In a public conversation last year, Zadie Smith spoke about the social media reaction cloud, where people can be bullied into thinking and feeling the “right” way. She said it has become harder to begin in the wrong place and then lumber one’s way towards a proper understanding of things. All of this is bad for writing, she suggested, and bad for the soul. “I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind,” she said. “I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”
The chamber of public opinion has been maligned in a lot of places. Not so long ago, Katie Roiphe made the argument in Harper’s that “Twitter feminism” was drowning out debate and originality with its bullying. But it is rare, perhaps unprecedented, to find this familiar brand of polemic tucked into the form of an oblique allegory, which is what Smith has done with a new short story, “Now More Than Ever,” in The New Yorker. It has been called “extremely reactionary” and “hip, current, but morally and politically vacant” on Twitter. But Smith probably expected as much, since social media—that bullying place where the right to be wrong is forfeited—is the story’s main nemesis.
The narrator of “Now More Than Ever” is a teacher (she signs an email as Professor) who lives on a campus that resembles New York University (where Smith herself lives). She describes a world sort of like ours, except that the volume of the internet has been turned way up. In the Professor’s apartment building, “as in many throughout the city,” the inhabitants shame each other by holding big black arrows in their apartment windows in the direction of that day’s villain.
The plot jumps from one quasi-absurd set piece to the next. The Professor hangs out with a person called Scout, watches the Elizabeth Taylor movie A Place in the Sun, and tries to dodge the inexorable guillotine of her own public shaming. A student writes to ask her to do his homework for him, quoting Hamlet’s great bit about how the world “appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” The story is written with a cold, faux-anthropological distance, applying a satirical compress to the heated passions that are the hallmarks of pussy-hat feminism, the hashtag-resistance, and the black-and-white view of public morality that, in the story’s view, govern both.
The sarcasm is evident in the story’s title, which is a catchphrase. It’s buzzy the way that wasps are buzzy in the summer: everywhere all of a sudden and annoying. The story ends with the words “me, too,” another catchphrase. But these catchphrases are used unwittingly, since the Professor is hazy about the strange new idioms and rules that now oppress her. Scout, who is apparently younger than the Professor (she’s “on all platforms”), is invited to sit at the Professor’s “mid-century-modern breakfast bar” to “unpack” the news that “the past is now also the present.”
Via a puppet show, Scout explains that our time calls for “consistency.” One puppet has very long arms and the other has a triangle for a face. Here’s the idea: “You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past (hence the arms), and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently.” I don’t know about the puppets, but it sounds like Smith is satirizing our current interest in judging the past by the present’s standards.
In this world, history is just an extension of the present, and identity is formed by denouncing others. In such a world people attempt to live at the level of pure, righteous symbol. The past is nothing to them.
The crazy ones are the ones who insist that things change over time, that we should not be so quick to judge those who lived in less enlightened eras. The Professor points her own big arrow at a man named Eastman. “Not only does he not believe the past is the present, but he has gone further and argued that the present, in the future, will be just as crazy-looking to us, in the present, as the past is, presently, to us, right now! For Eastman, surely, it’s only a matter of time.”
If the story has politics, then, those politics are about history. As a catchphrase, “Now More Than Ever” is interesting because its hyperbole cuts us off from the past. It suggests we are in a special hell, unlike anything that came before. Smith turns the public condemnations of the #MeToo movement and imagines them as a philosophy of history, an existential condition. The loud and reputation-destroying method of political activism, the story suggests, encourages us to live in a fake world of idealized symbols, rather than a reality structured by experience, where things are ambiguous and people change.
In its jaunty, grinning way, Smith’s story says this project is lousy and false. It undermines both our understanding of ourselves and our ability to just be normal, flawed people. “There is an urge to be good,” the story begins. “To be seen to be good.” In the next line comes the dagger: “To be seen.” Smith writes that “things as they are in reality as opposed to things as they seem … these are out of fashion.” Everyone is guilty because they are human, Smith suggests, but in this era identity is determined by a false innocence (self-proclaimed) or an exaggerated guilt (imposed by others). The result is a world that is existentially hollowed out and intellectually vacuous; neither fun to live in nor a place for legitimate inquiry.
It’s a moralizing piece of fiction, and it lands like a blow to the head. The story’s meditations on time and history are genuinely interesting. But the overall effect is straightforwardly condemnatory, which seems like the kind of gesture Smith was trying to question.
In the second half of the story the Professor goes to see A Place in the Sun and muses on how Montgomery Clift’s character is called Eastman, just like her neighbor. She cannot help but sympathize with Clift, who is a very morally ambiguous person in the film. Clift-as-Eastman becomes a stand-in for Eastman-the-neighbor. After leaving the cinema, the Professor goes home, where she notices “that almost everyone on the sixth floor was angling their arrows upward, directly at my apartment, though I wasn’t even there. Montgomery Clift isn’t rich or happy. He’s guilty. I instinctively sympathize with the guilty. That’s my guilty secret.”
It turns out that the Professor is stuck. She condemns with her big arrow the very person whom she likes the most. Her feelings and the moral currents of her time are in direct conflict. She is both innocent and guilty, in a kind of identity crisis. In the Professor’s philosophy department, they might call it a dialectic.
But just as things start to get really engaging, Smith runs the story into a wall. The Professor meets a colleague in the street who is “beyond the pale,” persona non grata, though she talks to him anyway. He doesn’t have any victims or anything like that, just offended parties. But what if he had victims, she wonders? Well, in “an ideal world—after a trial in court—he would have been sent to a prison.”
Clearly, though, we don’t live in an ideal world where sexual harassers and criminals regularly go to prison—quite the opposite. At this point it is extremely difficult to understand what Smith is getting at. Is she serious? Or is she satirizing the lazy-brained Professor, who thinks that the authorities spend their time punishing the predators of lower Manhattan?
There’s not so much a lack of nuance here as a big privacy curtain erected around the way that Zadie Smith actually feels about the many abusers whose tenure protects them in their jobs, who can only really be damaged through publicity, because that’s the world that, say, NYU has built for them. What is Zadie Smith thinking? I cannot tell you.
The Professor ends up being “cancelled” herself. She, too, has been crushed under the arrow’s condemnatory point. She sympathized with a poet who played the devil’s advocate, saying some admiring things about a figure—“he-who-shall-not-be-named”—that now represents the ultimate taboo, the ultimate signifier of guilt and innocence.
“The right to be wrong” is neat-sounding, but in the manner of a cliche—the sort of catchphrase that “Now More Than Ever” seems to deplore. In the end the reader is left in a forest of signs pointing in conflicting directions. Which way is the right way? Is that signpost actually a big black arrow pointing at some poor victim in a window? Is this the conclusion—that we walk through a big dark wood of moral ambiguity? It’s not wrong, but I’m lost.