BAE – Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?”

This was one of my favorite essays in the collection, and a good example of non-memoir-based essaying. It was actually originally a film review, of the ubiquitous film The Social Network, itself of course about the ubiquitous social network, Facebook.

I, for one, hated the movie. I thought it was a fairly typical Hollywood mythologization of recent history, with some pretty serious revisionism (if I were Napster co-founder Sean Parker, for example, I’d be suing for defamation). Smith, fortunately, has her sights higher than I in watching The Social Network, explaining the revisionism in relation to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:

To create this Zuckerberg, [screenwriter Aaron] Sorkin barely need brush his pen against the page. We came to the cinema expecting to meet this guy, and it’s a pleasure to watch Sorkin color in what we had already confidently sketched in our minds. For sometimes the culture surmises an individual personality, collectively. Or thinks it does.

Anyone who’s ever seen Mark Zuckerberg knows he’s nothing like he’s played in the movie, which Smith explains thus:

But would Zuckerberg recognize it, the real Zuckerberg? Are these really his motivations, his obsessions? No – and the movie knows it.

…Fincher’s contemporary window-dressing is so convincing that it wasn’t until this very last scene [where Zuckerberg sits in front of his computer continually Friend Requesting Erica, the girl who broke his heart in the movie’s first scene, to no avail] that I realized the obvious progenitor of this wildly enjoyable, wildly inaccurate biopic. Hollywood still believes that behind every mogul there’s an idée fixe: Rosebud – meet Erica.

There’s a lot more to this essay, but I don’t want to steer the conversation too much. I will say, though, that by the end of the essay Smith indicts us all (unless you’re one of the last 10 First- or Second-World inhabitants without a Facebook account):

The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.

You can find the essay online here.

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11 Responses to BAE – Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?”

  1. Adam A says:

    In my opinion, this was the best essay in this year’s collection (perhaps that says something about my bias toward the non-trauma genre). Smith’s assertion that the movie is conscious of its own caricaturized mythology is spot on. I’d need to read it again to make more than one specific reference, but the one I remember off hand is her mention of the scene with the Winkelvosses in the rowing scull–a scene I loved both for its visual richness and its farce-like character.

    Unlike John, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (inaccuracies and all) and certainly ranked it higher that last year’s Best Pic winner. Smith’s essay made me want to see it again. Not sure that was exactly her intention, but certainly her writing has put the movie back in my mind in a new light (which was probably her intention).

    More than anything, Smith’s piece has what I feel is a hallmark of a great essay: it uses a particular item/moment/thought (in this case, the movie) as a jumping off point for a carefully considered analysis of a much bigger concern–namely this generation’s computer dependence (look at me, I’m responding to a blog right now). This is one of the few true “essays” in this year’s collection. It relies as much on thought-experiments and careful logic as it does on describing scenes. A contemporary classic.

  2. sarah braud says:

    What I find interesting about Adam’s assessment (the best essay of this collection due to it’s non-traumatic content) is that through reading Smith’s essay, he is reminded of how much he enjoyed about the movie The Social Network, inaccuracies and all. He lauds Smith’s attention to the movie’s consciousness of it’s own caricaturized mythology. The inaccuracies, in other words, serve to point toward a larger truth. Movie watchers and readers of Smith’s essay are both under no delusion that the portrayal of Zuckerberg is accurate. No one can be that duche-y in real life, can they? What makes Adam want to see The Social Network again is perhaps the same quality that makes him doubt the authentic “essay-ness” about the other essays in this years collection: inaccuracies. Whether inaccuracies in memory or intentional, inaccuracies (facts) must be held in submission to the service of the greater story, emotional or otherwise. The story of thought versus the story of emotion are both equally valuable and I posit that Adam and other essayists/readers who hold reflective or meditative essays better will do well to challenge their own emotional stories by reflecting on others.

  3. Adam A says:

    A ha! The gauntlet has been thrown. I love you, Sarah B, but you misread me. The inaccuracies are not at the heart of my argument, rather the idea of something as “a jumping off point for a carefully considered analysis of a much bigger concern.” The “something” of an essay can be a memory, experience, movie, work of art, personal trauma…anything…as long as (again in my opinion as a branded meditative essay-lover) that “something” goes beyond one’s own story.

    Now I know that writers of emotionally-charged personal essays, like (to pick a few from this issue) Mischa Berlinski of the armchair view of a third-world disaster in Haiti, Paul Crenshaw of the tricky look at family issues, or Rachel Riederer of the bus accident (already mentioned on this blog)–I know they will say their works DO go beyond their own story…inherently. These essays become universal, so it goes, because they’re not just about bus accidents, say, or abusive relationships, or earthquakes, but they’re about something we all experience–like alienation, identity crisis, isolation.

    I just don’t buy it. I don’t hate these other essays, and certainly the best of them put me vividly in a place I have never been, but for me they do not rise to the level of what Smith has done, which is leap from a single work of art to a discussion of the issues of our time. (And, by the way, why can’t emotional personal stories ever show me the universal experience of joy, love, contentment?)

    Zadie Smith is in the essay, with a personal experience of early Facebook (she opens the essay with it), but the essay is not ABOUT her. It’s more general. “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced,” writes Smith. “Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships, Language. Sensibility.” And later: “our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.” And the gem of a final sentence: “[The Social Network is] a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.” These are big thoughts, and the rest of her words back up the logic.

    I see myself in a whole new light because of this writing. Not a good light, maybe, but it’s definitely still turning around in my head. (And Smith’s final words are artfully swiped from a different programmer’s philosophy, on which Smith enlightens us.)

    Well, crap! I promised myself I wouldn’t go on and on. Closing words: Inaccuracy discussion aside, I want an essay that leaves its first story–one that goes somewhere else: into the mind, to the books, anywhere. A play-by-play account of Smith watching The Social Network would never have been published anywhere. But play-by-play accounts of other aspects of life are published all the time.

    OK, then, memoirists: warm up those keyboards and have at it.

  4. sarah braud says:

    Am I a memoirist? I’m not ready for that title quite yet, however, my keyboard is warm!

    First of all, thank you, Adam, for picking up the gauntlet I threw down. Or taking the bait I set. Whichever makes it easier to swallow! I must confess that I did intentionally misread you. But, for the purpose of a larger conversation. Is that bad? I’d prefer to call it “crafty.”

    I am not in disagreement with you about the value of the reflective essay. Using quotidian experiences as “jumping off points” to discuss or think through larger, more universal issues is a great art. Leaping from a single piece of art to a discussion of the issues of our time is no small leap. However, I think you minimize the different aspects of leaping if you think this only relates to writing about content outside of ourselves, content that is not inherently traumatic.

    Life is traumatic. If you really followed the accusation Zadie Smith is making—remember, she has drawn a cruel portrait of you—to its core, I think you’d find, if you truly ruminated on it, a traumatizing experience. What is more traumatic than looking into your own heart and finding rot?
    I believe that following thoughts, logic, ideas is just as valuable as following individual experiences, whether categorized as “trauma” or not. What I mean to say is that dramatic events and non-dramatic events are both worthy of being examined. They both lead to larger issues.

    Which brings me to the bone I’d like to pick with John Proctor. In categorizing these essays as “trauma essays,” I believe you reduce these people’s writing to cliches when they are anything but. These essayists are not sharing their experiences because they are titillating stories that might get picked up and made into Lifetime movies or after-school specials. Sustained narrative essays (which I think might be a more appropriate category, though I generally fight against most reductionistic titles) are crafted, thoughtful looks into the inner experience of outward events.

    In the introduction to BAE, Danticat says that “such is the power of the stories we dare to tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are to words.” She goes on to warn the essayist that “when we insert the “I” (our eye) to search deeper into someone, something, or ourselves, we are always risking a yawn or a slap, indifference or disdain.” (How did she know?) She goes on to hope that the craft of writing, the art of telling the story of our thoughts or experiences, is perhaps the bridge that will connect us. Finally, she addresses the argument we are having head on, referring to the essay Adam mentioned above about the Haitian earthquake by Mischa Berlinski, she says:

    “However, his essay, which poignantly and powerfully describes the height of disaster, echoes an instinct we might also display even as we attempt to capture the quietest, most predictable moments: our yearning to preserve our words.”

    In sum, whether the content is banal or traumatic, its all worth crafting with words. To quote Mr. Miyagi: “Same same.” Crafting the content in vivid narrative scene or in long, lifeless logical thoughts, supported with dry definitions, quotes from “experts,” and unrelieved ruminations are both valid forms of art. One just happens to be more engaging than the other.

    Oh, and, Adam, you are wondering where the narrative essays are that wrestle with joy, love, contentment? I’m working on them.

  5. For me, there’s no difference between a so-called “trauma” essay and any other kind of essay. The subject matter is somewhat beside the point. For me, the point, is whether an essay, regardless of subject matter, is well written, is artfully written. There are good essays written about trauma and there are bad essays written about trauma. There are good meditative essays and bad meditative essays…good nature essays and bad nature essays. What’s at the heart of of any given essay — what’s of interest — is the story BEHIND the story. And if the author fails to discover this, then, whatever the subject matter, the essay doesn’t work. On the other hand, if the story behind the story IS discovered, then the piece IS elevated to art. Of course, there are those that want us to believe that an essay about trauma isn’t art…which is a very “old” and tiresome argument.

    Literature is not a zero-sum game. What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes. What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks. Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.

    If interested, I wrote a piece about this on You can find it here:

  6. So I read Smith’s essay, and I use facebook often, but have not seen the movie. May I comment here nonetheless? IF not, stop reading now.

    While I found Smith’s essay intriguing, I couldn’t buy her point of view. She says: “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced,” writes Smith. “Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships, Language. Sensibility.”
    Of course this is true. What I take issue with in Smith’s essay is her apparent assumption that our facebook profiles are somehow intended to fully represent us as human beings. She critiques facebook for falling short of that, but I don’t know why anyone would have expected otherwise. A web profile is the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” That is all.

    I don’t know who would make the mistake of thinking that any person’s web profile is a full-bodied representation of the whole person. (Am I out of touch?) It would be like saying that my phone number was me, or my house was me, or my ramblings this little comment box. Or even my physical body. (Please know: I am more than this! So are you.)
    Rather, I think of Facebook as a simply a public persona, one that is certainly not going to cover the full range of my emotions, or experiences, or opinions–nor should anyone expect it to–yet it is a reasonably accurate view of who I am when out and about. The full range of me is, frankly, not suitable for public consumption. But I wear clothing when I go out in public. I smile and say, “I’m okay, thanks.” Similarly, I don a modest, suitably-clad version of myself on Facebook, and assume that others are doing the same. It’s not a lie; it’s decency.
    Smith closes: “It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”
    I reject that comparison. I use facebook most days, but I am not trapped in it. Facebook has been added to by millions of people beyond Zuckerburg and has grown far larger than what one individual’s mind can hold. It’s what we all make of it together. We all have the power to write carefully elaborated, deep thoughts in updates. If some people routinely post dumb stuff, we can hide those updates and apps. Some of my friends regularly post brilliant gems, giving me something to think about for the rest of the day as I wash dishes, fold laundry, write stories, and go about the rest of my offline life–which is what most of my life is.

    We have the power to turn off the Internet at will. It’s not like we’re plugged into the Matrix here.

    I don’t know. Maybe I’m in denial and my brain has been so taken over by Zuckerzombies that I defend FB against my better judgment! I’m definitely willing to keep this open as a possibility. But mostly, I think facebook has made my life a little better and more socially connected–offline as well as online. It’s allowed me to meet up with old friends when I was stuck in an airport, see pictures of my nephews over long distance, get book recommendations from people I respect, encounter new ideas I might not have heard of otherwise, and find out that a friend just had a house fire. Plus, it often makes me laugh.

    • Adam A says:

      AnnaMaria, I think the scary thing you touched on is that there IS a generation (slightly younger than you and I) that does equate their Facebook identity with their actual identity. People break-up and hook-up via Facebook. Facebook pages stay active (as Smith describes) after people die in real life, strangely indicating that they live on, because their Facebook page does. Employers even check potential employees’ pages: too much drunken hijinx, no job. Now that’s FB reality meeting real reality.

      I can agree with all you say about our real identities versus Facebook identities, but those coming up through college now…or entering the workforce now… that is often a different story. And the whole thing has specific rules/limits we move within–rules/limits imposed by one (not particularly social) person.

      But yeah, I love Facebook and use it all the time. Hmmm.

  7. Adam A says:

    I’ll apologize up front for using the words “non-trauma genre.” Re-reading that in my first post at the top of this thread: Youch. But I’ll place much of the blame on John Proctor.

    I must, however, address this: “Crafting the content in vivid narrative scene or in long, lifeless logical thoughts, supported with dry definitions, quotes from “experts,” and unrelieved ruminations are both valid forms of art. One just happens to be more engaging than the other.” I knew Sarah B had a sharp tongue (I only take slight offense, my dear), but this actually gets to the point I’m trying to make.

    An essay, meditative or otherwise, that uses “lifeless” logic, “dry” definitions and such, WOULD be a bad essay. Sue hits this on the head just above, but Sarah’s comment suggests that the use of facts, definitions, expert testimony, etc., makes an essay inherently “less engaging.” The meditative/science/nature essay writer must do all the same things Sue describes in her Brevity piece. She or he must go beyond the “first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened,” and instead find an engaging way to relate the logic / science / whatever. Believe me, there are plenty of “nature” essays (I’m sure we’ll cover this again in the BASN month) that follow a writer following around a scientist, play-by-play until the end of the field tour. These are not examples of great writing.

    The inverse is John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Peter Mathiessen, Annie Dillard, Edward Hoagland (“The Courage of Turtles” is hardly about turtles), who use language, structure, metaphor, and, yes, “vivid narrative scene,” right along with factual information, conversations with experts, and thought puzzles. (I am sure this is true of other meditative essayists not focusing on nature, this just happens to be what I know at the moment.)

    Here’s my basic stance: essays about rocks and essays about the human toll of earthquakes can be equally interesting–or equally boring. I just feel that many of the essays in the current collection that are about personal difficulty just didn’t quite elevate beyond personal difficulty, while Ms. Smith’s movie review did. So prove me wrong: let’s leave Zadie alone and have someone review some other essay for its excellent writing on different (more personal) subject matter.

    (And just as I should never discount the value of an essay because it’s about “trauma” (ugh, had to use it), don’t discount the value of an essay just because it’s about Facebook.)

  8. sarah braud says:

    You are right, Adam. Like Sue said, there are bad essays and good essays from each subgenre. I was speaking tongue-in-cheek when I spoke of dry essays with lists of facts. (Do I get points for needling you?) My point was more that it is simply a matter of preference, not worth. I do prefer sustained narratives, ones with insights and facts cleverly hidden in the midst of an emotionally amped scene. I like being tricked into learning.

    AnnaMaria, I quoted you on Facebook, in the ultimate post-modern, subversive validation of Facebook. xo

  9. Adam A says:

    So Sarah, which “sustained narrative” essay did you particularly enjoy in BAE 2011…and why? (I’m not letting you off the hook…that’s what you get for needling me….) Maybe John should let you post a main topic and we can start another discussion.

  10. Pingback: Trauma, Revisited | The Best American Reading Club

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