James's Reviews > Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
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May 17, 12

bookshelves: criticism

Zadie Smith is pretty damn smart, and has read widely and deeply from the Western Canon. In this collection of essays, she deals with some extremely important literary topics, some of which are very close to my own heart. (Note: I only skimmed some of the autobiographical essays and her short film reviews, and her lectures on the craft of writing. They are interesting but not nearly as interesting, in my opinion, as her literary criticism.)

One of her most touching and important essays is about Zora Neale Hurston and her wonderful novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Smith spends some time explaining why this book has been marginalized in the literary world and, then, once recognized, was recognized not necessarily for the masterpiece it is. In doing so, Smith also examines race and gender and how these topics play into our readings of works like Hurston's and also, a few essays later, in the works of George Eliot.

Her essay on Kafka is absolutely top shelf. Basically, she piggy backs off of a recent biography about Kafka to explain that many of the clichés which have managed to attach themselves to Kafka the man and the artist are not entirely true; and that Kafka was in fact far more lazy and normal, and even a bit banal (i.e. less metaphysical prophet) than we are led to believe by some of the high-flown interpretations of his work.

My favourite essay of the lot deals with the future of the novel. Finally someone discusses and recognizes Tom McCarthy's phenomenal novel Remainder and does it justice. First she contrasts McCarthy's book with Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which is basically a revamped, old-school realist work of literature, and to judge from what Smith says: a work that is unctuously literary, in the sense of trying way too hard to impress people. At the beginning of the article, Smith notes that O'Neill's book took him seven years to write and, then, as if touching on a moral, adds that McCarthy's book took seven years to get published. Reason: O'Neill's book plays to our expectations of a novel and does so eloquently but at the expense of simply continuing the antiquated trajectory of contemporary literature; McCarthy's is new and impressive, a reworking of the novel, where the subject matter continually over-determines structure and the reader's expectation, until the whole literary space is suffused by a mirror-like allegory of the reader. These two novels, Smith says, basically show in what directions contemporary English novels are heading. They still have life, but it's getting harder to justify what O'Neill's doing; and it's getting harder to believe how indifferent the publishing world is to genuine and genius art like McCarthy's.

So there are two other essays I enjoyed: one on Nabokov and Barthes, and their views on the role of author and reader, which was a little old hat for me but still interesting when Smith explains them and mulls them over. And then lastly a long dissertation on DF Wallace's book of short stories Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which, like the stories, meanders and yet holds your attention as Smith tries to refocus readers' expectations of literature to include the very subtle and interesting approach that Wallace made use of in these stories.

I can't say I am fully convinced by Wallace or even Smith's eloquent defence. His art has, like Pynchon's and Stephenson's, an obsessive compulsiveness that bores me into a void. Murakami has it too. You get the feeling that these guys get up every day, clean their house, and then sit down to do work for four hours, eat, chat, distract themselves, only to have four more hours to write. It's everywhere in their work, the need to write. And when you add in all the neurotic inwardness of someone like Wallace indeed it might yield very interesting things, very interesting snippets of our own self-consciousness, but... I would simply point to Hegel's critique of Enlightenment Satire of Diderot and others: you can point out the problems besetting a dissolute world and that's interesting to a point, but the service you do for humanity is much, much less significant than that found in the old epics or in great tragedies. Perhaps we think that satire is the answer. It's been done to death!! Time to read guys like McCarthy, who have something new for us (who satirize on the periphery) and to wave goodbye to the frolicking tomes of Pynchon et al. Literature that organizes our minds for newness, that prepares the ground for it, that anticipates it, and forces our attention to the point of its reception--that's what's needed.

This is a great book, sparked a lot of interest for me. I haven't been this engrossed in a work of criticism in a long time. Worth reading if you have an interest in literature or art in general.
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message 1: by Justin (new)

Justin Evans Thanks for the good write-up, I'll have to check this out. I still haven't got around to Remainder (it's on the shelf), but I think you're a bit hard on DFW. I think he was trying to work through the problems of inwardness, rather than ignoring them or just cutting the know, and that such a project was worthwhile. But clearly I need to check out Remainder before we can have that conversation properly! I'm on it.

James You know, after reading back through what I wrote, I am perhaps too harsh on him. I also have only read a small amount of Wallace's stuff, mainly Oblivion, which has a lot of good stuff in it. I tried reading Infinite Jest. The writing is first rate, but he doesn't justify the length. He is obviously preoccupied with philosophical and psychological issues, and moves inward to deal with them. But you have to set limits to what literature can do, where it remains effective and doesn't simply lose steam and become an effete preoccupation. That might sound a bit controversial, but I don't think it is. Literature is all over the place now-a-days. It needs a Hegelian overhaul, an assessment of its achievements, since that will reveal more essential bits for the future. I look forward to reading what you have to say about Remainder. For some reason, when I read it I had this Lord of the Flies sort of feeling about it; a powerful allegory that makes sense of a bunch of stuff that'd been floating around in my head for ages; it brought the symbolic force to make sense of that stuff. Totally subjective, but nonetheless it still made a real impact on me.

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