Zadie Smith: “Crazy They Call Me”

"Crazy They Call Me"
by Zadie Smith
Originally published in 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!

16 thoughts on “Zadie Smith: “Crazy They Call Me”

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.”

  12. 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!”

  13. 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”.

  14. 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.

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