PART 1: Dispatches from Dream City: Zadie Smith and Barack Obama
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Reading and re-reading Zadie Smith’s spookily empathetic essay about Dreams of My Father and the natural linguistic flexibility of the biracial, upwardly mobile figure, the inevitable thought occurred to me: Is Zadie Smith the Barack Obama of literature?
Consider the parallels between the two: both are biracial (Zadie Smith had a white English father and a black Jamaican mother). Both are precocious strivers who came from somewhat déclassé origins and rose to become shining examples of their respective countries’ meritocratic aspirations (Zadie Smith grew up in a council flat, the English equivalent of a housing project, and received a scholarship to Oxford). Both give evidence of having been closer to their white parent. Both seem to promise liberation from the bad faith that has existed on both sides of the color line since the start of the post-civil rights era. Both are figures who because they smoothly speak the language of progressivism (in Smith’s case, the language of progressivism is the language of avant-garde literature and abstruse academic theory) appear — or in the case of Obama, appeared — less cautious and conservative than they really are. Changing My Mind is the title of Zadie Smith’s collection of what she calls ‘occasional essays;’ it might as well be titled ‘Only Connect,’ to use the credo of her beloved E.M.Forster’s Howards End — like Forster and like Obama, Zadie Smith is a builder of bridges and a reconciler of the seemingly irreconcilable.
There is a remarkable essay, “Two Directions for the Novel,” which is a kind of Beer Summit for contemporary fiction: on one side of the table is Joseph O’Neill, author of the Gatsbyesque 9/11 novel Netherland, on the other side is Tom McCarthy, writer of manifestos (still, after a century, a prerequisite for avant-garde credentials) and author of the astringently difficult novel Remainder.
It can be said that —
Let me interrupt my own rather tendentious exercise in extended parallelism for a second to make the case for why Zadie Smith matters. Here, this collection makes amply evident, is not just a first-rate writer, but a writer who is first–rate at everything she does. Changing My Mind is full of first-rate travel pieces energized with jittery nerves and telling details, first-rate capsule movie reviews which humorously make the case why movies are simultaneously unworthy of serious critical reflection and enrapturing, first-rate celebrity mash notes that give a disarming glimpse into the writer’s private pantheon, first-rate autobiographical memoirs that manage to be intimate and discreet at the same time, first-rate academic criticism that shows that Smith has the tools to be another Stephen Greenblatt. The obvious comparison is to the virtuosic all-arounders, writers like Joyce Carol Oates or John Updike. But unlike Oates, whose criticism reads like the slightly impersonal work of the perennial A-student, or Updike, who whether the subject was Doris Day, Borges, or the penis, often slathered every topic with the same lyrical impasto, Smith’s writing is intensely personal but at the same time fitted to the demands of its subject with a bespoke snugness.
Smith’s writing inspires not just the reader but the writer. For the would-be writer, reading someone like Nabokov is a shock-and-awe experience that leaves him feeling his talents might be better suited to say, real estate. The prose in Changing My Mind, despite the wide reading and deep intelligence it displays, has that disarming and encouraging quality as rare in a good writer as it is in a politician — the common touch.
The common touch: even the most mandarin of writers is not immune to attempting it. For James Wolcott, the attempt is displayed in his habit of incorporating up-to-the minute (and soon to be outdated) popular usages (like employing ‘genius’ as an adjective). For someone like George Will, it comes out in his groan-inducing public love for baseball, in pseudo-populist lucubration that gives the impression of a statue stiffly descending from its plinth to mingle with the alarmed populace.
Smith’s is a self-deprecating, confidence-sharing, distinctively feminine kind of approachability (a sex-specific trait, as playfully acknowledged by her book):
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it was published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood , stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.
Like another follower of Dickens, Martin Amis, she is at her funniest when she isn’t trying to be antically comic.
It is a truism that the critical writings of novelists are doubly interesting because they shed light not just on their ostensible subjects but on the novelists themselves and their struggles with age-old aesthetic problems. In fact, the struggle with aesthetic problems — which is synonymous with the struggle to write itself — is one that Smith chronicles with unusual frankness.
In her essay, “That Crafty Feeling,” a funny and candid exploration of the many strategies the novelist develops to trick herself into completing a long work of fiction, she describes the use of ‘scaffolding:’
Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding…The only way to write this novel is to divide it into three sections of ten chapters each…Or the answer is to read the Old Testament and model each chapter on the books of the prophets, Or the divisions of the Bhagavad Gita…Or Ulysses. Or the songs of Public Enemy…
If you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later…
This is wishful thinking, of course — in most cases, the scaffolding cannot be dismantled without tearing down the building because it has become part of the edifice itself.
In On Beauty, Smith’s Forsterian novel, the scaffolding is most noticeable in the form of the multiple references to and borrowings from Howards End: like Forster’s novel, On Beauty is set in motion by an awkward, and quickly terminated, infatuation between the young adult children of two ill-matched families; instead of the seemingly impulsive gift of a house from a terminally ill older woman to a younger one, there is the gift of a valuable painting; instead of the novelist’s impressionistic musings on a concert of Beethoven’s’ Fifth, there is a writerly passage on the Mozart Requiem; instead of the awkward autodidact Leonard Bast, there is the striving rapper Carl; and so on.
Because On Beauty differs from Howards End in many ways (though it appropriates Forster’s cozy and insistent editorializing voice), the reader looks for a pattern to Smith’s borrowings, and realizes with a sense of disappointment that there is none. The knowing references — which seem simultaneously to be a tribute backwards to Forster and a postmodern nod towards what Kristeva called ‘intertextuality’ — become a series of distractions, like those awkward ‘homages’ directors used to love to insert in their movies.
The canny Forster wrote that a lack of all-around intelligence is a sure sign of creative power, suggesting that excessive intelligence of the kind that Smith possesses might hobble the writer of fiction, and that hyper awareness is no guarantee that the writer will create a living, breathing work of art.
Smith has abundant gifts as a writer of fiction — a knack for characterization, a good ear for dialect and idiolect, a naturally dramatic imagination, a strong sense of the present — but her effort to triangulate between postmodernism and what a Leavisite would call the Great Tradition has not so far produced a successful work of fiction. In her first novel , White Teeth, the attempt to forge a style that marries the comic realism of Dickens’s with what the critic James Woods calls the ‘Hysterical Realism’ of Foster Wallace, Rushdie etc shows how ultimately irreconcilable these two styles are.
But let’s return to Obama…
***PART 2 of this essay is here.
John Broening’s Column Note.
— John Broening is a chef and writer based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, Gastronomica, Edible Front Range, and the Denver Post, for whom he writes a weekly column about food.