On Zadie

Fresh, authoritative and elegant takes on the theory behind the novelist’s praxis

Changing My Mind:Occasional Essays Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton,2009 336 Pages, Rs 450
01 June, 2010

“I HAVE NEVER MADE A FETISH of consistency,” Gandhi once said, quoting Emerson’s saying, “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Zadie Smith would likely endorse the sentiment. “I’m forced to recognize,” she writes, “that ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.” The paradox, self-conscious and apropos, appears in her foreword to a new volume of her non-fiction, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. The volume brings together essays and lectures written and delivered over the last decade, uniting her works of travelogue, memoir, literary criticism, and cultural commentary. The pieces all show the qualities that have made her, over the years, an accidental Mahatma to the hipster set.

Smith possesses the classical essayist’s virtues—elegance, freshness, sincerity, and authority—but also an impish humour, a catholicity of interests, and a childlike enthusiasm about the works of art and film she loves. (How many critics would have the confidence and honesty to end an essay, as she ends her tribute to the African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston, with the words, “She is my sister and I love her”?) Indeed, with the rare exception, Smith writes best and most often about books and people she likes. Her commentary is admirably free of the malice animating so much contemporary criticism. Smith serves up many guilty pleasures, but ‘snark’—as TheNew Yorker writer David Denby in a recent book-length polemic dubbed it—is not one of them. In short, admirers of Smith’s fiction will want to buy the volume immediately.

Smith has a good deal to say about canonical figures—George Eliot, Franz Kafka, and EM Forster, among others, get an essay each—as well as about her contemporaries—David Foster Wallace, Tom McCarthy and Joseph O’Neill among them. These engagements, evidencing sympathetic and attentive reading, are noteworthy in their contribution to our understanding of these writers. But equally, they are revealing about Smith’s own writerly projects. It makes for a fruitful exercise to read her critical writings with an eye on what we know about her own literary trajectory.

Smith’s debut novel, the wildly popular White Teeth (2000), published when she was barely out of university, and the follow-up, The Autograph Man (2002), captured something of the late-1990s cultural and political zeitgeist. Compulsively hip, chronically ironic, the books were all manic plotting, multiculturalism, and miscegenation—a potent recipe for commercial and critical success. But there were dissenters. The venerable critic James Wood, in an influential essay written shortly after the 9/11 attacks, dubbed White Teeth a work of “hysterical realism,” taking it to task for allowing its self-conscious cleverness to overwhelm authentic emotion. Smith responded to Wood in an essay—not included in this volume—of startling graciousness and generosity. The piece revealed Smith at her most vulnerable, intellectually and creatively. While conceding some of the force of Wood’s critique (“painfully accurate,” she said), she refused to accept Wood’s implied dichotomy, describing in broad strokes “the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.”

Smith mentions a second debate, in which she has long been engaged, in a 2003 essay that also does not make it into this volume:

A few years ago, I agreed to take part in a debate on “Modern British Art” at the ICA. Two famous young artists rounded on me for what they saw as my “aesthetic fascism” (I’d brought up the topic of value judgments in modern art), arguing that there was no possibility that I could find more value in King Lear than the text printed on the back of a cornflake packet. This is an exceedingly stupid version of a very serious aesthetic and ethical debate that has been raging in the humanities for about 40 years. Once I’d have counted myself on the side of the young artists, and now I don’t.

These theoretical reflections found their way into the plot, structure, and style of her next novel, On Beauty (2005), a gently humorous campus novel that was in part a homage to Forster’s Howards End (1910). The essays in this volume show Smith thrashing out the theory behind her praxis, trying to answer the questions she so powerfully posed.

Sometimes, we find her looking for and discovering a solution immanent in the English canon to what she sees as the theoretical problem for the modern novelist. This idea is expressed most clearly in her essay on George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874): “Doesn’t she [Eliot] seem to solve the head/heart schism of our literature?” she asks. “Neither as sentimental as our popular novelists, nor as drily cerebral as our experimentalists.”

Smith finds the key to the puzzle in a passage from Eliot she quotes with approval:

To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.

This she translates into a quasi-manifesto for the modern writer. “[T]here is a misunderstanding, in England,” she says,

about the words universality and timelessness as they relate to our canon. What is universal and timeless in literature is need—we continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel, and who move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though, is form.

SMITH’S CONCLUSION ABOUT FORMS (“styles, structures—whatever word you prefer—should change like skirt lengths”) is developed at length in a more recent essay, a version of which was first published in the New York Review of Books, also in this volume. Long, learned, and full of references to literary theory, ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ is Smith at her least accessible, but very possibly her most profound. She starts with a take-down of Netherland (2008), Joseph O’Neill’s lyrical and much-praised novel about cricket and anxiety in post-9/11 New York. “It is perfectly done,” she writes. “[I]n a sense, that’s the problem.”

The accusation—though she does not quite put it this way—is that O’Neill exemplifies the tendency among contemporary writers to write as if the need to unite head and heart requires the ‘lyrical realist’ form. Smith points to the long-standing critiques of that very form:

Beginning with what Robbe-Grillet called “the destitution of the old myths of ‘depth,’” they blossomed out into a phenomenology sceptical of realism’s metaphysical tendencies; they peaked in that radical deconstructive doubt that questions the capacity of language itself to describe the world in any accuracy. They all of them note the (often unexamined) credos upon which realism is built: the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.

This will prove hard going for most readers, but the point is clear. As she has already argued, “What twenty-first century novelists inherit from Eliot is the radical freedom to push the novel’s form to its limits, wherever they may be.” When a Joseph O’Neill relinquishes that freedom and opts instead for a strained yet self-conscious, anachronistic yet anxious lyricism, he has missed the point of his inheritance from the 19th century tradition.

It is hard not to think of O’Neill here as a mere stand-in: Smith’s criticisms, such as they are, apply with equal force to her own On Beauty. It deals with many of the same themes—England and America, form and content, art and politics, race and sex—and it does it in the same anxious and self-conscious manner. Its art critic protagonist, who has spent his career fulminating against 19th century aesthetic and critical traditions for their reactionary focus on beauty, is reduced to a stunned silence in the affecting final chapter when a minor epiphany provokes him into looking at the works of art anew. We can almost imagine him walking off the last page of the book, into his study, to begin a work of lyrical realism rather like Netherland. Which is why it might seem that the Zadie doth protest too much.

But this is giving her too little credit, and makes her out to be more of an academic (and less of the unabashed lover of books) than she is. The proper historical comparison, indeed one she invites, is not with Robbe-Grillet but with EM Forster, on whose writing and personality she is particularly insightful. Indeed, her essay in this volume on Forster is a masterpiece of sympathetic reading, and puts the philosophical scuffles in its place. To wit:

In English fiction, realists defend realism and experimentalists defend experimentalism; those who write simple sentences praise the virtues of concision, and those who are fond of their adjectives claim the lyrical as the highest value in literature. Forster was different.

Like EM Forster, Zadie Smith is well aware that she is who she is: she doesn’t need everyone else to be like her. Smith has clearly taken Forster’s lessons to heart. In a list of ‘Rules for Writers’ she wrote recently for the Guardian, she enjoins the would-be writer to “avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.” At this, we can do worse than to quote her appraisal of Forster’s tolerance back at her: “the simplest, most obvious principle in the world—yet how few English novelists prove capable of holding it!”


But there is more. “There’s magic and beauty in Forster,” she says, “and weakness, and a little laziness, and some stupidity. He’s like us. Many people love him for it.” And indeed, Smith is very good at bringing the most banal elements of writers’ personalities to the surface, only to succeed in persuading us to love those writers precisely for their all-too-human banality. She even manages this in the unlikely instance of Franz Kafka, on the subject of whom she quotes the critic Luis Begley: “Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.”

What a relief it can be to learn that! Kafka wasted time. Forster could be lazy. No doubt Zadie Smith can be lazy too. We do not, in this book, get the impression of a writer whose candle burns at both its ends, chain-smoking her way from chapter to chapter in nicotine-tinted intensity (rule number three on the aforementioned list is: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”) Rather, we get Zadie the everywoman, who wastes time like Kafka did, like we do, reading comments on Internet message boards and posting on Facebook (rule number seven on the list is: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”)

Which returns us to her “articles of faith.” If a studied “ideological inconsistency” is one, yet another is “a cautious, optimistic creed, best expressed by Saul Bellow: ‘There may be truths on the side of life.’” To return to the odd comparison with which we began, consider these reflections of Gandhi’s:

In my pursuit after Truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly or that my growth will stop with the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of Truth, my God, from moment to moment.

Where Zadie Smith departs from her partner in inconsistency is in seeking not Truth, but truths: in lowercase, and resolutely plural in number. The faith in pluralism is of a piece with the humility she displays in this collection, and has displayed throughout her career. It is an endearing humility, the sort of thing that makes critics want to say things they “wouldn’t normally.” Such as: She is our sister, and we love her.