Zadie Smith vs. ‘Zadie Smith’

February 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Cover art: Charles Burns!

Cover art: Charles Burns!

On the face of it there are several reasons why I could dislike ‘Zadie Smith’, by which I do not mean Zadie Smith, the actual person who has loves and hates and passions just like mine, but ‘Zadie Smith’, the construct presented by the media in the form of articles about her, pictures of her, reviews of her work, her blurbs on the back of books, the object of publishers’ noble quest to ‘find’ the next ‘Zadie Smith’.

There is first of all, White Teeth, which though a good book, with much fine writing, was not the Great London Novel we were asked to worship. Perhaps its chief fault was the way its plot lurched towards an unconvincing moment of violence.

But this is something even Zadie Smith (the person) has admitted (reference when I can find it). Zadie Smith (the person) is also not responsible for ‘Zadie Smith’. This is the fault of people who do something called Publicity & Marketing. By way of a disclaimer, I should also like to say that I read the book after several years living in China, when I was, of course, quite out of my mind.

Another possible cause of dislike is her (‘Zadie Smith’) editorship of incredibly patchy anthologies such as The Burned Children of America and The Books of Other People, both of which rely heavily on already published work, some of which may have been included for extra-textual reasons (because they, like ‘Zadie Smith’ were ‘big names’, or because they were willing to waive their fee, or because they were friends of her which made it awkward to reject their work).

But then there is also the fact that I, as an editor of several incredibly patchy anthologies (whose names I forget), know something of extratextual factors. Like the need to have the names of well (or at least better) known authors on one’s funding application. And that even ‘Zadie Smith’, in her efforts to persuade a major publisher to publish and promote an anthology whose profits support a (lack of inverted commas) good cause, could conceivably have similar concerns. Also, that an anthology, by its very nature (multiple styles, concerns and forms) is doomed to be uneven (has anyone ever read an anthology and liked everything in it?)

The final potential cause of dislike of ‘Zadie Smith’ was her inclusion in a piece by Robert McCrum entitled Sebald, Hughes and Smith: three modern greats’. Leaving aside the oddness of pairing Ted Hughes and W.G. Sebald (poet and prose-writer respectively), it made little sense to include her, a young writer, with such luminaries from a previous generation, whose work is similar to hers in neither style nor concerns.

Zadie Smith was one of the first to decry her inclusion.

I would never place myself anywhere near either Hughes or Sebald. I’m 33. I’m just starting out. I’ve written three comic novels and a handful of criticism.

And it occurs to me (because it is obvious) that there is something extremely suspect about me, ‘Nick Holdstock, Edinburgh-based writer’, almost wanting to dislike ‘Zadie Smith’. It can only be some species of envy, if not of her undoubted ability as a writer, then of the status (and the opportunities afforded by it) of being ‘Zadie Smith’. One of the few solaces afforded to struggling writers (those poor souls who have to add their own inverted commas) is the act of trying to topple the great statues under whose shadows we write, even if it means burying ourselves in their rubble. If there is comfort in denigrating such figures, it is of a scuttling kind.

How much better, for all concerned, if we could simply focus on the writing. After all, this is what we, as readers and writers, ultimately care about most. Let us ignore the blurbs and reviews (unless they are actually reviews- see below, and previous post on Gass) and see what Zadie Smith is saying.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

This is from a piece in The New York Review of Books entitled, ‘Two Paths for the novel’. It continues:

Yet despite these theoretical assaults, the American metafiction that stood in opposition to Realism has been relegated to a safe corner of literary history, to be studied in postmodernity modules, and dismissed, by our most famous public critics, as a fascinating failure, intellectual brinkmanship that lacked heart. Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace—all misguided ideologists, the novelist equivalents of the socialists in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. In this version of our literary history, the last man standing is the Balzac-Flaubert model, on the evidence of its extraordinary persistence. But the critiques persist, too. Is it really the closest model we have to our condition? Or simply the bedtime story that comforts us most?

At this point, I was no longer eating my egg salad sandwich. I was nodding, and humming a little, thinking about the seductive pull of lyrical realism. The piece, whilst providing a proper review of the books in question (Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder) frames this discussion in a meaningful way, asking us to consider not only what gives us pleasure as readers, but how important it is that such pleasure is effortful.

It also reminds us, lest we forget (and yes, we do, always) that there is nothing so artificial as Realism. That this too is constructed, through precise and concrete description, through the presentation of rich and coherent selves with lyrical inner lives. This is what we try hard to believe.

At a certain point in his Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek passes quickly and dismissively over exactly this personal fullness we hold so dear in the literary arts (“You know…the wealth of human personality and so on and so forth…”), directing our attention instead to those cinematic masters of the anti-sublime (Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, David Lynch) who look into the eyes of the Other and see no self at all, only an unknowable absence, an abyss.

There is more, to which I shall not do justice. Please ascend this page, then click.

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