There is a zinger of a piece of satire being widely circulated among academics right now, because it mocks the stifling climate found in humanities departments. It is particularly stunning because it comes from a woman of colour who is not generally seen as a conservative. I am talking about a brand-new short story by the British writer Zadie Smith that recently appeared in The New Yorker. The story, called Now More Than Ever, is a satire of call-out culture and intellectual conformity among highly educated people.
The story is narrated by an unnamed professor of philosophy at a university in New York. (Smith herself teaches at New York University.) This protagonist lives in an apartment block where a number of other professors have apartments with big windows so that they can all look at each other. The story begins with anxiety about being good: “There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good.” This is a knock against what has come to be known as virtue-signalling – the public endorsement of progressive causes.
In the narrator’s apartment building, every evening, the tenants hold up big black arrows in their windows, pointed toward the window of another professor they want to accuse of some kind of wrongdoing. Only the history profs protest the practice, because they can associate it with Stalinism. The narrator aims her arrow at a guy called Eastman – not because she knows that he has done anything wrong, but because she knows he has not been reciting the correct ideology and so will probably be the next to go down.
Then the narrator accidentally runs into a colleague who has been actually ostracized, put “beyond the pale.” What he did to merit this was not so terribly bad: He did not have “victims” so much as “annoyed parties.” On a one-to-10 scale of badness, he is between a two and a three. Still, she is initially nervous to talk to this guy – she’s obviously not supposed to – but finds she is curious about how he has survived the destruction of his career and his reputation. The startling and subversive thought comes to her: “Maybe if I am one day totally and finally placed beyond the pale, I, too, might feel curiously free. Of expectation. Of the opinions of others. Of a lot of things.” The ostracized colleague confirms this: “'It’s like prison,' he said, not uncheerfully. ‘You don’t see anybody and you get a lot of writing done.’”
Not everybody was amused. A staff writer at Slate tweeted that the story was “extremely reactionary.” His choice of Maoist language was unfortunate but let’s say it was accidental. It does show that he is uncomfortably aware that he and people like him are very much the target of the satire. A history prof at Georgetown tweeted that the story is “morally and politically vacant.”
At the leftist New Republic, culture editor Josephine Livingstone was incensed that Smith would trivialize the real accusations that have been coming out against male professors. She wonders what 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.”
Satire is a nasty art and by definition it offends. Zadie Smith’s fiction has always had a satirical edge but it has in the past been directed against targets such as the racism in British society. She is not the writer anyone would have expected to explode with a broadside against political correctness. The American cultural left is probably feeling betrayed. And we all must begin to wonder: If Zadie Smith is mocking the postmodern academy for its Stalinism, is the academy running out of allies?
This story was published just a week before another writer was publicly disavowed by his own publisher for writing an apparently insensitive poem. The little poem, How-To, by Anders Carson-Wee, appeared in The Nation, a progressive journal. Spoken in the vernacular of a homeless person, it suggests the hypocrisy of those who would give to beggars. The problem was that it used the word “crippled” – which is ableist – and that it used street language, which is apparently not within the rights of a white poet to use. Twitter fury from not-poetry-speaking activists caused The Nation to apologize almost hysterically – the poem “caused harm to members of several communities,” it wrote. Then the poet issued a grovelling apology of his own. “I am beginning a process of … re-evaluating what it means to make art from a place of privilege,” he wrote. He promised to donate his honorarium for the poem to a charity for the homeless.
That these rituals of self-abasement sound so much like the self-indictments of show trials (“I confess I have been an enemy of the revolution”) is what makes Smith’s story so timely and so uncomfortable for her detractors. This is the literary world she lives in.
Smith is reacting as an artist to the rationality and morality that her position as a professor imposes on her. She has said in previous interviews – as Josephine Livingstone gleefully points out – “I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate.” That is spoken like a novelist, whose interest veers naturally toward inappropriate feelings, rather than as a convener of panel discussions. She sounds like someone who wants to get back to making art.