Zadie Smith reads as part of the Lenoir Rhyne Visiting Writers Series in Hickory on Thursday, March 22 at 7 pm. Free, but tickets are recommended. Call the box office at 828-328-7206.
In Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, two girls in a London neighborhood bond over what they have in common—their brown skin and a love of dance. Tracey has all the talent, and “her body could align itself with any time signature, no matter how intricate,” but her family life is more erratic, less motivated. In comparison, the unnamed narrator’s family is stable, and her mother in particular aspires to a better life. The narrator shares her love of old Hollywood musicals with Tracey, teaching them both something about not only the art of dance, but also about race and appropriation. Through this pastime we see the narrator, even as a child, holding back from full engagement, filtering the world through a more analytic detachment. Tracey, however, is all in—in her dance moves, emotional outbursts, or sexual forays in the schoolyard. Inevitably, as they enter adolescence, the two girls grow apart, but never completely sever their fraught relationship. Tracey dances in a chorus line before her life gets side-tracked, while the narrator becomes a personal assistant to a globetrotting do-gooder music celebrity.
Smith addresses the parallels between dance and writing explicitly in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” an essay in her collection Feel Free published earlier this year. From dance, Smith says, writers can learn lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style. In both the novel and the essay, she compares Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly. Astaire is thin, elegant and aloof, never breaking into a sweat, appearing to float above the floor without effort. Kelly, on the other hand, shows his exertion and muscularity. For Smith, the two dancers exemplify the difference between “the grounded and the floating.” Gene Kelly provides a metaphor for “how the prosaic can turn poetic, if we work hard enough,” while Astaire’s movements are more literary, “poetry in motion.”
In writing workshops I’ve attended, instructors sometimes talk about “floaty-groundy” in terms of plot or characters, with a meaning that’s a little different from Smith’s. Groundy plots have a definite timeline, and their characters have clearly focused desires. A floaty character may lack identifiable goals, and a floaty plot may veer off course or meander. Think Hunger Games or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vs. Lincoln in the Bardo or even Seinfeld. For me, the floaty-groundy dichotomy has more to do with my orientation as a reader. Do I know exactly where I am in time and place? Are there sensory details that keep me tethered to world of the story? Do I know what the character is doing in the moment? If so, then I think the passage is grounded. But I also want fiction and nonfiction I read to engage with ideas, and I want characters to have rich interior lives – floatier elements. Contrast these first sentences for back-to-back chapters early in Swing Time:
“If Fred Astaire represented aristocracy, I represented the proletariat, said Gene Kelly, and by this logic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson should really have been my dancer, because Bojangles danced for the Harlem dandy, for the ghetto kid, for the sharecropper—for all the descendants of slaves.”
“A Sunday in late summer. I was on the balcony, watching a few girls from our floor skipping Double Dutch down by the bins. I heard my mother calling me.”
Floaty vs. groundy, right? For me, good writing balances the two. In revising my own writing, I often notice when something is too focused on ideas and not enough on the nitty-gritty of the world I’m building, or when I’ve written a perfectly serviceable description of a subway ride, but the character does not seem to have a thought in her head. I think of Tracey in Swing Time as the more grounded character, like Gene Kelly, more comfortable in the corporeal, in effort and emotion. The narrator, like Astaire, remains cerebral and detached, perhaps more of the mind than the body.
While Tracey the erstwhile dancer never rises above her hardscrabble life in council flats, Smith’s narrator never makes a lasting connections to anyone or anything. If our fiction is to succeed at a high level, we must allow our characters (and our work as a whole) to engage with ideas, while also firmly grounding them in the world of our imagining.
Kristin Donnalley Sherman lives in Charlotte, where she works as a writer, editor, and writing coach. She’s published both fiction and nonfiction, and is currently at work on two novels. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Barrelhouse, Silk Road, Main Street Rag and Flashquake, and she has won or been a finalist in numerous contests, including Elizabeth Simpson Smith Short Fiction, the Writers Workshop Memoirs, the Reynolds Price Fiction, River Styx Micro-fiction, and the Press 53 Open Awards for Short Short Fiction.