“Crazy They Call Me”
by Zadie Smith
from the March 6, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

More Zadie Smith is always a good thing, even if I haven’t loved her most recent contributions to the magazine. And here she is writing about Billie Holiday, from the perspective of Billie Holiday in 1957, toward the end of her life, in a relatively short piece. Apparently, Smith was originally going to write a straight biographical introduction for Jerry Dantzic’s forthcoming Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill., but it turned into this instead (and will still be included in that book). Should be lots of interesting things to discuss this week.

I can’t wait to read what you all think in the comments below!

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By |2017-05-25T16:14:04-04:00February 27th, 2017|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Zadie Smith|Tags: |38 Comments


  1. Tangible February 27, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    Edith, Janis, Billie, Judy…. Desperate, damaged, fatally flawed women who said all they needed to say and more through their music. All surrounded by an entourage of users, even after death.

    Fictionalizers are users too. Let her be. If you need to hear more from Lady Day or Billie or Eleanora just blow the dust off an LP and play it again.

  2. Dennis Lang March 1, 2017 at 3:27 pm

    I do like Tangible’s line, “just blow the dust off the LP and play it again.” It sort of describes how this story played for me, like jazz, the language, the rhythm, the voice of it. Billie. The second-person viewpoint dissecting the character, holding up a mirror, arriving at a powerful, lasting insight.

  3. William March 2, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Not a short story, not even an excerpt. Not even good writing, in my opinion. Sorry, Dennis, no music in this piece for me. The NYer owes us one.

  4. Dennis Lang March 2, 2017 at 10:50 am

    To coin a phrase–makes for a horse race, William. No apology necessary!

    However, care to elaborate on “not even good writing”? By what measurement? (I don’t mean this rhetorically.) In your mind how did the the author fail in providing a sympathetic portrait/snapshot of this character if that was her intent?

  5. Roger March 2, 2017 at 10:55 am

    I had never thought of Billie Holiday as being this annoying.

  6. William March 2, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Dennis —

    By the simplest possible measurement — the subjective one. Did I enjoy reading it? No. You know that I typically pick out phrases or sentences that I consider good writing from a story that I like. Nothing in this short piece caught me that way.

    It’s not that she didn’t make Holliday a sympathetic character. It’s more that she didn’t make her a character, period. She made her a cliche. There is nothing new or insightful here.

    A long time ago T.C. wrote a story about the death of Robert Johnson. I remember it as a well written reimagining of Johnson’s last days. Zadie’s piece is all rhetoric, and none of it very sparkling or original.

    That’s the best I can do. Harder to say why one doesn’t like something than the obverse.

  7. Dennis Lang March 2, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks William. Always appreciate your thoughtful take on these stories. Meanwhile I’m about halfway into the Remnick piece on Trump/Putin in the same issue. Pretty fascinating stuff. In fact what’s happening politically/socially in real time right now too often hits me as the product of a fiction writer’s wild imagination. Compelling. But I digress.

  8. William March 2, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    My wife listens to the New Yorker podcasts, and she sent me the 15-min interview with Remnick, Osnos and Jaffe, so the article is on my must-read list. Yes, the current political scene does seem like dystopic fiction, maybe from Christopher Buckley.

  9. Eric March 4, 2017 at 1:44 am

    This is less a work of fiction than a genre-bending music review, but taken on those terms it is very good. Smith uses fiction to try to get inside Holliday’s head, and make the connection between her brilliant music and her self-destructive life clear and undeniable. I thought the result was well done and well worth doing, but then again I’m pretty much the definition of the target audience here–someone who has always respected Holliday’s work from a distance but didn’t really start to “get” it until recently. I’ve always thought the best music criticism used straightforward prose to illuminate otherwise inaccessible work, and that’s exactly what Smith did for me here. I’ll be playing Holliday’s music in the background the next time I have stuff to do around the house, and probably appreciating it more than I have before.

    I do expect to be in the minority, though. To those who aren’t terribly interested in Holliday’s life or work, or to those like Tangible who are already thoroughly familiar with it, a story like this probably doesn’t have a lot to offer.

  10. Ken March 6, 2017 at 3:42 pm

    I have pretty much dismissed Smith based on her last two New Yorker pieces, but I liked this. She captures a definitive voice, although how much that is Holiday’s I have no idea–nor does anyone else unless they maybe actually knew and spoke to her–but I thought it came alive and was mesmerizing. I can hardly call this poorly written–these sentences flow beautifully. Is it any great contribution? Not necessarily. Perhaps as a book introduction, it would’ve found its most perfect home, but still for a 2 page story it works on its own terms.

  11. Ken March 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    Maybe it’s not a blinding insight, but I did like how it shows that celebrities often feel that “nobody knows them.” Holiday here wants to be understood in all her depth–not just as junkie, or woman, or singer. Another thought–I’m not super-familiar with her although I know her famous songs–I wonder if I’d be more critical if it was someone who I know more about such as Frank Sinatra.

  12. Dennis Lang March 6, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    It hit me exactly the same way Ken. A universality that extends beyond the personal tragedy of Billie Holiday, when the artist/celebrity becomes known by the persona they project at the grave risk of becoming lost in it and having to live up to it. As you say, “nobody knows them.”

  13. Greg March 11, 2017 at 8:43 am

    I am with Dennis, Eric and Ken on liking this. I enjoyed the opportunity to get ‘inside the head’ of a legend; to know what it may have felt to be her in that time and place. In addition, the form Zadie chose to do this was exhilarating for me! This was my favourite part:

    “They never want to hear about the surprise you feel in yourself, the sense of being directed by God, when something in the modulation of your throat leaps up, like a kid reaching for a rising balloon, except most kids miss while you catch it – yes, you catch it almost without expecting to – landing on an incidental note, a perfect addition, one you never put in that phrase before, and never heard anyone else do, and yet you can hear at once that it is perfection. Perfection!”

  14. Dennis Lang March 11, 2017 at 11:14 am

    Yes. And just reading again the passage you quoted Greg, sends shiver! I think that’s what happens when a writer really nails it!! Notice it’s one, lyrical, powerful, rising sentence just like the music it describes. To the one-word closing note–“Perfection”.

  15. Greg March 12, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks Dennis for showing me how the writing matches the music!

  16. Dennis Lang March 12, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you Greg! The passage you selected truly touches a cord, from the heart, and captures I think the essence of what Zadie Smith has written here.

  17. Katie April 20, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    When I first read the print version, I was impressed by the way in which Smith captured a voice, if not Billie’s then at least a distinct voice that still lent the imagination much interpretation of the way she actually spoke. Now listening, I can’t get halfway through. The accent is all wrong, it feels sloppy, like a bad caricature. If an actual reading was necessary, the NYer should have tried to get it right and cast an actress who studied the voice like one would for a biopic. Smith should be given credit for her bravery, but if this is the art of fiction playing biopic, at least offer the readers (and Billie) the respect of accuracy.

  18. Greg April 20, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    Thanks Katie for the heads up on this botched attempt….and actually, this reminds me of when I was younger and on how a mature lady was recommending that I try out audio books. She explained to me that what made them special to her were the professional actors reading the novels….so now Katie, it’s all making sense to me….Thank You!

  19. Katie April 21, 2017 at 2:54 pm

    I’m actually behind the times, only having recently discovered the wonders of audio books on youtube. The reader makes a huge difference, especially if you’re listening for 10+ hours!! I think the key is not only accuracy of intonation and accent but I also think the reader should lend some interpretation to the writing that is idiosyncratic. For instance, I had to reread Jane Eyre and didn’t have time to sit down with the book, and let me tell you, the Oscars need to make a new category and give it to this woman Elizabeth Klett who volunteered no less! Zadie Smith made a valiant attempt at Billie but the magazine should have considered this separate from typical fiction read by authors. I’m pretty sure a famous actor would have volunteered a modicum of time for some New Yorker lit cred.

  20. David April 21, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    Interesting discussion of audiobooks. I use audiobooks a lot, but in a very idiosyncratic way, so I actually like when the reader gives a fairly plain reading rather than an acted one. With The New Yorker stories I rarely listen to the audio version. But when I do it has been not because I wanted an actor’s interpretation of the text, but precisely because it is the author who is reading it and I have been interested in what I might learn from the way the author reads it. In particular, when reading dialogue the author is able to convey a little more the points of emphasis or the feeling that was intended for the character in saying those words.
    With author readings of short stories it is not so much about the performance as it is about learning more about how authors view their own stories. I remember particularly enjoying listening to Ottessa Moshfegh reading “An Honest Woman” last fall for this reason. So for The New Yorker the times I have listened to the audio recording it is always after already reading the story once. In the case of Smith’s story here, I did not enjoy it enough to care to listen to the audio version. But then again, I probably only do that 1 in 10 times, if that.

  21. Greg April 22, 2017 at 11:30 pm

    Hi Katie

    It’s great to have you participating on this forum. I have enjoyed reading your posts!

    Also, since you wrote, “I had to reread Jane Eyre and didn’t have time to sit down with the book…”, can we assume you are an English Lit major?

  22. Greg April 22, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    Hi Katie,

    It’s great to have you on this forum. I have really enjoyed reading your posts!

    Also, since you wrote, “I had to reread Jane Eyre and didn’t have time to sit down with the book…”, can we assume you are an English Lit major?

  23. Katie April 23, 2017 at 1:13 am

    Hi Greg! I’m happy to have discovered this forum. I was searching for some reviews of New Yorker fiction stories and found you all. I actually had to reread Jane Eyre because I had to teach it to my students!

  24. Greg April 23, 2017 at 10:48 am

    So I see Katie, you love literature so much that you are now teaching it in high school! Very cool….I’m curious, of all the mandated novels on your curriculum, which one do you find the most pleasurable to you personally?

    (If I was a teacher, it would probably be THE GREAT GATSBY, with WUTHERING HEIGHTS being a close second!)

  25. Dennis Lang April 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Hey Katie and Greg–Fun eavesdropping!!

    Katie–Did you say it was high school? What grade? I imagine you focus on the classics–what books do the students find most meaningful these days? This dates me, and is kind of irrelevant but around the 10th grade, I vividly recall the impact of “Lord of the Flies” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, discovered on my own.

  26. Katie April 24, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Hi Dennis and Greg, I’m a jack of all grades, so to speak! I’ve taught comp and creative writing in grad school, ESL to uni students abroad in Korea, and now that I’m home with baby without much time, I teach 8th graders in the classroom well as Chinese students online. It’s with the latter group that I’m teaching Jane Eyre. We’ve also done Fahrenheit 451 (although not my favorite read), Lord of the Flies (excellent writing, which tends to get overlooked with so much focus on symbolism), Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare is always fun), and most recently Grapes of Wrath (which has led to discussions of social injustices in the US and China). With the 8th graders, I loved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, which really does deserve all its praise. Greg, I would love to teach The Great Gatsby in the future! If theres a position available next year, I’ll hopefully teach 11th grade so that we can cover texts like Native Son.

  27. Trevor Berrett April 24, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    I’ve enjoyed getting to know you (and, based on the questions you ask, others too!) a bit better in this exchange, Katie. Thanks for sharing!]

    And welcome!

    I’m sorry that right now the blog design is in flux and probably making it a bit difficult to navigate and sometimes making it unsightly as well — it’s getting taken care of and will hopefully settle down soon!

    In this period of flux, though, if you hit Ctrl+F5, it will do a hard reset of the page and give you all of the latest. I’m still not sure where the disconnect is between what’s being sent and what’s being seen at any given time. Strangely, it doesn’t even matter if you to a hard reset on a certain page . . . it still might come up in an old iteration if you leave a comment on it! But, and this is a pain, for now Ctrl+F5 will take care of it. Soon you won’t have to do that!

  28. Trevor Berrett April 24, 2017 at 6:45 pm

    The darnedest thing. I just realized that I’ve done something that makes my own comments bold! That was not intentional, folks, and I have every intention of changing that!

  29. Dennis Lang April 24, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Oh sure Trevor. A likely excuse. We all know your ego is hard to fit in the room!!!

  30. Dennis Lang April 24, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Hey Katie–Absolutely terrific! Great to have your perspective along for the ride.

    And again, I don’t know the whole backstory here but great credit to Trevor for authoring the Mookse. Super idea!

  31. Greg April 25, 2017 at 4:55 am

    Thanks Katie for sharing your situation right now….you inspire me to work harder!

    Also, speaking of hard work, do you find your Chinese students more motivated and studious than your American pupils? In other words, is the stereotype true: Chinese kids are studying super hard in order to eventually get accepted to an American ivy league school?

  32. Katie April 25, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    Greg, I can’t speak for all Chinese students but your observation is probably true for my students, which is a small and non-representative sample. I have one class of 10 and 11 year-olds who are reading novels in English, but that’s certainly not the case for most Chinese or Korean kids. Most are focused on getting into a university in their own countries, a process almost more competitive than acceptance to the Ivy Leagues. (Korea stops all air traffic on the day of the university entrance test and moms pray outside the testing buildings.) That said, I’m always relieved to meet students who don’t buy into the system, who were more interested in art or literature, sports, or their friends. I hope that my class is a bit of a break for them in that it’s discussion-based, not about having the right answer.

  33. Greg April 25, 2017 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks Katie for sharing your experiences with your Asian students. I now have a more accurate understanding of over there.

    Also, your comment regarding your class on not being about having the right answer made me think back to my unique Grade 11 English teacher. Instead of providing the standard book report, she asked us to stand in front of the class for just 5 minutes and share with everybody what part of a novel really got us excited. In other words, she wanted us to communicate our passion!

    Lastly, if you were still teaching in South Korea, would you be scared for you and your baby? I mean, the leaders of North Korea and the States have such enormous egos and are now engaged in a game of ‘nuclear chicken’….Eeeee….you must still have friends over there….what are they telling you about what it’s like?

  34. Katie April 26, 2017 at 12:01 am

    None of them are too concerned! S. Koreans are more focused on the upcoming election now that they’ve impeached their president. And my western friends just take their cues from the Koreans and go about business as usual, even those with families. The media hypes up the conflict to make it sound like the Koreas are on the brink of war. It happens almost every spring during the US-Korea joint military exercises. When I was living over there, it was so surreal to read CNN and then find no one on the ground blinking an eye. They’ve been living with over 50 years of threats since the Korean war so they don’t take the little man up north very seriously.

  35. Katie April 26, 2017 at 12:06 am

    So Greg, Dennis, Trevor, now I’m curious. Do you all have careers related to literature? What do you all do when you aren’t reading NYer fiction and blogging?

  36. Eric April 26, 2017 at 1:05 am

    I can’t speak for others, but my own most recent involvement in the “literature career” area was a looong time ago, when I made a D in sophomore English Lit, and transferred to another school so I could finish my computer science degree without having to take a second semester of that. It seems that we have a good mix of people on this forum, one of the reasons I like it so much.

  37. Dennis Lang April 26, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Hey Katie–I think there may be a “story” somewhere in the back story of those who contribute to a blog discussing “New Yorker” short fiction. Who in the heck are these people?? Personalities start to emerge.
    Me? I probably overstayed my welcome as an undergrad trying to make a virtue of the wonderful liberal arts ed my parents paid for. Followed a first love of film to the MFA grad program in Cinema at the U of Southern Cal. Then, in a decision widely questioned by others (occasionally me) left that opportunity to return to St. Paul and take part in the family apparel manufacturing biz. Really, it was the girl back home that did it. She, of course married someone else and has three great sons. 30 years later I returned to college to take up journalism, read the “New Yorker” and post an irrelevant comment once in awhile here and on the Minnesota Twins website.
    You must have deep regrets for asking!!!

  38. Greg April 26, 2017 at 10:29 pm

    It’s a relief to hear Katie that the South Koreans aren’t stressed out right now about being caught in the middle!

    And thanks for asking about my background – It’s in Finance. Hence, I study spreadsheets all day and then come home to enjoy art. I like to think that I follow this advice, “If you can’t be the poet, be the poem.”

    So Katie, without looking it up, can you tell me who said that?

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