1. branding strategies
a small critique of Zadie Smith's "A Hovering Young Man"
I was at work when friend and fellow writer, Maddy Lyskawa, messaged me: “Zadie Smith wrote about someone on Bobst Library staff.” I was intrigued for two split reasons. Obviously, my short time in Smith’s class was a factor. However, I was also curious because I had worked for the Library’s IT department throughout my undergrad, and even four months following graduation. The student staff are now some of my closest friends, and the full-timers are all people I hold great respect for, both as technicians and as managers. So I was curious if I would recognize Smith’s person of choice. To my surprise, not only did I recognize them, but I had worked closely under their wing and had gotten to share quite a few long conversations. Smith calls him “Cy the IT Guy” for her purposes - we’ll just call him that as well.
So, of course, I had to read it. Maddy sent me pictures of the pages and soon they were forwarded around. A small group soon formed, a minority with a specific definition: those who would be interested or even care about Smith’s writing, but also knew Cy and had his personality as a material reference point in their lives. And the first feeling we all shared was one of surreal wonder. Seeing Cy now cemented in “literature” was exciting for us, though in a childish way. Everyone wants to be related to a moment in time.
However, it began to dawn on us that there were strange discrepancies between Smith’s interpretation and our more in-depth interactions with Cy. For one, she ascribes to him an intense youthful glow, perhaps assuming he is even a student worker. The truth is, he’s closer to her age than she may have expected. Additionally, the “youthful hope” she saw is plastered over certain cynicisms - cynicisms about the arc of his career, the nature of relationships, and how to share expensive chocolate. Hopefully clear by that last example, none of these views necessarily are to be considered negative. However, they existed in the whole of his personality, and not that far underneath.
And to be fair, Smith never claims any closeness in their relationship. She is honest that her interactions with Cy are short and abrupt. They consist of greetings, offerings of technical help, and then watching him ride away on his hoverboard - a hoverboard that, when he tried to teach me how to ride it, I almost smashed into one of the library walls.
But what does that mean for Smith’s take on Cy? Well, the first thing I’d state is she is not, per se, doing anything malicious for the sake of her essay. Cy was known for trying to introduce himself to anyone on campus, and offer his technical services. He presented himself as such because, as he explained it to me, you never know who was going to be the connection that leads to your next job. It was a professional investment to present himself as the go-to guy for anyone and everyone.
A way to consider Smith’s piece, then, is as the byproduct of falling for a trick. And well, shit - good for Cy. If his real name was used in the piece, maybe this could have led to some sort of job opportunity. However, it is interesting to note the success of Cy’s projected personality in this context of Sontagian aesthetics. Smith reminds us that style is a means of insisting upon something, according to Sontag - and sure, we can agree on that. Yet Smith views Cy’s style as a sincere protest against some sort of exhausting existential pressure. She compares it to the observations she has made of her own students, who display a strong sense of cynicism due to the pressure of self awareness and constant worldly turmoil.
What she does not consider is that style can insist upon something for a hidden reason - and the flaw in the essay may then be its focus solely on interpreting whatever Cy’s style insists upon, rather than why. For the sake of clarity, let’s shift to Cy again. Cy presents a style that insists upon limitless youthful energy so that, should the right person pick up on this, he presents himself as the perfect job candidate without even having to even present a resume. His style insists purposefully, regardless of whether or not it is a reflection on a generation. That youthful hope is for the sake of climbing a corporate ladder.
This is not all to say that Smith claims some form of world altering perspective based on Cy’s style. The essay is sweet, clearly intended to imply hope still exists in the world. The unfortunate truth is, because Smith did not have access to the additional context, she misses that the presenter of a style controls their outward image, and that image of hope is designed for profit.
But it does says something about this exercise she took on with “A Hovering Young Man” - that, if we are to interpret the styles of the small characters in our life, we must consider not only the style the exude, but why they've chosen to present it to people who are also small characters in their life. And perhaps, for the sake of word choice, when we attempt that analysis, style may not be the correct term. A more fitting word, in my opinion, would be branding.