Zadie Smith is a British novelist partly of Jamaican origin, whose acclaimed first novel White Teeth (2000) won several awards and was an immediate best-seller. Since then, she has published other acclaimed novels, contributed essays to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, among others, taught writing at Harvard and is now tenured professor of creative writing at New York University. Smith is among the most important writers in the world today, and her position as a post-colonial novelist and an advocate for multiculturalism (or ethic pluralism) makes her writing exemplary – in the sense that it is acutely representative of intellectual and literary trends in the Western world. Smith has just come out with a collection of essays titled Feel Free. Since she has produced another acclaimed collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (2009) earlier, comparison between her approaches in the two periods could tell us much about tendencies in the past decade in the literary world. She writes about all kinds of issues, but her essays on literature are where she is on home ground.
Zadie Smith cites EM Forster as among her favorite novelists and a 2003 essay about him says something about her earlier approach. Smith studied at Cambridge at a time when French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes’ dismantlement of the protocols for reading novels was taught. Where novels had once been loved for the perspectives brought to their subject matter by their authors, Barthes proposed that the ‘author was dead’, that the text itself was everything and that the reader must liberate themselves from reading something the way ‘an author intended it to be read.’ Writing, Bathes argued, could not be ‘deciphered’ but merely ‘disentangled’ by the reader and there could never be a final ‘meaning’. Especially suspect to students like Smith were novels where the ethical attitudes were transparent as in those of EM Forster, which always appeared to have a moral viewpoint to uphold, as also in those of Jane Austin, where the titles themselves (Pride and Prejudice) seem to dictate it. But she goes on to say how superficial the dismissal of ethical discourse is, because reading is an ethical activity. Great novels “show us the worth and richness of plural qualitative thinking and engender in their readers a richly qualitative way of seeing; when we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us.”
Roland Barthes features once again in an essay on Vladimir Nabokov, a writer who took the other path from Barthes in emphasising authorial privilege. To Nabokov, a good reader should not make what they wanted of the text but should savour the details that the writer had put there, virtually following the writer and experiencing the ecstasy felt by the latter. To Nabokov, the creative act was in two parts; the first part was the initial rapture experienced while conceiving of the work and the second, the painstaking recapitulation of that moment through constructing the work piecemeal, putting markers for how it should be read. Barthes’ formulation, it may be gathered, announced the freedom from authorial dictate that Nabokov insisted upon. But Barthes’ arguments also led to a kind of philistinism by which readers were freed from attending to ‘intent’ in great novels and Smith cites the kind of papers students wrote: 'The Trans-gendered Suitor: Refractions of Darcy as Elizabeth’s True Sister in Pride and Prejudice.' If books could be read by a reader in any which way, why pick great books at all?
Zadie Smith’s early essays, mostly written between 2000 and 2005, try to be definitive in that they engage with intellectual problems in the realm of literature and map out contradictions and conflicts. The act of placing Nabokov and Barthes side by side is a daring one, since literary theorists do not do this. They rarely deal with exceptional works and are happier with the quotidian effort that feeds theory. Smith, not being a theorist, makes the unfamiliar leap that theorists avoid, but which a literary person welcomes: It is like bringing profound antagonisms together and ‘watching the fun’. Being a creative person rather than a theorist, she relishes the ‘mischief’ in it. But her cool irony is evidenced not only in the literary essays but also when she is dealing with other matters, as with a visit to Liberia.
Liberia is a western African country founded by former American slaves and has been affected by civil war. In 1980, a coup d’etat led by a Master Sergeant Samuel Doe of the minority Krahn tribe deposed the President William Tolbert and his cabinet, descended from freed American slaves, and executed the entire cabinet. Doe, who made himself President, was tortured and murdered ten years later, and his naked, dismembered body exhibited. When Zadie Smith visited Liberia, the President was Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who had defeated, narrowly, a footballer named George Weah. Sirleaf was on a foreign trip to invite investment and “Liberia’s expectations are on hold until her return.” Smith makes nothing explicit and she only holds up the contradictions: “For the moment, (Ms Sirleaf’s) real impact is conceptual rather than actual: Liberia is having its female moment. Everywhere the talk is of a new generation of girls who will ‘take Liberia into the future.’ The popular phrase among the NGO-ers is ‘gender strategy’.” And this is a country in which UN Peacekeepers are offering teenage refugee girls food in return for sex. Ms Sirleaf is promising immediate action on essential services but she only has a budget of $120 million for a whole year; the UN budget for Liberia alone is $875 million and Liberia has outstanding debt of $3.7 billion. Unlike VS Naipaul, who also has a fine eye for political contradictions, Smith never lapses into sarcasm.
But when we come to Zadie Smith’s more recent essays collected in Feel Free, we find her approach changed. The finely ironic gaze that marks her writing in the earlier collection is absent. Feel Free is divided into five parts out of which the first deals with socio-political issues. The next three are given to films, pictures and books respectively, while the last includes personal essays. An example of the socio-political essay is the one titled ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’. The vote for Britain leaving the EU may well prove to be a disaster, but primarily an economic one. Smith approaches the subject with multiculturalist alarm by dealing with the prospective fences coming up between communities: Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Protestants, etc. People opted to leave the EU without any idea of what they were opting for: “A referendum turns out to be a very ineffective hammer for a thousand crooked nails.” But the mood in the air is isolationism, which might deal a body blow to multicultural exchanges.
It may not be correct to be prescriptive about what angle literary Smith should have taken, but earlier, she might have seen the irony in a model democracy that once set leadership standards failing miserably to produce leaders. A model democracy, after all, is one that has the capacity to consistently produce good leaders, since it has a model public. Coming to the Brexit, referendums are tricky things since decisions which impinge upon the future of a country should be ‘authored’ by statespersons; not left to a public. Referendums are perhaps justified only when either course is equally valid and unlikely to be especially critical. Smith sees Brexit as a disaster but this does not push her into reflecting upon Britain as it should have. Her perspective, in fact, is the limited personal viewpoint of someone who (being an immigrant) is likely to be affected by her country’s new isolationism, the sense that Brexit would be seized as an opportunity by racists. She adopts an emotional and personal viewpoint on a momentous political event without accepting the scope it offers for deeper political reflection.
The sense of a cool, overarching vision absent in her writing on Brexit also deserts her when she is writing on the arts. Her piece on Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia celebrates the freedom the book offered her in school, with its unhindered use of expletives and swearwords. Kureishi may not be a major voice but there is really no necessity for an essay on a minor subject to be minor as well. George Orwell, for instance, wrote great essays on schoolboy literature (Billy Bunter) and cheap thrillers (James Hadley Chase). When Smith is writing on Britain, she may not be able to get the kind of perspective she has on Liberia, but the same intellectual timidity afflicts her when she writes on the African-American experience in a piece on Jordan Peele’s film Get Out (2017) and Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, of a dead black teenager lynched in 1955 for flirting with a white woman. Zadie Smith is not African-American but a (partly) Black writer from Britain and she goes off into a personal aside on how her children from a white father will feel about the painting. Schutz’s painting has been controversial but one does not find Smith engaging with issue of representing such subject matter.
Zadie Smith is one of the foremost advocates of ‘multiculturalism’, but the transformation of her writing in the past decade points out one of the unfortunate consequences of her situation. When authors are led from the easy ‘tolerance’ of other cultures initiated by ‘multiculturalism’ to confining themselves to the experiences of their own kind – because critiquing another culture is impolite – they are engaging in self-censorship of an insidious kind. Ethnic communities need to engage with each other but multiculturalism promotes keeping a respectful distance, leaving oneself sterile. Zadie Smith’s writing, it seems to me, has lost its edge because of her hesitation to address issues in the guise of ‘multicultural tolerance’; she tries to compensate for the lack through a ‘personal approach’ matched by appropriate stylistic strategies. Since, ultimately, there are subcultures and sub-subcultures within cultures one will be increasingly restricted to describing oneself and one’s immediate crowd if multiculturalism prevails. Contributing to the ‘melting pot’ of national culture may produce conflict, but it also enriches perspectives. One might therefore propose that whatever Zadie Smith’s writing suffers today is the direct consequence of what took her to the top of the literary firmament, as a champion of multiculturalism.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
Updated Date: Jul 23, 2018 16:58 PM