Ali Smith Now

Edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Cara L. Lewis

Introduction: Companioning Ali Smith Now

Debra Rae Cohen and Cara L. Lewis


Charlotte Terrell

Never Being Boring: Ali Smith’s Amends

Pamela Thurschwell

How to be strange

Matthew Hart

Here and Now

Stephanie DeGooyer

Ali Smith’s Poetic Attentions

Lindsay Turner

The Gift of Epiphany

Alexandra Kingston-Reese

Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Walt Hunter

Shifting Sands: Re-Reading Ali Smith’s Autumn

Brittney Michelle Edmonds

Ali Smith’s Leavings: Postcards, Letters, and the Unbound Book

Amy E. Elkins and Deidre Shauna Lynch

Art Acts

Cara L. Lewis

Pod45 Episode 2 & 3: Ali Smith Now

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team





Cara L. Lewis: Hello! Here we both are, in a virtual commons. 

Debra Rae Cohen: This is a virtual conclave, isn't it bruited on Twitter, assembled by email, co-edited by zoom and now kicked off via Google Doc. As an up-to-the-minute exercise in shared epiphany, this seems perfectly suited to our subject: Ali Smith Now. I don't feel like an editor, but rather a convener: "(tap tap tap) calling this session to (dis)order!" or, "let's get this party started!"

CLL: Let's! I've been tempted to ask you and all the writers in this cluster which novel in Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet  Autumn (2016), Winter (2017), Spring (2019), or Summer (2020) they like best. I wonder about the utility of individuating the novels, but I also worry it's too fan-girl-y a question. So instead, let me ask you this: how and when and why did you come to Ali Smith originally? What's your "I love Ali Smith" origin story? I think every contributor to this cluster has one and has also expressed that sentiment at some point in all the emails we've exchanged.

I picked up How to be both (2014) as leisure reading in summer 2015 after my first year of professor-ing and fell head over heels in love with it. This makes perfect sense I like arty books but I couldn't let go of Smith's sensibility. I wanted to stay with it, even though I was supposed to be writing about modernism. I submitted an abstract to a conference so I could write about her, and the conference paper turned into an article, for which I read every piece of fiction (and a lot of the nonfiction) Smith had published up to then. She keeps writing, I keep reading, and now I think of her as an indispensable chronicler of the contemporary.

DRC: My story is perhaps more idiosyncratic, because the discovery was so situational. For me, she was a was the  pandemic consolation. I knew of her, of course, but I'd never gotten around to reading her except for one puzzled excursion into Hotel World (2001) years back, at a time when my head was more in a David Mitchell kind of place. Then, during the first height of the pandemic, at the beginning of July, 2020, I moved to a new, small, town. We didn't know anyone; we couldn't go anywhere. But the public library was three blocks away, and they were doing outdoor pickups. Summer was about to come out, and I was curious; I started with Autumn, and never stopped. There was something about her narrative voice; it sustained me. At a time when I couldn't work, and could barely read anything but recipes for soup (and I am reminded here that Sarah Wood said her response to the new novel, Companion Piece, was the word "nourishment"), there was a presence to her writing that felt very much of the moment.1 As, of course, it was in so many ways: the much-publicized nowness of the Seasonal Quartet (and right now, too, of Companion Piece) was bound up with each book's real-time composition and instantaneous publication. And I wonder, too, to what extent the just-about-instant gratification of those volumes didn't create a whole different kind of affective affinity.

It strikes me, in fact, that we talk about Smith in a way very different from our usual academic objects. When I first talked on #academictwitter about doing a cluster, people didn't respond by saying "cool idea," or "how interesting" they said, "oh, I love her."  For me, it begins with her voice, which has can we call it a fundamental matter of factness? What do you orient to in her style or outlook, in particular?

CLL: I love that you say "a fundamental matter of factness," which I think is right, because the first four words of There but for the (2011) are "The fact is, imagine."2 One of my very favorite things about Smith is her invitation her imperative to imagine. That's not a stylistic feature, exactly, although her fondness for imperatives is, like the turn to ekphrasis demanded by the command to imagine, "to form a mental image of."3 One hallmark of her fiction and especially of the Seasonal Quartet is her willingness to traffic in fantasy, faeries, metamorphosis. We could trace that impulse to a variety of intertexts (Ovid's Metamorphoses, Shakespearean comedy). But I also think it's kid stuff, and this is partly why I gravitate toward Smith. I will try to own with as little embarrassment as possible that I love Smith not least because I loved Susan Cooper and Patricia C. Wrede as a child. 

DRC: There is nothing to apologize for in reading Susan Cooper! And I'm with you. I started reading fantasy when the Tolkien books were still in hardcover.

CLL: Maybe that's partly why Ali Smith inspires such love in her readers: her fictions are playful, and she dares the reader to have fun with her. Of course, she also insists that the fanciful can and should be taken seriously. The essays in this cluster do just that: take Walt's argument about trifling with stories, or Charlotte's essay on wordplay and contrivance. Pam wonders how dressing up and never being boring is a way of making amends. And there's also Matt's pithy formulation: "Weltschmerz, meet whimsy." 

Play can be transformative because the fantastical helps us to reimagine and even begin to remake the world. I think of Richard Lease in Spring, telling Alda Lyons and the members of the Auld Alliance who have helped hundreds of people evade detention, "What you're doing's not feasible in any real world scenario," and Alda replies, "It's human. […] There's no scenario more real."4 This is a deadly serious conversation, about the free movement of people in spite of the carceral state. But it's also a conversation about the stakes of fiction, which can enact scenarios that change our ideas of what is feasible. Stephanie's essay for this cluster tracks the limits of fiction's efficacy in dealing with problems on this scale. But one thing the novel can do is present what is, to quote Robert Greenlaw from the end of Summer, "possible possible possible."5 

And so, since the Quartet ends on this marvelous note, I want to ask you how the possibilities that these four novels raise get played through in Companion Piece.

DRC: We both heard Ali Smith talking about and reading the opening of Companion Piece on its UK release day, in a webcast from the London Review Bookshop: she talked about it as a "parallel flight," which I think summons up the way the novel gives us more but also the same without, at the same time, simply being more of the same.6 Everything in Companion Piece chimes with the quartet, like adding overtones to a chord: or, to use a Smith-word, it is dimensionalized. She kept returning to that word during that interview/conversation with her partner, Sarah Wood: she explained the Quartet's relation to its now-moment as "something that would be touching the surface of life" but also "dimensionalized by story."7 

So I am wondering: if story, in her words, "opens a door," does this new novel open a door that wasn't yet a door in the Quartet? 

And this is what is exciting we enter as a company, too. I was so conscious, in the course of reading a galley of the new novel, that I was, in a sense, reading as a collective reading through the doors that our contributors had already opened in her work.

Debra Rae Cohen

CLL: Well, some doors that are just barely cracked in the Quartet get pushed further open in Companion Piece: one of those is the urgency of labor rights, which Alexandra writes a bit about. At one point in Companion Piece, a character proposes a strike: "what if you withheld your work so that the people you work for could learn the work's worth?"8

Other aspects of Companion Piece  sexual violence, harsh and sudden death, a protagonist who seems very Smithy indeed, an interest in the mutability of gender might surprise readers whose encounter with Smith has been limited to the Quartet, but these doors have all been opened by her earlier work. Maybe the only door thrown wide open in the new novel takes us to a creaturely place, with animals as our companions: I think I can say, without too many spoilers, that there's a dog and a bird. But I'm still not totally sure this direction is brand-new, since these companionable animals seem both like an extension of the Quartet's ecological thinking and like a remix of Smith's longstanding interest in ghosts and other familiar spirits. The new novel isn't a companion piece to the Quartet so much as it is a companion to Smith's entire body of work.

DRC: But I feel this about every new book of hers, don't you? Maybe my hyper-consciousness of the extent to which Smithland has become an identifiable place like, though I hate to say it, Wes Andersonville is itself an artifact of the sped-up consumption of the oeuvre over the course of the Quartet. We enter easily into a familiar zone, into familiar company.

And this is what is exciting we enter as a company, too. I was so conscious, in the course of reading a galley of the new novel, that I was, in a sense, reading as a collective reading through the doors that our contributors had already opened in her work. It was, as the book itself would have it, "companion abble": I found myself sending telepathic messages to Charlotte, for instance, to tell her that the narrator has another on-the-nose name ("Shifting Sand," like Brittney's essay!) or to Walt, to let him know that she reads Muriel Spark's Loitering with Intent, or to Matt, to clue him in about the opening passport problem and the novel's limit case of hospitality.9 

CLL: I had the same reaction! Partly it was collective affirmation and pride, a sense of joy in how everyone's reading of Smith really works with Companion Piece. We conceived this cluster when we knew very little about the new novel besides its title, so we thought it would be clever to style the cluster as a set of companion pieces to the Seasonal Quartet. These essays do that work, but they're also flexible, extensible, transportable to the new novel. 

Companion Piece kept sparking little excited flashes of individual connection to specific authors that I wanted to text or email or DM. OMG, Amy and Deidre, the emphasis on craft! The leaves! Dear Lindsay, there's an embedded close reading of a poem and swifts! I actually couldn't help myself reaching out to Charlotte on an email thread to say how much smithery and wordiness are important in the opening pages. 

DRC: It is definitely important, to an extent that I think is unparalleled in the earlier works and almost, in fact jarring in its foregroundedness: there's a line later in the book that we highlighted almost in tandem "Smithing is a kind of listening" that feels designed to be read as self-referential.10 That, too, raised sparks of connection for me, to Brittney's essay, where she notes the potential down-side of such in-groupiness. I think it's important to note that the clustering around a shared enthusiasm, the "oh, I love her" impulse, doesn't preclude critique. Sometimes that's what you find when you open a door.

CLL: Yes the compatibility of love and critique matters not just for conversations like these but also for Smith's novels, which are full of very verbal children sparring with adults in affectionate, questioning, semi-combative conversation. Her work is always exploring how after the chance encounter, after the initial hello we can make and maintain community. Often that community arises in the form of chosen, queer kinship, since heteronormative nuclear families are fractured or insufficient (or both) everywhere in the Quartet. How do we live, in our fractious now, and with whom?

We get glimpses of what this life looks like throughout the Quartet and in Companion Piece, but I think especially of Summer here, because "something family happens" in the double ending, as Anh Kiet lives in the house in Cornwall with fifteen other refugees, Iris, and Charlotte, and we also see Charlotte, together with Robert and Sacha Greenlaw, looking up at the stars in Norfolk.11 

DRC: Looking together like reading together creates companionability, a pleasure both shared and vicarious, "in that way where something warm happening will unite a room of strangers" that's one of my favorite parts of Summer, too.12

CLL: That line from Summer captures the affect of the Companion Piece launch event you've mentioned. When Sarah Wood asked her to be "more precise" about how the title resonates, Smith replied that the novel is about "companionability, about how things travel together, and the traveling together produces more of them."13 So companionability is also about the action of accompanying, of moving together. It's an orientation and a path, like the lane in the David Hockney paintings used for the UK covers of the Seasonal Quartet.

DRC: With the readers of this cluster, perhaps, as future fellow travelers?

CLL: I very much hope so! There's another Hockney lane for us all on the UK cover of Companion Piece, but the vantage is different, the road more open. The temporality of the Quartet, as Alexandra writes, is "middle middle middle." What I think makes Companion Piece different despite all the echoes of the Quartet and her earlier works, which could make a new novel feel affectively belated is that, on the whole, Companion Piece feels like a book about beginnings. It's a book-long riff on all that "hello" can mean. Sometimes that's "nice to see you again," but it's also a welcome, a greeting, a gesture of conversational opening.

DRC: It even ends with a hello! And so, perhaps, should we.

Debra Rae Cohen (@debraraecohen) is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, and the current president of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. She is very slowly writing a book called Sonic Citizenship: Intermedial Poetics and the BBC.

Cara L. Lewis (@carallewis) is Associate Professor of English and affiliated faculty in Women's and Gender Studies at Indiana University Northwest. She is the author of Dynamic Form: How Intermediality Made Modernism (Cornell University Press, 2020).


  1. Ali Smith, Companion Piece reading and discussion, with Sarah Wood, London Review Bookshop, London, UK, April 7, 2022, YouTube live audio stream. []
  2. Ali Smith, There but for the (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), ix.[]
  3. Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. "imagine," v., etym., last modified March 2022,[]
  4. Ali Smith, Spring (New York: Anchor Books, 2020), 273.[]
  5. Ali Smith, Summer (New York: Anchor Books, 2021), 371.[]
  6. Smith, London Review Bookshop Companion Piece reading and discussion.[]
  7. Smith, London Review Bookshop Companion Piece reading and discussion.[]
  8. Ali Smith, Companion Piece (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2022), 207.[]
  9. Smith, Companion Piece, 55, 22.[]
  10. Smith, Companion Piece, 188.[]
  11. Smith, Summer, 202.[]
  12. Smith, Summer, 353.[]
  13. Smith, London Review Bookshop Companion Piece reading and discussion.[]

Past clusters