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Thoughts after reading Zadie Smith’s essays

July 18, 2010

Reading Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Changing My Mind, is like seeing the workings of a clock. It’s as though I’m watching the gears and cogs and springs and wheels of this writer’s wide-ranging mind at work.

Reading her fiction, where I enter a world, albeit imagined by that very same mind, but constructed, populated, and upholstered with different intent is a totally different experience. Several years ago, when I read Smith’s novel On Beauty, I was absorbed by way of her story, characters and setting; it was an experience of  immersion, and I read happily to the end. While I may have occasionally stepped out of that state and marveled at how she’d imagined and written the memorable character of Kiki, for example, and while I’d read that Smith had constructed the novel borrowing the frame of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, I was not, and did not want to be, drawn out of the story as I was reading it. Immersion is one of the primary experiences I seek while reading a novel.

In Smith’s essays, I see her sharp mind explicitly at work, recounting her reading of  Zora Neale Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, describing a week in Liberia, and reviewing films. This sense of seeing the hardware of Smith’s mind continued through to the end of the book, but I was most interested in the mind at work in the first section, called “Reading,” about some of our most important novelists, from the Victorian George Eliot, to modernists Kafka and Nabokov. I came out of it feeling I’d gotten a mini-course, made up of close readings, in the history of the novel.

The essay to which I had the strongest reaction was the essay on the contemporary novel, “Two Directions for the Novel,” in which Smith analyzes two novels representing the two directions of the title. She states early on that the two directions are “antipodal.” I’ve read only one of the novels she uses in her argument, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland–which Smith uses to represent lyrical realism, though she believes the novel “sits at an anxiety crossroads” (74). Before reading her essay, I had not even heard of the second novel, Remainder or its author, Tom McCarthy, which is, in the end, part of her point. Though Smith doesn’t say so as directly as she does about Netherland, she is using Remainder to represent experimental or postmodern fiction (it is marked by “constructive deconstruction” [94], she writes). Essentially, the question she poses and answers in the essay is: which novel form does the work we readers need a novel to do for us today? Remainder, she concludes, “is more than sufficient”  (96).

I did not love Netherland but I liked it. I became immersed in reading it, read the whole thing relatively quickly, and was interested enough in the novel that I did some follow-up research, reading a few reviews and an interview with Joseph O’Neill (more on that in another post). I did not, however, read it nearly as closely as Smith did, and what she details about the anxious narrator revealed to me to some extent why I remained somewhat distant from the novel. Smith’s description of the second novel, Remainder, however, in no way made me want to seek it out and read it. She made it sound difficult, impersonal, uninviting, and with a reward that is purely intellectual.

What I found most instructive in the essay is Smith’s facility with the history of the modern and post-modern novel, her casual generalizations about the rules of lyrical realism (“the random detail confers the authenticity of the Real” [81]), and the fact that she comes out very strongly in favor of one direction. I enjoy and respect the passion that makes her call Remainder “one of the great English novels of the past ten years” (94). I believe she does this in part because the publishing industry is so very skewed toward the realist tradition, making it difficult for writers to confidently write anything outside of that.

I agree that publishing should be more open (who doesn’t?), but Smith goes too far in her conclusion. I would have liked her to stay with what she writes about three-quarters of the way through “Two Directions for the Novel,” where she states that the two traditions have “revealing points of connection. At their crossroads we find extraordinary writers claimed by both sides…” (93). If she’d lingered there, perhaps the conclusion could have been that all writers fall somewhere along a continuum, and that readers might enjoy a variety of different kinds of books. (She does in fact write in the first paragraph of the essay that “in healthy times” we would allow for the possibility of these diverse writers, but she so strongly negates this sentiment, initially by pointing out that “these aren’t particularly healthy times” but mainly by making such a final argument for a writer clearly on one end of the spectrum that the point is lost [73]).

When I was an undergraduate, I read George Bataille, whom I disliked passionately; I also read Michel Leiris, Luce Irigary, and Julia Kristeva, all of whom would be grouped with Bataille at one end of the spectrum, and all of whom I loved. If I had placed myself in one camp, on one side, I never would have discovered that there are some writers of experimental fiction whom I love to read. I also love some of the writers Smith says are claimed by both sides. And I love writers fully in the realist tradition, which is where I would put Smith herself.

In the end, what this essay made me curious about is what writers themselves say about their own projects. Where do they place themselves, and is it important, as I work on my novel, to articulate where I see myself? I would have been eager to hear, somewhere in this essay from Changing My Mind, how Smith sees her novels in conversation with the novels of O’Neill and McCarthy. While I don’t want to spend a lot of time seeing a writers’ mind at work as I am in the process of reading her fiction, I am endlessly curious to hear, in another venue, the essay for example, how that mind constructed her novels.

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