Zadie Smith on E.M. Forster

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith has used the release of a collection of E.M. Forster’s BBC radio broadcasts as an occasion to examine his tendency to walk “the middling line” as a novelist and a critic. Smith’s affection for Forster is well known—her novel On Beauty even begins with an allusion to Howards End. Though here she briefly entertains the idea that Forster’s middlebrow sensibilities might have limited his powers, it’s little surprise that she judges in his favor in the end, concluding that his open-minded moderation made it possible for him to see more clearly than many of his more aesthetically partisan peers.

I was particularly struck by what Smith had to say about Forster’s attitude toward his audience. She writes: “He was the sort to send one manuscript to Virginia Woolf, another to his good friend Sergeant Bob Buckingham of the Metropolitan Police, and fear the literary judgment of both.” Unlike Joyce or Woolf, he worried about being able to reach a broad audience; but at the same time, he did also value the power and sophistication of “highbrow” literature. Smith perceptively puts her finger on the core values underlying Forster’s attitude toward his audience:

It really didn’t matter to Forster if a fellow had read Yeats or not (he is consistently sentimental about the unlettered: peasants, sailors, gardeners, natives). But to deny Yeats, because he was not to your taste, or to deny poetry itself, out of fear and incomprehension— that mattered terribly. The only philistinism that counted was the kind that deforms the heart, trapping us in an attitude of scorn and fear until scorn and fear are all we know.

What’s important is not literary sophistication itself, but rather being open to its powers and pleasures—as well as to the powers and pleasures of works that might not have met the approval of a serious-minded literary elitist like Eliot. This, I think, is a principle that I can very much get behind: the idea of approaching literature (or any kind of art) with an open mind and an open heart.

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