Zadie Smith and the Reinvention of the Diary

Literature entails a private act that goes public — a novel or book of poems becomes a publication. So it’s an ideal place to locate certain anxieties about the self and its relation to the wider world. And what form of literature exacerbates these anxieties more than the diary?

Yesterday, Zadie Smith, who is no stranger to expressing her anxieties to the public, wrote a short piece for Rookie called “Life Writing.” In the piece, Smith explains her many failed attempts to take up diaristic writing. Her first attempt, she writes, “devolved into a banal account of fake crushes and imagined romance and I was soon disgusted with it and put it aside.” Later efforts also proved fruitless. Smith writes that she could never oust an imagined reader or audience from her mind:

I was never able to block from my mind a possible audience, and this ruined it for me: It felt like homework. I was always trying to frame things to my advantage in case so-and-so at school picked it up and showed it to everybody. The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.

Still later, after reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, she took a stab at a purely literary diary. The project lasted one day. She couldn’t stomach the first-person point of view:

When I was younger even the appearance of I on the page made me feel a bit ill—that self-consciousness again—and I would always try and obscure it with we. I notice that once I got to America this began to change, and then snowball; looking up the page right now I see more cases of I than a stretch of Walt Whitman.

Given that nothing Zadie Smith writes emerges from a vacuum: why is she now reconsidering the diary form? It’s true that this piece appears to come from an issue of Rookie called “Trust,” a subject of importance for both writing and reading diaries. But it’s also the case that Smith has supported the autofictional writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard in the recent past. Knausgaard, who writes from the first-person perspective, reproduces his own life from memory in a manner similar to a diary. So what’s the difference?:

What’s notable is Karl Ove’s ability, rare these days, to be fully present in and mindful of his own existence. Every detail is put down without apparent vanity or decoration, as if the writing and the living are happening simultaneously. There shouldn’t be anything remarkable about any of it except for the fact that it immerses you totally. You live his life with him.

Knausgaard’s My Struggle, for Smith, lacks the pose we normally attribute to diaristic writing. His life just seems to happen on the page. This may have something to do with the makeup of the contemporary novel, where facts and fictions are both just stories we tell ourselves in order to live. In such worlds, factual “mistakes” or revelations or confessions are, like everything else, equipment for living. The veil of fiction protects against judgment: it’s less stressful, then, to automatically recite your life from memory.

Smith’s diary piece also does what her critical and confessional nonfiction pieces often do: recognize a forthcoming pattern or trend in fiction. In “Two Paths for the Novel,” for example, Smith located two futures for anglophone fiction. A realist fiction with literary “depth” (Joseph O’Neill) and a presentist vanguardist fiction (Tom McCarthy). It’s worth pointing out that novelists like Knausgaard combine the two.

ongoingBut in this case, Smith seems to have noticed that we’re on the verge of a reexamination of the diary form, mostly by women. In writing about her own “non-memory” and its relation to the diary, Smith is anticipating Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which comes out next month from Graywolf. In that book, Manguso investigates her own diary, an 800,000-word document the maintenance of which is something like “spiritual practice.” Apparently, Manguso, like Smith, was thrown into a reconsideration of the diary form by way of her own lapse in memory:

Then Manguso became pregnant and had a child, and these two Copernican events generated an amnesia that put her into a different relationship with the need to document herself amid ongoing time.

Then, in April, novelist Heidi Julavits will release The Folded Clock, her own meta-diary project. Prompted by the rediscovery of her old diaries, Julavits decided to write a new one that would “chronicle her daily life as a 40-something woman, wife, mother, and writer.” Julavits, in this case, seems to have inverted Smith’s anxiety about the diary’s audience, choosing instead to write a new diary specifically for publication, one that uses a self-consciously confessional tone.

In either case, as I’ve now written several times, when it comes to contemporary literature — whether diary or autofiction — the oeuvre is now the soul. It’s up to the reader to decide if she can bear it.