Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
Reviewed by Kylie Ladd
Zadie Smith is one of those writers other writers love to hate. Not for her the years of unpublished obscurity, the endless tweaking of the query letter, the rejection after rejection after rejection that the rest of us tell ourselves is an unavoidable and indeed vital component of becoming a novelist. Instead, Smith was offered a publishing contract for her first novel on the basis of some short stories written in her second year at Cambridge University and included in a student anthology. She turned that down, electing to be represented by the highly sought-after Wylie agency, who subsequently sold her unfinished manuscript to Hamish Hamilton (a division of Penguin) at a highly-contested auction. Smith completed the novel, White Teeth, in her final year at Cambridge. On its release the following year it quickly became both a commercial and critical success, winning the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize. The Autograph Man, her second novel, was again a bestseller, while her third, On Beauty, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction.
For all these reasons I was quite prepared to resent her when I first picked up White Teeth five or six years ago. The book had been out for a while by then, but I had eschewed it, intimidated by its success, until my husband finally bought a copy, devoured it avidly, then shoved it under my nose and insisted that I read it. He was right to do so. White Teeth, which deals with immigrant families in London adapting to their new society, is a masterpiece- clever, funny and full of heart. On Beauty was even better. Smith reminds me of a younger, sexier AS Byatt- they share the same aggressive intelligence, innate Britishness and absolute command of language, as well as simply knowing a hell of a lot about pretty much everything.
All these qualities are on display in Smith’s collection of “occasional” essays, Changing My Mind. As the author herself acknowledges in the foreword, such books are written essentially by accident, and- in contrast to a novel- with no unifying theme or voice. Quite possibly as a result, I found Changing My Mind significantly less accessible or unputdownable than Smith’s fiction, though rewarding nonetheless.
The open and closing sections of the book (titled “Reading” and “Remembering”) are the most cerebral, and, dare I suggest, skippable, unless you have a particular knowledge of or interest in the authors discussed. In seven lengthy chapters, Smith- here in full academic mode- deftly dissects the work of Nabokov, Kafka, Forster, Eliot (George, not TS) and Foster Wallace, and then considers future directions for the novel. This is serious thought and serious writing. Smith makes no allowances, her agile mind darting seamlessly from observation to cross-reference to conjecture. I studied English Literature at university, and have (weirdly) read one novel by each of the scrutinized authors, but have to confess I was quite left behind. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested- I just couldn’t keep up.
Smith comes into her own in the middle sections of the book however, a fascinating amalgam of personal writing on topics as wide-ranging as subverting family Christmas traditions to being overdressed at the dressiest event in Hollywood to the post-apocalyptic landscape of Liberia (current average primary class size: 344 students to one teacher) to a brilliant discourse (“Speaking in Tongues”) on how class shapes voice. “That Crafty Feeling”, originally delivered as a lecture to students at the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, should be required reading for would-be or insecure novelists- which pretty much means all of them. I had the good fortune to read it while hopelessly ensnared in structural edits for my own second novel, and it helped me pull myself out. In ten guidelines, Smith offers advice not just on constructing the work (“It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick is yourself.”), but also on living with it- managing the “unbearable cruelty of proofs” (“proofs are the wasteland where the dream of your novel dies and cold reality asserts itself”) and the painful rebirth that is being edited (“being destroyed, having to start again, means you have space in front of you, somewhere to go”). For writers, these twelve pages are worth the price of the book alone.
So, too, is the section entitled “Feeling”, where Smith writes with just that about her late father, to whom the book is dedicated. Harvey Smith was the model for the central character of White Teeth, Archie Jones, a middle-aged Englishman who marries a much younger Jamaican woman and becomes increasingly bewildered and disillusioned by his own country, “a nation divided by postcodes and accents, schools and last names.” Harvey’s form of escape is British comedy: Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, The Office. Separated from her father by age, education (Harvey was a bus driver in his mid-50’s when Zadie was born) and her parent’s divorce, Smith reconnects with him through BBC boxed-sets, and finds redemption in his death when her brother becomes a comedian. This is unsentimental and clear-eyed memoir that left me, conversely, damp-eyed; this is Smith at her best, working, once again, with people, with story. I very much enjoyed Changing My Mind, but I can’t wait for her next novel.”