Thursday, 8 August 2013

Some Thoughts on Zadie Smith

I've been reading quite a lot of Zadie Smith recently. I read her latest novel, NW. I read some short fiction that appeared in the New Yorker: one some kind of techno-dystopia, that, to be honest, was pretty bad; the other about an illegal immigrant in North London that was ok but not great. I read an interview she did with London's Evening Standard where she came across really well and it turned out she likes Game of Thrones. I read some of her essays and journalism: an interview with Jay Z (note: his name is now unhyphenated) and an essay on joy, both of which were excellent. I'm still not convinced that, as a fiction writer, she's one of the greats, although she definitely has a lot of talent. But there is something about her and her writing that I find very compelling, and I've been trying to assess what exactly it is.



1) She writes about Britain. I feel small and parochial saying this, but I think that, for me, her writing about stuff in Britain is actually appealing. There's a pleasurable squirm of recognition and familiarity from scenes set in places you know, or places that are really like places you know (just like I felt watching the London bits of Fast and Furious 6). There's an ease of access, culturally, a sensitivity to class and race barriers that I'm already pretty familiar with. So there's that. Also, I find it refreshing to be reading novelists who aren't writing brazenly and blandly about America. Don't get me wrong, I love America, I'm possibly the most Americaphilic person I know who isn't actually American. But a stream of modern (hyper-)realist novels about America can get tedious. It isn't the geography, it's the genre. They want to be the next Great American Novel, and, I think that genre's pretty desiccated nowadays like Owens Lake, sucked dry from years over overuse. (A brief aside on Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, that I'm currently nearing the end of a struggle through: this is a book so tediously in this Great American Novel tradition that, despite being only ten years old, it feels like it's seventy, to the point where all the references to contemporary technologies like cell phones or laptops or the internet feel weirdly anachronistic. It's a bit like my dad telling me that he owned a smart phone in the '70s. I wouldn't believe him, and I still wouldn't trust him to use it properly.) There's something fresh about Smith's attempts to produce modern, British novels.

A picture of the Great American Novel.

2) Zadie Smith is genuinely beautiful. As far as I can tell, never having met her. Again, I feel pretty bad saying this, because it seems like a fairly sexist remark, and potentially not something that I'd say about a male author, or should want to say about an author of any sex. But writers tend to be so relentless depressing looking, saggy and unfashionable and bespectacled, or nerdy and neurotic, or pasty from years of library-light. Her beauty gives Smith an edge; it makes her seem glamorous and cool in a way very few authors actually can. And it lets her do it effortlessly, without having to try hard to shock or brag like a failed punk band. Her coolness is important, because it elevates her cultural status beyond that of a literary author. ‘My sister tells me I’m in the Evening Standard every other week. My fame seems not to require my presence,’ she said to the Standard. It's sad that we live in a society where being beautiful makes you seem cooler, especially because, in so many other ways, Zadie Smith seems to be quite cool anyway. But it is an advantage she has that propels her out of the narrow literary-fiction niche into a more culturally relevant area, that she perhaps shares more with artists like Vampire Weekend or Kanye West (although, Smith is nowhere near Kanye West, who may be the best current pop-cultural expression of consumer capitalism both within his songs and sort of mimetically in his public life) rather than ugly old Will Self or similar.

Oh, Kanye, you devil. (From breitbart.com)

3) Zadie Smith is cool. I know this is essentially the previous point, but it should be stressed that Zadie Smith seems actually cool. By which I mean, beyond the fact that she's likeable seeming and beautiful, that she is aware of current pop culture in a way that few other authors seem to be. She likes hip-hop and Game of Thrones; she references Friends and The Wire (in NW) in a been-there sort of a way. She's aware of the need to be pop-culturally sensitive, rather than literarily exclusive (I know this isn't a very fair binary, but, whatever). She says of Game of Thrones: 'Literary novelists would do well to learn to plot from these people.’ And she's totally right. If only more writers could plot. (Although, also, Game of Thrones, and George R.R. Martin in particular, could learn a lot from literary novelists, especially with regards to economy and actually finishing stories rather than rambling aimlessly for thousands of pages in a constant peripatetic digression that will only end with the death of the author and the disappointment of the fans. But this is a rant for another article.) Even more astute than this awareness is her awareness that she is, in fact, a little bit out of touch. That she is one generation behind of today's young people stuff. She writes 'Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, you still hear the old cry go up: Hip-hop is dead! Which really means that our version of it (the one we knew in our youth) has passed. But nothing could be duller than a ’90s hip-hop bore.' I think that middle sentence, that parenthesis, contains so much wisdom.

How Game of Thrones became zeitgeisty, I will never know.
Just to be clear, Joffrey is my favourite character. (from tgdaily.com)

4) Zadie Smith writes about women. As I was reading NW, my mum remarked to me 'I'm surprised you're reading that Zadie Smith.' 'Why?' I asked. 'Isn't she one of those women's writers?' In a way (not the one my mum intended), she was right. Smith does write about women, far better than most people I have read. But she isn't a 'women's writer' in the way my mum used the phrase, a soppy Mills & Boonish romance-spewer. Nor is she a women's writer in that her novelistic purpose seems to be exclusively to rectify patriarchal literature's lack of women, lack of address of women's issues, and mannish dominance. She's just a novelist who writes about women as part of what she writes about, because, obviously, women form a large and fascinating part of the social world about which people write. As soon as you start thinking about it, it's remarkable how many otherwise great authors fail at this simple hurdle.

Here's a picture of Zadie Smith I found on someone's Flickr (from: flickr.com/)

5) Zadie Smith is a post-David Foster Wallace author without all that Harold-Bloomian anxiety-of-influence bullshit. By which I mean that she has read DFW and liked it and internalised it (all my editions of DFW have a great quote from her on the front: 'A visionary, a craftsman, a comedian...He's so modern he's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.') but isn't in his thrall. To again compare her favourably to Jonathan Franzen (poor guy), she manages not to crib a bunch of Wallace's preferred poetics (especially medical, psychological, pharmaceutical jargon) or regurgitate his subjects. It's clear that she has other masters (most obviously E.M. Forster). She also seems, interestingly, to have avoided Wallace's PR problems. Indeed, this whole piece is essentially about how, in stark contrast to DFW, she seems really likeable and comfortably part of the world, rather than existing best as a series of spectacular verbal constructions. (Here are a bunch of videos featuring Smith and Wallace [and Franzen!] speaking together at some event. I like the one where Wallace talks about watching the 2006 World Cup.) Which I guess is sort of why she's sort of compelling to me.

Wallace, Franzen, Smith, others hanging out in Italy. (from leconversazioni.it)

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