominated not by innovation or originality but by “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” In other words: we like to think the ‘creative arts’ represent a form of rebellion against the way of things, but more often than not they reinforce the status quo. The most painful bit comes at the end: “The difficulty arises when a word once intended, and often still intended, to embody a high and serious claim, becomes so conventional…Thus any imitative or stereotyped literary work can be called, by convention, creative writing, and advertising copywriters officially describe themselves as creative.”
I suppose it is in this last, loosest, sense that I most often hear the word used in my adopted city, New York. A young woman at a party will proudly tell you she works in ‘creative branding.’ The man whose job it is to rid our apartment of cockroaches speaks of finding a ‘creative solution to the problem.’ The marketing department of any large company is considered its ‘creative hub.’ As I write these words it is officially ‘Creative Week’ in New York (“Where advertising, design, and digital media collide with the arts.”) In Manhattan, when a person is described as ‘creative’ it usually means they’ve found a particularly ingenious way to sell you something.
The other place I hear the word a lot, unsurprisingly, is behind the door of 58 West 10th street, where I teach in a Creative Writing program. There, ‘creative’ has transformed from adjective to noun. “I knew from the earliest age,” writes a student, in her application letter, “that I was destined to be a Creative.” In its Sunday supplements, the New York Times regularly tortures my students with lavish articles about the fantasy lifestyle of this person, the ‘Creative.’ She lives in Brooklyn, sits in cafés with a laptop, makes her own hours, and is answerable to no-one. I wouldn’t begrudge any young person this entirely reasonable desire (although personally I have never typed a single creative word in a café) but I sometimes wonder whether it is creative writing itself or this advertised lifestyle that is the main attraction. To create something, as the Gods knew, requires a certain boldness. But though my students are excellent readers and sometimes brilliant intellectually what they write is often, at first, oddly timid. It is writing that aims to please; specifically writing that seeks to fill some perceived niche in the literary market. Often this niche is characterized by that other slippery word ‘identity.’ I heard Salman Rushdie claim recently that the most important advice he can think to give to young Asian writers these days is the following: “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Just because Asian novels are the fashion you needn’t make a fetish of yourself. Or to put it another way: it is not creative to let the logic of the market into your mind. One of the virtues of novel-writing is, or used to be, its relative independence. Unlike movies or television you do not need to please a committee or get a green light before you set out to write. But what if the phantom committee has been internalized? Sometimes students can seem more attuned to the chatter of publishing PR departments than whatever is going on in their own minds. They plan on penning the ‘Next Great Post-Colonial Novel’ or a ‘Multi-Generational Epic’ or a ‘Delicate Canadian Historical Drama.” At the end of a semester, not long ago, a student asked me: “How did you choose your literary brand?”
Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product. To my mind, a true ‘Creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want. A work of art forms its own necessary audience, creates its own taste. In this sense, at the heart of creativity lies a refusal. For a genuinely creative piece of work always declines to see the world as others see it, or as it is commonly described. It refuses received notions and generalities – it “makes new.” Sometimes this forced change of perspective provokes delight, and a Creative should count herself extremely lucky if that turns out to be the case. But she should also prepare herself for the more usual reactions: discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock – even anger. The genuinely new rarely slips easily into the world-as-it-is. It causes at least a little friction. But I find it’s difficult to cultivate and encourage in students – especially American students – a willingness to risk displeasure. They are brought up on the principle of supply and demand, of entertainers and audience. As antidote, early on in our time together, I assign Kafka, in the hope it will embolden them. Kafka being the type of Creative whose creativity was not rooted in the need for approval. A man for whom creativity itself was a form of refusal.
This is all happening at the high end of the creative industry – my students being the type of kids whose parents don’t mind dropping sixty grand on a writing program. Meanwhile, down at the other end, the urban youth of New York, in particular the young African-Americans, do not require Creative Week to be creative. Their fashion, their language, their music, their visual arts – all are a source of constant innovation. Not one but two entire art forms – jazz and hip-hop – have risen up from this minority community within one century. (Not to mention the various subset activities these art-forms have spawned: bebop, funk, spoken word poetry, street art, break-dancing, scratching, beat-boxing.) But – as is often the way in America – all the way at the other end of the class ladder you find a strange mirroring of what happens at the top. The sad state of contemporary Hip-Hop is an obvious example. The creative energy is still there, as it was at Hip-Hop’s inception, but so is a new keenness to be co-opted, monetized. Once an underground, resistant culture, now rappers speak enthusiastically of “becoming a brand.” Happily they make deals with sportswear manufacturers and perfume companies, hawk high-end drinks in their videos, and lend their hard-won aura of authenticity to various aspects of the socio-economic status quo. Some of these gestures are as old as the hills. The surest sign of a successful rapper, for example, is his willingness to rap a verse over the anodyne pop song of a white starlet. She sings; he raps; she tries to dance; he stands behind her, looking impressed. If you squint it looks no different than that old tap dancer Bill Robinson clapping his hands and grinning as Shirley Temple dances in front of him. The black artist lends authenticity to the white star; the white star legitimizes the black artist. The music may have changed but the deep structure remains the same.
Such cultural repetitions make me nervous; they are primarily nostalgic, and nostalgia is the enemy of creativity, and the driving force behind “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” Over and over in Hip-Hop we see what began as a creative refusal of the mainstream culture ending up as its support act. We used to call this ‘selling out’. Now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’ Rappers themselves like to argue that “getting paper” (making money) is itself a creative act of rebellion against the socio-economic status quo in America. But there seems to me a qualitative difference between monetizing the end product and monetizing the process itself, a line between selling a record and selling yourself. I confess it depressed me to hear that a rap collective as innovative as the LA-based Odd Future recently signed on to make an advert for the soft drink Mountain Dew. Not to star in it, mind you, but to actually design and direct it. (I was later cheered to hear their efforts were too offensive for the company to use.) To think of your creativity as a brand – or as at the service of a brand – is to build into the creative process the consistency and audience approval that products require. It is to think of yourself as product. And products cannot refuse their buyers. The whole point of a product is to slot into the world-as-it-is, seamlessly.
I grew up in the age of grunge and refusal, the tail-end of that generation of people who still feel sad when they see Iggy Pomp in a TV advert for car insurance or Bob Dylan in a deal with Starbucks. I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was raised on the idea that there is a deadly tension between creativity and the market. I imagine that for the generation under me this idea of the ‘sell-out’ is considered as sentimental and impractical as those other 60’s throwbacks like free love and peace on earth. They grew up largely unmolested by the fear that the logic of the market is in any way in conflict with the act of creation. This must partly be because they grew up in a world of digital technology in which the seamlessness of creativity and capital is real. What is Apple if not “creativity” and “brand” working together in perfect synergy? Perhaps I should be teaching students about the creativity of Steve Jobs rather than Kafka? But here we get to the limits of this word ‘creativity.’ For though I may, on occasion, be so in love with my iPhone as to call it “a work of art,” the creativity embedded within it is of a different kind than the creativity that brought “In the Penal Colony” into existence, and I think it a little dangerous to confuse the two. The ultimate purpose of creativity in technology is to be frictionless, in form and function. Its final aim is not to challenge but to facilitate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – a tool, if its working well, should feel simply like an extension of us, and should work in the same way and equally well for every soul who picks it up. We get used to tools – they become invisible to us (Unless we happen to be hackers or especially technologically literate.) The creativity of art, by contrast, is something we never ‘get used to.’ I read “In the Penal Colony” every year with my students and every year it is a new kind of provocation, a challenge to the way I think and behave, to the things I claim I believe. The creativity of art is different from the creativity of tools: it forces us to be active in the face of it and always individual. Your reading of Kafka will not be the same as mine, but both of us will use our iPhones in much the same way. Still, it’s true that in the world of creative technology each new iteration of hardware or software does induce a jolt in us – forcing us to see our world differently, not unlike a work of art – and certainly for a day or two, or even a month, we may find ourselves confounded by some element of a new design, or refusing it outright (as is happening presently with Google Glass, which, in America, is being preemptively banned and legislated against in various contexts.) But very soon, almost sooner than we realize, we get used to the new design, whatever it is, and it begins to become invisible to us, we cannot imagine it was ever any other way.
The iPad, the iPhone et al – these may be an expression of Steve Jobs’ creativity, but they are also products, and for all the talk of revolutionary freedom in the adverts, all those billboards of Einstein and Hendrix above the slogan ‘Think Different’, Apple the company slipped seamlessly into the world-as-it-is, with all its iniquities, as we learnt when stories of work conditions in the Foxconn factory in China began to surface. To really ‘think differently’ necessitates some kind of refusal, and products – no matter how beautifully designed – simply do not have that freedom; they exist only to please, which is why Jobs’ creative brand utopia is not an especially good model for creative artists. It feels important to insist that when I say “I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPhone” (and I say it all the time) I am not speaking of the same kind of creative experience as when I say: “I was a different person before I read – and re-read -“In the Penal Colony.”
However, there is something very important the digital era has to teach young Creatives: un-sentimentality. A passion for the new. Technology is fundamentally un-nostalgic and young people who want to be creative would do well to cultivate this instinct. In my experience, fighting nostalgia, as an artist, is a full time job. Never more so than when I lived in Italy, which seems to me to be a country perversely designed to make you feel both awe at the cultural achievements of the past and a great doubt that you could ever add to them yourself. It’s not so easy to paint in the city of Michelangelo, nor to make music in the land of Verdi, or write sentences in the shadow of Dante. If ever there was a country over-burdened by a legacy of creativity, it’s Italy. Of course, a great cultural history can also be a wonderful advantage to a young Creative; the better you know your own cultural history, as TS Eliot argued, the less likely you are to repeat it in a formulaic or dull manner. Nostalgia may be the enemy of creativity – but history, properly understood, is its friend. When I lived here I always felt that the young creative people of Italy were in some sense deprived access to the full greatness of their cultural history by a conservative mass media that curiously insists on its nostalgic aspects; that insists, for example, that the 50s and 60s in Rome represent the very pinnacle of modern Italian life, never to be forgotten or equaled. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani movies play in rotation on the television; the chat shows continually reminisce about the good old days, and there are so many magazine articles about Agnelli you’d think he was still alive. There’s something deliberately soporific about all that, as if an older generation refuses to get out of the way to allow the flowering of something new. I think a young Creative has to learn to be a little ruthless about the past, and that can be hard to do in a culture preoccupied with heritage. Surely one of the reasons young Creatives from around the globe flock to New York is that city’s impatience with nostalgia. The town seems to change week by week; old buildings are torn down, new ones arrive. No doubt it’s brutal, but it’s what makes it a city on the side of the young. It’s always looking ahead, never sentimental about what came before.
I should confess before I finish that I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. At best I am a good synthesizer, someone who, in Eliot’s sense, reorganizes and rearranges the materials of the past. If I am occasionally able to ‘make it new’ this is wholly due to this tendency towards refusal I’ve been trying to describe. As a child, born into a certain class, into a particular race and gender, my first creative act was to refuse, in various ways, the destiny England thought it had in store for me. My writing springs from this same instinct. Even if my publishers print my name in the same font on the covers of all my books, I still want what is inside to be free to mutate, transform and surprise, and otherwise fundamentally disturb a ‘brand.’ I like writing that is inconsistent and a little unruly. And like all creative writers, I want to rescue this word ‘creative’ from its recent devaluation. Because there’s something vital and radical about the creative arts, when they’re good. They’re not just well-designed tools or beautiful products, they’re experiences, in which space is made for you to wrangle with what you are offered, re-interpret it, or refuse it, in an ongoing and unique engagement. They may be sold as product but they can refuse the form and identity of products. And in their habit of creative refusal they can encourage a broader creative refusal that may actually have some teeth to it.
What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse? Show ourselves not content to slot our energies into the smooth running of the present order? Imagining the world other than it is feels like a creative duty right now, and everywhere you look a principle of refusal seems to be taking hold. The Internet activists ‘Anonymous’ refuse an identity at all, while the global Occupy movement also took the form of a refusal: the refusal to name leaders or even policies. Your recent election here in Italy bore some traces of this same legacy: the refusal of business as usual. And we’re beginning to see artists refusing ‘content providers’ all together – bypassing publishers, record companies and TV stations in creative and interesting ways. The end of the financial order, or of the political order, or of a certain version of the cultural and media industries – we were always warned that when these familiar certainties collapsed, anarchy would follow, anarchy being the refusal of everything. We have been taught to fear it – but the moment is upon us and why should it be purely nihilistic? It might be the most creative thing to happen to us in a long time.
- Zadie Smith