Zadie Smith Saves the New York City Essay From Cliché

It’s fair to say that the “New York essay” is having a moment. Or maybe it’s always having a moment. But with Sari Botton’s two anthologies about loving and leaving and just having a great time in New York (last year’s Goodbye to All That and this month’s Never Can Say Goodbye), and former Granta editor John Freeman’s upcoming Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst Times in Today’s New York, one thing is sure: in 2014, the New York City essay is bountiful.

And yet, despite the sterling example of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” E. B. White’s “This Is New York,” and maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “My Lost City,” the problem with the New York essay is that, much of the time, it isn’t very good. Didion, in particular, left a slew of imitators in her wake: writers whose goodbyes are also eulogies to their youth, all too well aware that they stayed too long at the Fair. In our current era, where memoir is freighted with more weight in all sorts of writing, doesn’t help, as it’s very easy to confuse a location’s significance with one’s very own significance, which leads to boring results.

So thank god for Zadie Smith. In “Find Your Beach,” in the New York Review of Books, she writes a sharp comic tragedy about the life of Manhattan, and makes it look easy. How does she do it? Well, for one, she starts with the weirdness of advertising in Manhattan. Ruminating on the strange grammatical setup of the billboard slogan “find your beach,” Smith finds something like a metaphor for 2014 moneyed Manhattan excellence: “There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day.”

She drops references to 30 Rock‘s capitalist romantic, Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, SoulCycle, iPhones. She sees a certain amount of energy in these ultimate symbols of 2014 excellence and excess, energy that’s all over the island: “We have always worked off the energy generated by this town, the money-making and tower-building as much as the street art and underground cultures.” She’s aware that it’s ambition that keeps New York running. She points out that she’s there in Manhattan due to her own ambition, even if Manhattan proper has ceded itself completely to capitalism, wiping out what remained of the New York underground.

The essay is, in short, different. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that Smith is a minor character in it; sure, she’s on the island of Manhattan, lost in a Soho tower, looking over at the other inhabitants, but we get at her feelings around the edges. She reports on what Manhattan is today, how weird it is, how she manages to live there, and how it’s a city devoid of artists. There’s not much in the way of sentimentality or self-glorifying, and it’s all for the better.

Currently, it feels like Didion’s influence looms too large over the New York essay, where writers borrow the self-mythologizing aspect but don’t quite nail her very specific tone. Perhaps the city essay can flourish again with more approaches like Smith’s. Stay dry, stay observant, write in a manner that George Orwell would appreciate, and let the sentiment sneak into the piece, instead of telling us how we’re feeling. Location shapes what our lives look like, and the writing around location should be equally powerful.