“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.