“I keep seeing screengrabs of other people’s Zoom parties and just being like, ‘what the fuck, where was I?!’” Talking to Raven Smith is like talking to a magic mirror - one that serves up a sentence we’ve all been mulling over. Albeit privately, in our heads. Or perhaps tucked away in a WhatsApp chat thread. The writer, columnist and oft-labelled ‘funniest man on Instagram’ (we’ll get onto that) does not shy away from these facets of modern culture that maketh a life. Like a human mood calculator, he thrives on kneading the dough of daily life; pinpointing our collective consciousness in a way that is both hilarious and painfully accurate.
His best-selling debut book, Raven Smith’s Trivial Pursuits, is part memoir, part millennial guide (“when I get to the pearly gates of heaven, will a viral tweet count for or against my entry?”). It’s a tornado of truth, exploring the big, small and in-between matters, from height as social currency to all the thoughts one might have in a yoga class (“what if Jennifer Aniston isn’t sad?”). You’ll be torn between tearing through it in one sitting to regular interval breaks feverishly sending soundbites to your friends. Followed up with: “this is me!” or “this is very X, Y and Z.”
“I wanted to chew over all of the little things that are around us all the time that completely fill our lives,” Raven explains over the phone, currently isolating in North London with his husband. “We’re living in a time where there is a big demand for our attention spans. I wanted to try to emulate that frenzy of mind traffic that we are all, consciously or unconsciously, managing every day. Which makes it sound like a serious book…which obviously it is not.”
In order to write this book, he had to “completely retreat” from his life, extraditing himself from London to live in Berlin for a month. There he mastered the art of discipline - setting himself a goal of completing 1000 words a day – and often would start writing at 2pm, sometimes not finishing until 2AM. “When you’re gagging to go to bed is when you really churn it out!” A dictation app also came in handy, to try and catch parking thoughts.
“I would sort of be arguing to myself, all the time,” he laughs. “[And] if you start talking about things for more than two minutes you start to really peel away at it. You’ll be like, ‘oh, I should write about being tall but what the fuck does it mean to be tall? But, wait! What is happening to the people that aren’t tall? Like, how is this whole system geared up to the tall?’ Crazy.”
While he’s long been a juggernaut of confidence, a career writing about himself and accounts of the - often absurdist - world he and many of us encompass was not part of some master life plan. (Before writing full-time for the likes of British Vogue and Sunday Times Style he was Commissioning Director at digital video platform NOWNESS).
As such, though Raven observes he’s always “had a voice” and “more opinions than maybe people needed to hear throughout their working day,” he’s still had to curb bouts of fear. After an editor slid into his DMs asking him whether he thought he could write a book his immediate (internal) response was: “definitely not – it took me a month to reply.” And, after finishing his first draft, he purposely shunned the prose of others.
“I sat on the loo with David Sedaris’ Naked. Opened it and the first line was so good I just threw it across the room. He’s talking about his family being so good-looking that people turn them into deities. I was like ‘genius - fuck!’ I just felt I was doing myself a disservice by not trying to write as well as the stuff I was reading. But actually, I had to just sit and write in order to be better - I wasn’t going to get better by feeling jealous or even influenced by other people.”
In this newfound age of self-isolation, virtual book clubs and sharing voracious reading habits have gone into overdrive. For those who find it difficult to sit and read for any period of time – hello: All The Thoughts In Your Head - Raven advocates an audio odyssey. Due to a bout of insomnia in his 20s he started “listening to Poirot novels,” and now listens to an audiobook every night. “I just re-read The Talented Mr Ripley. The film I saw when I was 16 and it was like a gay awakening. Like, how do I want to live my life? What do I want to wear?”
Raven has, unsurprisingly, an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture. And his eponymous 87k-followed Instagram account is a corner of the internet that’s earned him the title King of the captions - be that using a smugly happy video of Gwyneth Paltrow getting ready for bed or a picture of Ross Geller to encapsulate a conversation or collective mood. So, what comes first – the picture or the caption? They both work in tandem. He has a bank of thousands of pictures in his photo-library and “a billion one-liners…every time I think of one, I write it down.” And somewhere, the most idiosyncratic and pitch-perfect post will appear on your feed.
“I think what people like about my [Instagram] account, and hopefully like about my book, is that it is brutally honest. It feels like such a transmission of who I am.” Though he’s not on some mission to build an online brand that touches as many people as possible; his main endeavour is to continue to put his tuppence into what is happening in the world right now. “The most honest thing I write about how I’m feeling on Instagram, the more people respond to it. Because I’m really going in on exactly how I feel and [then] everyone’s like ‘oh my god, me too!’ There’s no way I could have written a book that had less of me in it. It had to be the most honest appreciation of how we have found ourselves living.”
One inescapable part of our existence, of course, is navigating the social media cyclone. Which has birthed a new kind of celebrity: Influencers. Raven makes a point that, in the past, “not cashing in” was what it was all about. Now? Selling out is kind of a model. “It started with X Factor; this idea that you could be spotted for something and therefore have your life sold out from there. You didn’t necessarily have to graft to get there. Now, The Dream is somehow centred around someone paying you to be yourself.”
Today, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally shifted our cycles of consumption; our previous patterns of behaviour have been forcibly put on hold. Will that gear back up again? And, more importantly, should it? Unadulterated narcissism and hyper-connectivity (which has, in many ways, been a lifeline for many) are unlikely to vanish, but our desire to transmit with others offline is gearing up for a much-needed comeback.
“When it’s possible, we will hopefully meet in person - I think that will be the biggest change. We will appreciate being together, rather than [just] chatting online. And for me, [while] I love my patterned shirts and my luxury flats from Acne, I don’t need them. Now, I’m sort of just getting off on buying food. I’m getting off on not buying stuff. And that’s not to say I think consumerism is bad it’s just I suddenly have this complete clarity on what is really special to me. It’s not like I’m only going to have stuff I need. But how many things do I need to make me feel special? Maybe it’s less.”