From the Archives: Uncertainty Principles
By Zadie Smith
I suspect that Zadie Smith is more alive than anybody to the ironic fact that her first collection of nonfiction was supposed to be called Fail Better, except that it fell through, and what she has published instead is titled Changing My Mind. Fail Better seems to have been pretty far along. It had been heralded by a rousing two-part manifesto (titled “Fail Better” and “Read Better”) in London’s Guardian. Smith discussed it in interviews in definite tenses. It even had one of those grandly didactic subtitles that publishing houses so adore: “The Morality of Fiction.”
The presentation of Changing My Mind, in comparison, is marked by chastened self-effacement. In her Foreward, Smith makes the unpromising remark that she didn’t even know she had the material for a book until someone pointed it out to her. The subtitle is simply “Occasional Essays.”
Such an evolution wouldn’t be worth noting if Changing My Mind were unremarkable. But in a short time Smith has made herself one of the most interesting and individual book reviewers to be found. There is enough great criticism in this book to belie the humble premise that what’s collected is only an ad hoc assortment of paid pieces.
In fact, the fascinating impetus behind the failed Fail Better is woven into Changing My Mind. Smith’s initial intention, so far as I can tell, was to analyze the past century of fiction not with an academic eye to formal innovations, but with an interest in how emerging styles reflected the attempts of writers to wrestle with deeply personal struggles over the nature of justice, goodness, or love. “There is something about love,” she wrote in 2003, “that does not sit well with the Academy.” She wanted to reverse the polarity of our thinking about those shelfworn categories, modernism and postmodernism, to bring a word like love to the forefront of the discussion. We should not think of novels as things composed abstractly, but feelingly; not as disillusioned reactions to traditional habits, but as deeply-felt struggles to express fundamental beliefs. Good writing (or moral writing – I think Smith follows John Gardner in using the words synonymously) bears the marks of those struggles, and therefore often seems frustrating and even estranging. Its flaws are part of its integrity, and such flaws, by making us conscious of moral questions, deepen our reading experience. As Smith put it in an interview, “The point of fiction is to show that absolute certainty is not the healthiest way to move through the world. The novelist’s business is about being uncertain, ambivalent and ironic at times.”
When the Guardian manifesto first appeared, the Olympian assertion Smith made that “what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honorable failures” rankled me. It seemed like an absurd projection of Smith’s own novelistic insecurities onto the entire Western canon. But consider how the same attitude informs the following comments, from a Guardian essay on E.M. Forster. Here, Smith is describing Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View:
She starts off very certain, and in her certainty she lies to George [a suitor], she lies to Mr. Beebe [a clergyman], to her mother, to her brother Freddy and the servants. She tells all of them that she is certain of her own heart and mind. But it is by a process of growing less “certain,” less consistent, less morally enthusiastic that she moves closer to the good she is barely aware of perceiving.
This essay doesn’t appear in Changing My Mind, which instead contains a similar (and excellent) piece about Forster’s radio broadcasts, but both argue that Forster conceived of goodness as being connected to humility. Thus the restrained, seemingly repressed quality of his novels, an authorial ambivalence that can feel maddeningly tepid. (In both essays Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield complaining that “E.M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He’s a rare fine hand at that,” Mansfield says, “but there aint going to be no tea.”)
But the interpretation of Lucy Honeychurch may go some way to explaining that transformation from Fail Better to Changing My Mind. My guess is that Smith started to sense that in her study of morality, she was beginning to moralize. The creed of humility was hardening into a treatise, and the slightly badgering tone of the manifesto was creeping into more and more of her analysis.
If that was the case, then Smith has failed for the better. The strongest of these “occasional essays” pursue a rigorously moral view of fiction without becoming strident or overweening. They show an open mind willing to track down unlikely leads, but only after having established an incontrovertible expertise.
Zadie Smith, delivering the lecture “Speaking in Tongues”
at the New York Public Library, December 2008
Smith’s youth is no doubt a help in this feat. She takes the appealing tack of intimating a storyline to the ways she’s changed her mind about a book or idea. At the start of the story is a position commonly espoused in academia, and at the end is the new position Smith is testing on her own – you’re constantly aware of her shaking off the perspectives of a multitude of lit theory courses for some freer, more emotional response (the presence of so much theory sometimes gives these essays a classroom feel; in the long run, it will be good when Smith has gotten Cambridge out of her system). In a review of a biography of Franz Kafka, for instance, Smith pushes against the abstract depiction of Kafka as a self-abnegating prophet of existentialism, and embraces instead an understanding of a man who was funny, priapic, restless, envious, and very lonely. Another piece sets in opposition the notions of Roland Barthes, who theorized in “The Death of the Author” that the meanings of a book are exclusively determined by readers, and Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that authors dictate everything we think and feel while we read. Barthes is straw man – his nonsense propositions would have vanished years ago if they hadn’t been arbitrarily engraved into university curricula – but the essay is nevertheless a high-spirited study of the pleasures and irritations of reading a brilliant martinet like Nabokov. I don’t think anyone has done better in capturing the peculiar sensation of reading one of Nabokov’s novels:
I think of [Nabokov] as one of the last, great twentieth-century believers in the autonomy of the Author, as Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the last believers in the Architect. They both specialized in theatrical interviews, struck self-regarding and self-mythologizing poses, all of which would mean nothing (the Author being dead, you don’t have to listen to his self-descriptions) if it weren’t for the fact that they wove the restrictions and privileges of authorship into the very fabric of the things they built. For it’s true that each time I enter Pnin I feel its author controlling (via an obsessive specificity) all of my reactions, just as, in Wright’s Unity Temple, one enters through a small, low side door, forced to approach the magnificence of the interior by way of a series of awkward right-angled turns.
And then there’s “Middlemarch and Everybody,” in which Smith has the gumption to take on Henry James, who disliked that George Eliot gave over so many pages to the dramas of such mediocre figures as Fred Vincy when she could have dedicated all her time to sparkling creations like Dorothea Brooke. But to Smith, Eliot’s depth of compassion is revealed by the equal attention she confers upon both the great and the unremarkable:
She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did. She finds it a sin to write always of Dorothea! As literary atonement, Eliot fills her novels with more objects of attention than a novel can comfortably hold.
This must be the most original aspect of Smith’s approach to reading – locating an artist’s humanity in the perceived flaws of his work. On the rare occasion that Smith takes issue with a book, then, it is for the surprising reason that the book has too few flaws. In the most well-known essay of Changing My Mind, “Two Directions for the Novel,” Smith sets in opposition Joseph O’Neil’s 2008 PEN/Faulkner Prize-winning novel Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s highly experimental 2007 novel Remainder. To Smith, Netherland is the apotheosis of the kind of literary novel that we have all been taught to admire – indeed, it’s the “post-9/11 novel we hoped for.” It traffics in finely wrought meditations on the American Dream, beautifully rendered gropings toward “metaphysical significance,” and a lot of poetic descriptions of clouds. “It is perfectly done,” Smith says – “in a sense, that’s the problem.”
But whereas Netherland hews to a novelistic convention (Smith calls it “lyrical realism”) and so has few bumps or ridges onto which a reader can gain purchase, Remainder, which is narrated by a man who wakes from a coma and has to relearn basic social processes, is a “kind of antiliterature hoax.” McCarthy, a philosopher who believes in a “doctrine of materialism,” writes a willfully fractured and semi-coherent prose that is “defined by absence” because he wants to emphasize the primacy of objects over the symbolic and literary meaning of those objects. It’s the sort of overlap of style and personal morality that Smith loves. “That is what I am looking for when I read a novel,” she wrote in the essay “Fail Better,” “one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.” O’Neil is skillfully realizing an idealized style of novel writing; McCarthy, though, is distorting his style in strange and even unpleasant ways so that it testifies to his own ideals. Smith’s allegiances are squarely with McCarthy, even if – or rather, because – his is the uglier, more trying book.
When she is writing about time-tempered masters like Eliot or Forster it is easy and enjoyable to swim with the current of Smith’s predilections. But when the subject is the contemporary novel, where the canon has yet to be determined, the reader is apt to feel more contentious. I don’t agree with many of the assertions in “Two Directions for the Novel” (Netherland, for instance, is far from “perfect” – though it is aligned with the tradition of Flaubert and Fitzgerald, it has no forward-moving plot like the classics from those novelists, and so spends innumerable pages spinning its wheels in ornamental exposition) and I have a fundamental quarrel with her long and heartfelt defense of David Foster Wallace’s most polarizing book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Here, I think, is the only time that Smith makes an invidious dichotomy. Those who don’t like Wallace’s book, she argues, find it too difficult: “unreasonably demanding.” The essay doubles as a loving eulogy, so I can understand where Smith’s protectiveness comes from, but there’s an in-crowd arrogance to the method of condemning anyone who disagrees with you as lazy or narrow (an impression she compounds with the accidental suggestion that to really get Wallace, you needed to have been friends with him, as Smith was).
But table-thumping disputes of this kind are part of the excitement of reading about contemporary literature. It’s less important to agree with Smith than to be engaged by her. And the reader’s engagement is not restricted to the writing about books. True, the movie reviews included here are flighty and instantly forgettable. In discussing George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck she writes, “I watched it and I liked it. Then I spent two hours on the Internet and changed my mind.” This sort of shift of opinion is not quite worth recording – for all we know, in another two hours she would be calling it the best movie of the decade. Smith’s background in film is not sturdy enough to support any well-developed ideas, so her thoughts about it seem too easily blown about by outside circumstances like politics and tabloid scandals.
But Changing My Mind also contains three charming essays about her late father (“I knew my father had ‘stormed the beach at Normandy,’” she begins in “Accidental Hero.” “I knew nobody else’s father had – that job had been wisely left to their grandfathers.” It’s the lightest little touch, and at once we know a great deal about this man) and a wonderful study of Barack Obama delivered as a talk shortly before his inauguration. Obama, like Smith, is the product of mixed parentage, “raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices.” He therefore possesses the virtue of uncertainty (in politics we call it pragmatism) which we have already seen with E.M. Forster, and which Keats famously attributed to Shakespeare when he spoke of Negative Capability. To think of Obama as a man with the temperament of an artist sweeping into an arena typically limited to narrow ideologies is to gain a clearer understanding of the inchoate sense of hope that galvanized his campaign and continues to cling to his presidency.
“Unburdened by dogma and personal bias, thus flooded with empathy,” is the hopeful way that Smith describes Obama. These are also, I think, the qualities that make Smith such an invigorating presence in book criticism – and in saying so, another dichotomy presents itself. James Wood, a distinguished critic with much great writing to his name, is too often used as a foil; nevertheless, his shadow looms over Changing My Mind. Wood’s most famous review was of Smith’s first novel White Teeth in 2000, where he coined the term “hysterical realism,” a derogatory label pointing up what he saw as the adolescent excesses of novels by Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, and many others. Wood’s piece actually begins with the line, “A genre is hardening” – here too is a seeming abhorrence of fiction molded to popular conventions. But since that time, many of his reviews have been beset by a glum predictability. It has been dismaying to find him reusing his famous term in later pieces, as though he has had no new ideas in the past decade (if a critic is going to start citing himself as an authority, he had better be as entertaining as H.L. Mencken). And Wood gave his most recent book the abominably overreaching title How Fiction Works, which sounds like a pronouncement that would emerge from a papal council.
If Smith can continue to resist this sort of didactic straitening, she will become one of our best critics. If, on the other hand, she means only to counteract Wood (an effusive champion of Netherland) and acclaim unconventional books “like” Remainder, then we will merely have another dogma, a competing set of instructional dicta on a bookstore shelf teeming with them. A recent essay in the Guardian, in which Smith mentions her “novel nausea” and cheekily disdains “the vulgarity of novels with their plots and characters and settings,” is an ominous indicator that she may be less open-minded and more reactionary then she protests to be. But Changing My Mind makes me hopeful. Greedy, too. Here’s the book I’d love her to write: she would start with Fielding and hopscotch to Wallace, stopping anywhere along that route that catches her fancy, giving equal time to writers we know well and those we don’t. She would draw on her experience as a novelist, summon all her background in books, read, as she has put it, with “fine attention” – and show us a thousand things we’ve never seen before.
Sam Sacks has written books reviews for the Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversational, The New York Press, and thefanzine.com, and he has a review forthcoming in Commentary Magazine. He lives in New York City.