As the decade winds down and best-ofs are published, one of the least controversial names on literary lists is Zadie Smith’s. Her White Teeth (2000) was an instant landmark, a novel of multicultural London at once accomplished and authentically youthful, fresh. Its structure, its improbable ending, mattered less than its startling new voice. Smith, however, repaid the hype surrounding this debut with novels of more deliberate construction, for example paying homage to E. M. Forster in her third novel, On Beauty. But this attitude — at once studious and brilliantly presumptive — has seen the best results in her criticism. As a still-young writer, Smith isn’t afraid to ask big questions. And as a famous novelist, she isn’t afraid to answer them. It is even whispered in some corners that Zadie Smith may become not a great novelist but a great critic.
There are, however, two essays missing from her first nonfiction collection, Changing My Mind. One would be Smith’s response to her most famous critic, James Wood. Published in October 2001, “This Is How It Feels to Me” concedes that, with September 11th, reality had outdone and outstripped the “hysterical realism” that Wood saw in novels like Smith’s White Teeth. Yet Smith turns to defend other works “of high artifice” that Wood dismissed. She mentions David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo, and in order to praise their writing she borrows a timely phrase from a forebear, Vladimir Nabokov: “laughter in the dark.” Her essay was polemical but disarming. Smith’s point was that both she and Wood had something to learn from each other. It was a tour de force of common sense.
The second essay missing from Changing My Mind is imaginary — it would be an essay on Smith’s attitude toward the academy. This essay would not be dry. In fact it might encompass Smith’s attitude toward growing up, toward leaving home, and even toward authority. I miss it because the voice of the essays we already have is at once academic and anti-academic: Smith is dancing around the authority of the ivory tower.
The greatest essay here, “Dead Man Laughing,” would at first seem to have little to do with universities. Shaped like a figure 8, it discusses her father’s sense of humor and outlines the range of postwar British comedy before turning alarmingly in on itself, telling the story of her father’s death and cremation: “It left me suspended in a bad joke in which a living man inexplicably becomes two pints of dust…. A body would have been usefully, concretely absurd.” Laughter in the dark: Her brother reacts to their father’s death by doing stand-up, which leads Smith to envy the trial-and-error perfectibility of comic routines — which brings her to the twist, the anticomedian, the British version of Lenny Bruce who invites failure onstage and who, in his fatalism, conclusively reminds her again of her father.
Speaking for Britain, she says, “You don’t have to be funny to live here, but it helps.” Smith no longer does, entirely: living in Rome, she empties her father’s ashes out of Tupperware into an upscale Italian vase. She, a famous comic novelist, describes her own failed tryout for the Cambridge Footlights. “I wasn’t funny. Not even slightly.” That was a discovery made at university, the same place that deprived her of her father’s accent. Smith remembers the tryout only when she flies home to watch her brother do his first stand-up, in London. This is an essay about recognizing home from a distance.
Sophistication is not earned, it is assumed, put on like a dress that, stunningly, fits. After achieving fame at 24 Smith moved around the globe and even set On Beauty on an American campus. She was a fellow at Harvard, taught at Columbia, and spent a year in Rome, and she begins as a tenured professor at NYU next fall. She writes amazingly about movies, but her essay most “about America” concerns a journalistic trip to the Oscars: “the woman in Bond Street” sells Smith an extravagant red gown, but the California makeup man tells her she’s overdressed. Her point is that outsiders overestimate the glamour of Hollywood, but to make this point she misconstrues a New Yorker cartoon. A man in a squalid bathtub exclaims: “It’s Oscar time — there’s that special tingle in the air!” Smith infers that the joke is on this man, so pathetically far from the red carpet; yet surely the joke is on the Oscars, on the idea that anyone could get as excited about them as TV pretends we do.
It’s in her literary essays that Smith can be most adroit, demonstrating a situational awareness that is neither American nor British nor Oxbridge but what might be called HarvOx: not cozy but broadly self-assured. “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” makes a clever scholarly sandwich, laying the White Russian genius against the man who wrote “The Death of the Author,” but it turns out to be a forthright personal essay, a rare statement of what it feels like to rethink theory, post-college. “I’ve changed my mind,” says Smith, who originally gave this as a talk to Harvard students.
Common sense triumphs again. But in her controversial “Two Directions for the Novel,” Smith tacks skyward. Read between the lines, this is the head-on rebuttal to Wood that her October 2001 essay wasn’t. Wood originally branded Smith and her cohort as Hysterical Realists; now Smith comes back with a label of her own, Lyrical Realists. They are a much bigger target. But, discounting Smith’s affirmation of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which is made to do too much too conveniently in the second half of the essay, she hits her target squarely. Quoting French theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Smith warns that mainstream grown-up Americans are too obsessed with the “total and unique adjective, which attempt[s] to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things.” Think Updike, think Bellow. Smith’s immediate target is Joseph O’Neill’s Neverland, a lovely novel which for Smith was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What’s convincing is not Smith’s radicalism — or her conservatism — but her moderation. She assumes that we are living in a corrective moment. She is on the lookout for the “great lie[s] of our contemporary culture”; she is ready to move beyond the “deformations” that affected civil rights leaders in the past. She distrusts what she calls the “neutral universal” — the scholarly voice she must abandon in order to declare, against her training, that part of the reason she likes Zora Neale Hurston is her blackness: “Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason.”
To write about Obama, Smith brings in Shakespeare and his famous ability to speak in different voices, taking both sides in his characters’ arguments. She makes the immemorial point that the line “to thine own self be true,” was spoken by Polonius, a hack, and claims that editorials about the authenticity of Obama’s African-American voice miss an opportunity. “Voice adaptation is still the original British sin,” she laments, remembering that she didn’t mean for her Cambridge voice to so completely supplant her original, working-class voice.
But her Cambridge voice is real. By choosing not to write in a standard critical voice, a “neutral universal,” Smith only obtains a more pungent version of that Cambridge voice which we assumed the “neutral universal” to be. If you’re not universal, you’re parochial — you’re Cambridge, England, talking to Cambridge, Massachusetts. And of course you’re multicultural. So is she kidding herself? I doubt it. If anything, Smith seems to know what she’s doing. By choosing to write like a student, she slyly undermines the complacencies of dons and magazine critics. But I want to hear more.