MJ Nicholls's Reviews > The Autograph Man

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jul 31, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: sassysassenachs, novels, distaff
Read from July 31 to August 01, 2011


James Wood in his thesis review covers all the thoughts I had on this one (and more and more) and is the most worthwhile review of this book around. For those who aren’t that interested, let me sum up the basics: lapsed Anglo-Chinese Jew Alex-Li is an autograph hunter fixated on Kitty Alexander, fictional Hollywood starlet of the 1950s. He spends his time writing a book on Jews v. Christians, spurning his faith, squabbling with rabbis, upsetting his bald girlfriend and cavorting with fellow autograph hunters. In the latter half of the book he meets his idol and develops inner demons.

Smith’s other novels are vast multi-character epics and her towering authorial presence benefits from having numerous dummies to manipulate, rather than the one insubstantial dummy. This novel could have benefitted from a less grandiose scope for quite a thin plot and morose protagonist: a slim 250 pages over a hoggish 419. On the plus side, the prose is as comic, stylish and rhythmic as ever, though her longer meandering passages feel like failed snippets from White Teeth. Hats off for writing a radically different second book—Zadie put up with some hostility in the UK round about this time.


It does bug me quite how many readers think they have the right to desecrate a writer’s work on here with their off-handed dismissals and oh-so-clever putdowns, usually “steaming pile of . . . ” or “a complete waste of . . . ” What gives a casual reader the right to take such a stance about someone else’s passionate labour other than sheer spite? Where is this spite coming from? Has the book personally offended you?

OK, so you dislike the book. Fine! I can understand the plot or characters didn’t ring your bell, but honestly . . . haven’t we grown as readers enough to weigh a book on its merits? Unless a book offends on a level of stance, in terms of the author’s questionable views, the reviewer should give due weight to each element of the writer’s craft. If they still find it wanting after this, fine! But the arrogance of these people who dismiss books with witless rejoinders—“written by a sophomore student,” or—“I’ve could churned out something better in grad school.” ARE YOU ALL MAD?

This book, and Zadie Smith in particular, is a fine example of this bizarre persecution. Do you know how difficult it is to write a book like The Autograph Man? This is why the publishing desks are clotted with ream after ream of dreck: people flinging themselves into writing who haven’t the ability to appreciate an example of lyrical, witty and vital prose, what makes writer like Smith simultaneously as popular as she is cutting-edge.

This disgruntlement is part of a wider beef about our obsession with “grading” artworks on their merits—surely, with such a ruthless system of critical appraisal around books, music, cinema, TV, we’d filter what is “allowed” to get made, what people might want to see based on the endless chatter of feedback—but instead, we have a mainstream that celebrates the lowest common denominator, and an avant-garde relentlessly bitching over what gets published and deemed “cutting edge.” The line between popular and artistic is being tugged to breaking point, whereas a writer like Smith straddles this line, offering a neutral pleasure for both territories. And we moan and moan!

OK. I’m done.
27 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Autograph Man.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

02/24/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Tuck (new) - added it

Tuck for your own good, i suggest staying as far away from james wood as pos. he;s a creep, what i can tell. brilliant but.....

message 2: by MJ (new) - rated it 3 stars

MJ Nicholls Why is he a creep, exactly? I don't live near him so I'm safe.

message 3: by Tuck (new) - added it

Tuck oh, he's always bashing good writers (which they probably deserve?) and thinks good writing stopped in the mid 19th century and he seems to have something against jews and well i think he's douche. i'll send you some things. but yes, i do believe yer safe, except....he's from durham....dum dum dumdum

message 4: by Paul (last edited Jan 06, 2012 03:15PM) (new)

Paul Bryant Hmm, MJ, I checked out some of my one-star reviews and there are a number of off-handed dismissals and oh-so-clever putdowns in there. I'm inclined to quote Samuel Johnson on this point, he said he didn't have to be a carpenter to know when a chair was broken; and also, as the internet daily demonstrates, a cat may look at a king; and also, this site asks us all to dole out ratings for the books we read. Given all this, and not overlooking the circumstance that I gave White Teeth a bad couldn't-finish-it review, I'm wondering with trepidation where that leaves me vis-a-vis your above remarks.

message 5: by MJ (last edited Jan 07, 2012 02:54AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

MJ Nicholls Ha, well, I enjoy the occassional demolition from time to time too, I think what rankled me was the sheer volume of snippy reviews of that nature on Zadie Smith's books. I get the impression people are simply carping about her youth and talent, since her writing is by no means terrible, even if you hate all her characters. Sometimes we read a book and the prose simply leaves us cold . . . I usually try to fathom why without going in too hard on the jugular. But your demolition reviews are very entertaining so more please!

message 6: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant Ah, okay, thanks...! Sometimes I do think reviews, which are surely essential conversation about books & art & ideas & so forth, are also distressing since you can find so many people saying the opposite to each other and reasonably articulately too. (Except with 2666 which everybody loves, except, of course, myself.)

message 7: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Paul wrote: "Ah, okay, thanks...! Sometimes I do think reviews... are surely essential conversation about books & art & ideas & so forth..."

Anybody can resist the charms of a particular book and say its majesty is like a stream of bat's piss.

The value of the opinion is in the reasons behind it.

If they're expressed, then the reviewer cares enough about their own readers to communicate.

If they aren't, I can't readily see what value the opinion has.

If you don't like a book, then at least be clever about it.

Unfortunately, I've started reading Paul's reviews in descending order of rating, so it might be a while before I get to the lone star gang.

There are 794 I've got to get through.

I've been doing it during the cricket and the tennis. I've been getting through more while Australia has been batting.

message 8: by Richard (new)

Richard I love the fact that you gave the arrogant reviewers a steaming pile of... well, never mind. I also like the fact that you used the word "disgruntlement" in a real sentence.

message 9: by Drew (new)

Drew Paul, I've never seen you express "trepidation" at the prospect of someone else's opinion of you!

MJ, I'll admit I do get pretty annoyed when I see a negative review that doesn't try to justify itself, but its very worthlessness is what gives me relief from that annoyance. It's like, if that person doesn't justify their stance, then I'm free to believe that they lack the ability to do so.

As for Zadie Smith, I think she's a fine writer but not very funny, sort of like Nicola Barker.

And yes, stay away from James Wood.

message 10: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Drew wrote: "And yes, stay away from James Wood. "

Yes. Wood. Stay non-proximal. But he was sweet enough to have provided us with that most accurate genre marker, hysterical realism.

message 11: by Richard (new)

Richard Nathan "N.R." wrote: "Drew wrote: "And yes, stay away from James Wood. "

Yes. Wood. Stay non-proximal. But he was sweet enough to have provided us with that most accurate genre marker, hysterical realism."

Love that term! It's so... hysterical! :)

message 12: by MJ (new) - rated it 3 stars

MJ Nicholls Huh. I'm still not sold on Wood's douchebaggery, I've liked most of the reviews of his I've read. Hysterical realism is a far better term than "recherché postmodernism." Eek.

message 13: by Richard (new)

Richard MJ wrote: ..."recherché postmodernism." Eek."

Exactly. At least in English, recherché is a polite word for "snobby" if you ask me.

message 14: by Drew (new)

Drew Have you read his article where he coins the term 'hysterical realism'? That one definitely irked me.

message 15: by MJ (new) - rated it 3 stars

MJ Nicholls I think I read it a while ago. I'm easily persuaded by anyone who makes a strong argument, esp. in his review of this book. He's probably given poor Zadie a persecution complex.

message 16: by Drew (new)

Drew Hopefully that's not why she took seven years on this new novel!

message 17: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Drew wrote: "Have you read his article where he coins the term 'hysterical realism'? That one definitely irked me."

MJ: I've really no particular opinion about his douchebaggery either. I'm just so very pleased that he provided Zadie with such a nice opening for such a Zadian response to his criticism.

But here's my opinion about his douchebaggery -- I get irked when critics denigrate books and writing that I like so much; when they attack books with pejorative uses of otherwise accurate descriptors like 'difficult' or 'hysterical'; when critics suggest that *this* kind of book ought not be written. But I'm all unfair in attacking Wood cuz I can't say I know much about him. But here I am joining the anti-Wood clique to make myself feel better?

message 18: by Ian (last edited Apr 10, 2012 07:02PM) (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Just to make it easy to find them, here are two of the articles where James Wood defined what he was talking about:



Zadie's response was here:


As far as I can tell, Zadie Smith's comment about Dave Eggers et al came from here:


message 19: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye What I find ironic about James Wood's approach is his expectation that an author should primarily address the question "how does it feel".

Some of the writers who he criticises for their "Hysterical realism" want to go beyond "60 Minutes"-style "how do you feel" responses and ask "why is it so?"

Not everything in the world is within the control of the individual, strutting on the stage.

9/11 and then the GFC showed that there are macro-political and macro-economic forces at play.

They affect the world of the individual, because they affect society as a whole.

I don't see why they can't come within the province of the writer.

Black humour is just one of many legitimate literary responses.

If we restrict ourselves to "how it feels", we run the risk of being like a single cell organism that keeps bumping into something that gives it a strange sensation, and isn't able to work out "why is it so" and avoid the same life-threatening sensation in the future.

The ability to ask and try to answer the "why is it so" question is part of what makes us uniquely human and different from other organisms.

Hence, we should be able to write about it.

The form of writing is ultimately personal to the author.

message 20: by MJ (last edited Apr 10, 2012 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

MJ Nicholls I haven't the energy to wade through Wood's anti-Zadian theses, but I agree, you don't have to spend four pages explicating how Emma Bovary feels about a throwaway remark made at the dinner table to give a novel a strong emotional or interal aspect, you can place a range of characters within a narrative framework and create grander emotional dramas, as Zadie does in White Teeth and On Beauty. I agree entirely with his opinion on The Autograph Man, though, she abandons her Austenesque panorama for a hipper Eggersian close-lens, which falls flat. Wood is an awesome finger-drummer, by the way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVhUBM...

message 21: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Aww, I kinda like Wood, in a subdued way. Although his own fiction is a steaming pile isn't very good.

back to top