Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Illustration by Edith Pritchett https://www.instagram.com/edithpritchett_art/
Ali Smith’s novel There but for the tells the story of a man who, in the middle of a dinner party, locks himself in the spare room. The story unfolds over the course of the following year or so through the perspectives of four different characters whose lives the man, Miles, has touched in small ways. The characters whose voices comprise the story are Anna, an unemployed Scottish woman; Mark, a middle-aged gay man; May, an elderly woman with dementia; and Brooke, a 10-year-old Black girl. In each of their narrative turns, these characters reflect on experiences in their lives and how others perceive and react to them, giving the reader a rich and textured composite image of what human life can be in and around Greenwich, London in 2009-10. Smith’s novel marries realism and surrealism, satire and earnestness, and weaves it all together with wit and wordplay to create a compelling story of what it feels like to live in the political moment of the Recession.
This sort of warm, witty writing about human connection in the current political landscape is typical of Ali Smith, whose latest novels Autumn and Winter, for example, are part of a loose series about life in post-Brexit Britain. While any Smith text would be worth studying for its craft and ability to capture the zeitgeist, I chose to write about There but for the in particular due to its diverse characters and its focus on queerness. As a queer woman writer and student of literature, it is important to me that queer stories by contemporary queer women writers are studied in university literature courses. Although only one of the book’s central characters has a queer identity, the premise of the story itself reads to me as queer: what would it mean to queer a dinner party, or in other words, to disrupt the standard social script? In addition, Smith’s writing style of partial stream of consciousness and looping back and jumping forward in time support the novel’s questions of how things such as facts, memory and storytelling can be queered. Throughout the book, memory interrupts the narration of the present day, information gets misinterpreted, and the purpose of art and storytelling gets called into question – in Brooke’s words, ‘what is the point of a book, I mean the kinds that tell stories?’ (229). In these ways, Smith queers not only the narratives that get socially reproduced, but also the concept of the narrative itself. There but for the would therefore fit well into a reading list for a queer literature course, studied in conjunction with queer theory and other queer authors.
I can count on one hand the number of novels I’ve studied at the university level whose authors were contemporary women. I came across There but for the as supplementary reading for a summer creative writing course I took through the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School. The creative writing students attended the lectures of the Contemporary Literature course, for which this book was assigned. As far as I can recall, this was only the second time in my life I had been assigned a novel that was written by a woman in the 21st century. The other was Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, assigned because Shamsie is an alumna of my undergraduate alma mater and was visiting campus later that semester (not that her work wouldn’t otherwise deserve to be studied, but that’s another essay). I think it’s crucial for students of literature to understand who is writing in the present day and what they’re writing about, and to see their own experiences reflected in those works. Otherwise, how will students think about what literature means in the present day? How will those who write envision themselves in the literary canon? While I think this novel would do especially well in a course on queer literature, it would also have a place in many courses involving women’s, contemporary, and/or Scottish literature (as Smith is a Scottish author). Many of these courses exist to diversify curricula and broaden students’ literary horizons, so it’s important that the reading lists within them are diverse as well, filled with deserving writers and works such as Smith and There but for the.
This text could also be included in courses that examine more technical aspects of how novels work, both from a critical and creative perspective. For example, one of my undergraduate literature classes focused on the development of the novel over time; There but for the could be an illuminating example of a novel that could only have been written following modernism and postmodernism, with a clear stylistic relationship to the stream-of-consciousness, nonlinear writing of Virginia Woolf. From a creative standpoint, this novel is a lesson in voice, the layering of narratives and satire, among other strengths. Smith creates a cohesive whole from perspectives that are disjointed in both time and social position, and in doing so crafts a compelling story about how stories work.
I wish I’d had the chance to study There but for the and other texts like it at university. It seems that a common problem for literature students is that we forget how to read for pleasure in our own time. Studying contemporary works by authors we relate to, works that speak to the moment we live in with humour and sharp insight, can help remind us why we love reading in the first place, as well as give us some direction when we wander into bookshops of our own accord. There but for the is a fun read, and it’s also clever, layered and impeccably crafted, offering many avenues from which to study and examine it. It is absolutely deserving of such academic treatment.
Smith, Ali. There but for the. New York, Anchor Books, 2012.
About the author
Allie Kerper is pursuing an MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in poetry. In 2015 she graduated from Hamilton College in New York with a BA in English and Creative Writing. She likes to write poems about relationships, family and feminism, among other things.