The Change Gang

Going there and back with Zadie Smith.


in Archive


I had a dream, which was not all a dream. James Wood and Zadie Smith
were doing battle in the sky. James was in silver armor and upon it the
starlight did twinkle so. Zadie was in flowing white gowns. Her face
was aglow with what I can only describe as a honey radiance. Still, I
could see her freckles, which, I recall, pleased me to no end even as
the terrible battle raged on and on. Twice, James smote her a heavy
blow. Twice, Zadie raised herself up and hurled herself back upon him
with swirling gowns and not an infrequent flash of thigh. Then the
heavens went dark again and these two titans were seen to retire, he to
one side of the galaxy and she to another. I thought I saw them both
smile as the dream dissolved and the reality of a new day roused me
from this nocturnal emanation.

  • Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith. 320 pages. Penguin Press HC. $26.95.

James was mean to Zadie once in the real world. Without rehashing the whole thing, he accused her of laziness and self-absorption, of silly tricks and meager powers of concentration. He described what she — along with a few other young writers — was doing as Hysterical Realism. That now-famous piece in The Guardian included these devastating sentences:

This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page. There is a pursuit of vitality at all costs. Recent novels by Rushdie, Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith and others have featured a great rock musician who played air guitar in his crib (Rushdie); a talking dog, a mechanical duck and a giant octagonal cheese (Pynchon); a nun obsessed with germs who may be a reincarnation of J Edgar Hoover (DeLillo); a terrorist group devoted to the liberation of Quebec who move around in wheelchairs (Foster Wallace); and a terrorist Islamic group based in North London with the silly acronym Kevin (Smith).

This was in the early autumn of 2001, the heady days just after the 9/11 attacks when everyone felt that the world had changed somehow and that the frivolity of the recent past just wouldn’t do. Zadie took the criticism standing up. The following Saturday (October 13th, 2001, to be exact) she published a response to Wood in the same pages. She wrote that Hysterical Realism “is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped — this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it.”

Zadie kept writing essays after that, kept talking about art and literature. All of a sudden, she realized that she had a book. She published it this year, giving it the title, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. She thinks that’s a good title because that is what she has done since she exploded onto the scene as the young writer of White Teeth — continually changed her mind. But she goes further, admitting that “ideological inconsistency is, for me, practically an article of faith.”

That’s what I keep trying to tell people. I bring myself up for the simple reason that this collection of essays struck me in a personal way. I felt that I was suddenly in discussion with an old friend. There was a little shock when I came to the essay on Hepburn and Garbo in which Zadie reveals that her favorite movie is The Philadelphia Story and that she has always been obsessed with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Ava Gardner among others. Zadie goes on to describe the sublime play between Hepburn and Tracy in Adam’s Rib, a movie that my wife and I have watched a thousand times and that causes us sometimes to refer to each other as “Pinky.”

But let us get back to James Wood and the essence of literature. Zadie’s point, more or less, is that there is none. Portentous, and slightly pretentious sentences like, “The real is the atlas of fiction, over which all novelists thirst,” from James Wood’s essay collection The Broken Estate, are not for her. On the other hand, she sees nothing to be glib about. Her youthful obsession with Deconstruction and other arts of the empty center have left her with an uneasy feeling about the nonexistence of essence. Writing about her college days reading the French theorist Roland Barthes, Zadie remembers, “Back then I wanted to tear down the icon of the author and abolish, too, the idea of a privileged reader — the text was to be a free, wild thing, open to everyone, belonging to no one, refusing an ultimate meaning. Which was a powerful feeling, but also rather isolating, because it jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine link between the person who writes and the person who reads.”

That’s also why Zadie Smith ultimately agreed with James Wood when it came to White Teeth and the practice of Hysterical Realism. Zadie, like many of us, was working the refusal of ultimate meaning through her system. When she came out the other side, she was looking for some communication again. She had changed her mind. But the difference between Zadie Smith and James Wood is the difference between someone who went there and someone who didn’t. Wood was never seduced by the refusal of ultimate meaning. Perhaps it is the religion in his background. It doesn’t really matter. Wood was already convinced that literature is generated by the tension between knowability and unknowability. That is his ultimate strength; he never teetered to the extremes.

But because he chose to ignore the intellectual seductions of the past 30 years, he’s also considerably tone deaf to the problems the rest of us were mulling over. He doesn’t really get why David Foster Wallace, especially in his tortured essays that try to find a balancing point between sincerity and irony, is so profound a voice to many of us. Wood cannot — simply because he has not experienced the specific drama of denying and then re-finding meaning that goes from Gaddis, to Barthes, to Wallace — understand what it is like to be Zadie Smith. And that should be an interesting and troubling situation for Wood to find himself in since it is Wood, more than any other critic of recent times, who has claimed that the novel is specially situated to show us what human beings are really like.

Here is something Zadie says in her essay about George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She writes, “What is universal and timeless in literature is need — we continue to need novelists who seem to know and feel, and who move between these two modes of operation with wondrous fluidity. What is not universal or timeless, though, is form. Forms, styles, structures — whatever word you prefer — should change like skirt lengths.”

The trick then is to be incredibly serious about the need and incredibly flexible about the means for getting there. In these days of collapsing boundaries and standards, it is essential both to keep your cool and to keep throwing yourself in the mix. This requires a certain intellectual nonchalance. But that nonchalance should never be confused with indifference or cynicism. There’s a term I sometimes throw out among friends. I first heard it from the lips of my sometimes Sybil-like wife, the miraculous Shuffy: neo-sincerity. To me, the most important thing about neo-sincerity is the fact that it is earned. It is sincerity gained after first having lost it. The neo-sinceritist is therefore self-aware, lacks the genuine naivety of the first-time sinceritist. In neo-sincerity, you can never really be innocent of anything. But you’ve been through the washer of absolute irony and have ended up back at the doors of sincerity with the genuine desire to be let inside, warts, wounds, and all.

Zadie captures this mood beautifully in her essay on E.M. Forster, who she calls the “middle manager.” She’s happy for what Forster didn’t do. He “harbored no special hatred for the generation below or above him, did not come to feel that England had gone to hell in a hand basket, that its language was doomed, that lunatics were running the asylum or foreigners swamping the cities.” He was a cool cat, that Forster. He’d been there and back again. She says, “There’s magic and beauty in Forster, and weakness, and a little laziness, and some stupidity. He’s like us.” Zadie’s ability to roll with James Wood’s punches, the little rope-a-dope she played with the whole Hysterical Realism thing has a Forster flavor to it. She wasn’t going to get pulled into the game, to defend herself by resorting to some big argument about literature and her project. She gave Wood White Teeth, and then turned her back on it like it was a red-headed stepchild. She knows that being a writer today means you have to keep moving, you have to keep smacking into the world head on. She’s found her new sincerity, which simply means that she has her mind, and she’s changing it. • 16 December 2009