Friday, 5 July 2013

Where Zadie Smith went wrong

Don't be misled by the title of this post: of course Zadie Smith can do no wrong. But I think we, her public, have missed out because she never got a proper job. I explain below.

Zadie Smith was born in the 1970s. She was the daughter of a white father and a black mother. She grew up in north-west London, in circumstances which were neither smart nor deprived. She went to normal schools. She then went to Cambridge, where she took a First in English. She has had positions in American academia since then, including at Harvard.

This biography is important. "White Teeth" was a massively successful book about a bright, academic girl who is the daughter of a white father and a black mother, who lives in north-west London and goes to a normal school. The plot and many of the characters are, in many respects, clearly not based on reality; it is far-fetched, in a fun way. But the most successful aspect of the book is, I think, the way in which the texture of normal teenage life in 1990s London is accurately and sympathetically captured, and yet made highly entertaining.

"The Autograph Man" was not so well received. And so to "On Beauty", which was another triumph. This is about a family consisting of a white father and a black mother and children who are bright and at good universities (or is a teenager). It is also the story of an academic who grew up in a non-smart part of north-west London, who then went to Cambridge to do an arts degree, and who later becomes an academic at (a thinly-disguised) Harvard. It is set in Cambridge/Boston, MA and in north-west London. You could call it a campus novel, although that makes it sound a lot smaller than it is: it is also about family life, racial identity and beauty.

I haven't read "NW" yet, but Wikipedia says that it is a "tragicomedy that follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. ... after a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel". I'm guessing the council estate is not in south-east London.

It's the same for her non-fiction: this is the best account of how someone can be great fun when you are high and clubbing but a rather pathetic creature in the morning that I have ever read; this is reminiscences of her father; this is more accurately-rendered, 1990s, north-west London, complete with buses and the Brent Youth Orchestra.

So Zadie Smith has successfully mined her childhood, her upbringing and her life for material. She writes about what she knows - and does so extremely well.

The other thing she knows about is books. "On Beauty" is a homage to "Howards End". Her other non-fiction writing is book-reviewing.

But where does that leave us, Smith's readers, in the future? There can be more campus novels, maybe more about family life (she has children), more about north-west London in the 1990s, more about books. But there are vast swathes of modern life that I would love to see her capture, in the same way that she captured 1990s teenager life, but which are not available for her to mine from her own experiences. Just imagine the books we could have had if, after she left university she had gone to work in a job, in an office, where people have something other than books to interest themselves in. She has an amazing ability to observe her everyday life and transform it into insightful and entertaining literature. But her everyday life is campus life and books. I can't see her writing capturing the mass of worldly ambitions that motivate most people, most of the time: office work, money, status, a promotion, a better car or house, the solution of the practical or administrative problems that occupy so many people's waking hours. Just imagine what she would have done with "Bonfire of the Vanities", for example, or "I Don't Know How She Does It" or "Capital" (Lanchester, not Marx).

Two questions you might ask about my theory. (1) Wouldn't getting a job have stopped her from writing? I don't think so: she finished "White Teeth" while getting a First. Anyway, I'm not saying she would have had to work forever, just for long enough to get another slug of material to mine for new novel ideas. We would have lost some of her reading time and some of the references to other books, but we would have coped: there is plenty of writing that quotes other writing around, but stuff like hers, that quotes reality, is rarer and more precious.

(2) But what if she didn't want a job? Well, clearly she didn't. But my argument isn't about what would be good for her, but what would be good for the rest of us. It is a selfish and unfeeling argument, as I freely admit. Smith was successful when young and, by talent and hard work, has been able to have a great life, reading and writing books, and occasionally teaching (rather awful, if "On Beauty" is to be believed) privileged American undergraduates. Who can blame her? That's living the dream, or at least (I suspect)  the 16 year old Zadie Smith's dream. (As the man said, some people say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.) In any case, I think she saw the best minds of her generation accept jobs on the fringes of the entertainment industry and didn't want to do that. Again, who can blame her? All I contend is that she has deprived her reading public of some great books by not jumping on that dirty great travelator of work when her peers did.

Postscript and a plea. The most unconvincing part of "White Teeth" is the incident in which an old white man is openly racist. I'm not saying that it is unconvincing that he would be racist, but the manner and the unabashed open rudeness of it did not ring true to me. The most unconvincing part of "On Beauty" is again an incident in which an old white man is openly and unabashedly racist. This time, it's a man who wants to be reconciled with his son (who has married a black woman) and yet makes openly racist comments. Why would he do that? Even if he is a bigot, he would still have some instinct of politeness or a desire not to offend his son. Again, it did not ring true, and stood out in a book which contained a lot of truth. So my plea is this: if we are to have an old white man say something overtly racist in any future books, please can it be convincing?

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