Since taking a sabbatical from making visual work, I’ve been absorbed by the written word – sucking in book after book, no rest in between. Close one, open another.
I haven’t read like this since I was a child, where I would spend weekday afternoons in the library, and reading everywhere else: the toilet, the garden, the bedroom – always getting in trouble for sitting with a book instead of doing chores.
In this recent craze I read Zadie Smith’s Occasional Essays: Changing my mind.
I had read the first essay in its natural habitat – as the introduction to a recent edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It was the most intimate introduction I’ve ever read of a novel – like someone I was having a casual conversation with suddenly giving me a beautiful french kiss.*
I was struck.
And in that, I remembered relishing her exacting essays about art in the New Yorker – and, before I had even started the ZNH book itself, I was pining for a whole book more of Zadie Smith’s essay.
The searching gods (ie: amazon) shone, there was such a book! Gasp!
Arriving wrapped in gorgeous illustrated paper a few days’ later, it sat in my bookshelf, waiting until The Right Time.
If you’re thinking ‘yeah, alright, enough about you, more about the book’, I’m sorry but it’s not going to get all that much more objective. Reading these essays, my relationship to this book and its writer has grown into some kind of creepy literary love affair – less Austen, more Nabokov. It is a love affair reminiscent of that time I fell deeply in love.
I have become so besotted by this book that, at one point in the middle of reading it, if I had passed Ms Smith on the street, I might have had to hug a light pole to prevent myself hugging her for a full minute.
A minute is a long time to hold onto a stranger in a fierce and loving embrace.
So that’s how I feel about this book.
So, it’s about..
Broadly speaking, it’s about culture.
But who wants to know about the broadly speaking – Everything is, broadly speaking, about culture.
The book is divided into four separate sections: Seeing, Being, Feeling and Remembering, which sets the architecture of the book into the human way of relating to things. – especially to the kinds of things that a Zadie Smith-like human relates to. I’m sure it’s not done by Zadie herself*, but it still exudes her sense of a ‘correct’ way to connect herself and the reader.
Needless to say, this book of essays is also about Zadie Smith herself. More than just a reflection, it’s like a relief mold – one gets to know her by the ways she speaks of others and who she speaks about.
Underneath this formal way of organising the book, the real themes and methods jump and criss-cross all over the place, lovingly tangled like a set of headphones after a long day in my bag.
Actually, more like a rough-weave fabric. Or a drawing: the discreet and the continuous combine to create a texture.
And then in between those two layers, the essays were about those things we related to in that human way: books and their authors (in which she doesn’t divorce the two – like I haven’t here), film and its characters/actors, families and their characters/actors; and work.
And, finally, it’s about her voice.
Using a combination of authority and personality, she tells you something – facts, analysis, outlines – then reminds you that she’s telling you these things; That she, Zadie Smith, has this understanding/experience/opinion and that you, dear reader, are part of the journey too.
Without being as obtuse as writing directly to the reader, she has a rhythm that says “stay there and listen this. Now, come and watch it with me.” Show and reveal, authority and personality.
I don’t know if, during her literature degree at Cambridge, she focused on comparitive literature, but this is the underlying form for much of her essays in this book. But rather than binary comparison, which helps no-one, she sets out with two distinct markers, and swims around them to form a general tide of opinion and understanding.
Of course, even within the confines of a short essay, she is a novelist. And because of that, she makes occasional diversions, brings in extra characters or points that probably don’t need to be there, but makes the reading all that more gorgeous, because it is.
There were some essays in which she did this and, although endearing is a term that can be so patronising and I’m loath to use it here, what I felt was endearment. I was being reminded that this was a story too, not just instruction on valuable things to know.
Speaking to me
The way i’m going to write about some of the specific essays is as though she wrote the book for me.
Yes, me. Personally.
Because that’s how it felt. I don’t know whether that’s because this book attended to my particular language, or this time in my life right now, or if I would have always have felt this way, but I was consistently saying YAAAASS!!! on the inside.
Sometimes also on the outside, usually between stations on the tube. It was slightly embarrassing.
I was so invested in this book and my experience of it, that an odd thing happened between me and it. Something that says even more about it than a review of the essays themselves.I know there are some people there for whom the paper of the book is a sacred thing, so this next bit may offend, but I write notes on my books, as I engage. I highlight, underline, ask myself and the author questions in the columns. And for the first time ever, reading this book, I crossed out a word and changed it.It is presumptuous, I know. But when I read her gorgeous reflection on Katherine Hepburn and she used the word ‘tomboy’ to speak about Kate’s childhood (one I also related to, by the way), it was unsatisfactory. I crossed it out and wrote ‘girl’. To suit myself. Because I couldn’t afford to feel such disappointment over a small thing like using language that perpetuates gendered stereotypes in girls. So I corrected it and kept reading.Even as I write that, it seems really silly. But it means I loved the book.
Furthermore, I mixed up the order in which I read. Yup! Didn’t read it from cover to cover. I cherrypicked this mf.It’s not particularly revolutionary, I realise that – it’s a collection of essays. But I am a sucker for start-to-finish. I hate choose-your-own-adventure stories – I’m a compliant reader. Occasional Essays slotted so neatly into my own life that I wanted the range of stories to be scattered around me like a dealt deck of cards – a story here, a story there, shoved behind my ears and snuck up my sleeve.Given the central point of the book being about the relationship of author to reader (Barthes vs Nabokov), an action like this reflects the writing itself.This book revealed me to myself.
Some specific bits that wove in
These are some of the particular parts of the book that needled into my consciousness. Not just about the what, but the how. Again, they were areas that firmly tugged at the stitching between me, as the reader and Smith, as the author. They were particular times when she did that thing I mentioned earlier ‘I’m writing about this in a particular way that you’ll love and I know you’ll love it too’.
At the multiplex, 2006.
Her short treatises on film – initially appearing in the Telegraph – are not initially set out as comparative. But in this series of essays, they become so through mere juxtaposition and they are deliciously unlikely in their coupling: Shopgirl and Get Rich or Die Tryin’; Walk the Line and Grizzly Man; Brief Encounter and Proof.
Her language was refreshingly shorthand and removed, reminding us of the ways we ordinary non-film-critic people approach films. She interchanged characters and actors names with general descriptions, kept it loose and personal, yet still aimed a critical arrow for both.
Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo.
I held back reading this essay, because I’ve never understood the Garbo fascination and couldn’t quite straighten myself up to a comparison between the two women. But the way Zadie wrote about Katharine was worth the wait: she highlighted all the aspects of Hepburn’s character that highlighted exactly why I like her. And left out any of the ones I didn’t.
Similarly, it was Hepburn’s unquiet real-life position in Hollywood to chip away at some of America’s more banal and oppressive received ideas. Whenever Hollywoood thought it knew what a woman was, or what a black man was, or what an intellectual might be, or what ‘sexiness’ amounted to, Hepburn made a move to turn the common thinking on its head, offering always something irreducibly singular.
Not only did Smith remind me about the parts of myself that connect to Ms Hepburn (headstrong, determined, feminist, struggling with being understood, etc) her choices in the way she wrote about Katherine showed me (and the reader in general) a bit about what she liked/needed from Katharine too. And because they were the same, she placed herself firmly in my camp, as the kind of person that values those things too. Or perhaps I did the placing, but still.
Nabokov and Barthes
Here’s another one I put off for a while, but that got to me in the end. I do love Roland Barthes (I think I’m the only one who actually digs his Fashion System book), but in a book of essays, I was scared of reading about him. Especially being compared to Nabokov. I didn’t know all that much about Nabokov, but have mixed feelings about Lolita and I was imagining the worst.
But it quickly pulled apart and organised into a loose pile the relationship between the author and the reader. I could relate to that
As she mentions, Zadie Smith is influenced by both schools of thought, but probably more likely from a position of Nabokov. That is: in which the author is ‘in control’ of the story and her position is to grab the reader by the hand and lead her through the story, dragging her along like an overworked parent in a shopping mall.
This method doesn’t really leave much room for Barthes’ mentality of this relationship (and perhaps ‘purpose’ of authorship) in which both partners create the story – it is a the moment of the author’s giving and the readers’ receiving: the ‘birth of the reader as the death of the author’ idea.
Every writer needs to keep the faith with Nabokov and every reader with Barthes. For how can you write, believe in Barthes? Still, I’m glad I’m not the reader I was in college any more, and I’ll tell you tell you why: it made me feel lonely.
Although this essay is at the beginning of the novel, and does, in a way, underlay her relationship with us as readers, I’m rather glad that I particularly left it until the end. Until after I had enjoyed her amusing stories, been taking on the journey, analysed myself and her as the writer through her personal history and through her lecture on the craft of writing. Because, in this way, it was like adding a glaze over the top of the experience – filled in some of the gaps and elevated it. Rather than it dictating from the beginning how I should read the essays. In the spirit of Nabakov and Barthes (see above), it was using the Nabokov method of laying out and establishing the way, in a barthes-like way. Meta.
Trip to libya
This essay is situated in the book between a lecture on writing and a lecture on language. In that sense it feels a little like being jettisoned – suddenly being flung out of the written word into LIFE.
I read this essay after the movie reviews and on the back of three family-related essays in a row, including her astute wit on comedy. So for me it was a welcome travel outside London, a welcome hit to the system and with a view of NGO culture in West Africa that I hadn’t read to date.
Oxfam had sponsored Zadie’s trip to Monrovia and the essay was originally published in the Observer – a Sunday publication with a focus on more indepth investigations on life, rather than news.
Unlike most of her other essays, Zadie herself is quite removed from this one. She presents the situation from her position – acknowledges her light-skinned, western perspective, but that’s where the Zadie-ness of the trip end. She takes a break from herself as novelist and goes on a trip as journalist, conserving a deeper the more intense experience for her own time.
She calmly reveals the industry of poverty porn – of children being traipsed in front of photographers and journalist to push a particular narrative, relates the heart-wrenching story of craving for books (yes!) and reports on the disparate nature of charity with cool clarity.
That crafty feeling
I initially skipped over this essay, preferring the joyful and culturally-focused ones. I must admit that the title killed me a bit – Crafty? Feeling? And the first subtitle ‘macro planners and micro managers’… blah.
But I got there in the end, and oh I fell in love. I think it was the second last essay I read – before the mammoth one about David Foster Wallace, which is fitting.
It was this essay that prompted me to consider planning more time in my day to write. And to perhaps consider writing something more seriously.
It is clearly for creative writing students – a frank and personal description about her craft of writing that is engaging, warm and generous. Self-deprecating and perhaps elevated by a little more confidence in the way in which she constructs a novel – is is an excellent ‘example’ of the theory (between Barthes/Nabokov) that she writes about earlier. It is also an extension of the personal, that we already read in previous essays.
Unlike her novels, which she says are invariably third-person, past-tense, this lecture, begat essay, begat book of essays is very much first-person, present-tense by a person who is accustomed to skillfully leading a group through a narrative from past to the present.
It is an inspiring essay about the normality of writing that isn’t dripping with privilege or patronising (unlike those of martin amis or the other douche who was whinging about the demise of publishing recently).
It is forthright, inclusive and self-actualised.
the footnote in her overview of david foster wallace.
This bit deserves a section of its own, because it literally made me squeal with excitement when I was reading it (see below).
Her essay on DFW deconstructs him as one of the most vital authors in English in contemporary times, and it’s clearly borne of love and affinity and value. She speaks about his work and then, mid-essay, she speaks about his death – A suicide that happened in the middle of her writing about the work.
As she’s deconstructing his method and, in the process, framing his genius for those of us who have never quite got it, she is also being methodical in the vein of DFW. Almost method-writing. She breaks his purpose down into two sections, Investigating the first and presenting her case to me, the reader.
It’s not an easy case to follow and as she begins to unravel it, I find myself asking aloud “but what about the second point?” Then, literally, the next sentence is footnoted. With a note to the impatient ones, just like me, answering that exact question. It is a note where she speaks directly and perfectly to me and we have a brief moment – reader and author – and I trust her, implicitly, on this journey she’s taking me. And so we dance and I learn.
As you can tell, I am a sucker for footnotes, afterthoughts, parentheses, appendices; context, underwriting and by-the-way.
Perhaps blogging has an element of that writing too, so it feels super personal. Either way, I love a good footnote. And her footnotes are perfect*.
I don’t think I’ve ever written about footnotes with such praise. Apart from Ginsberg’s infamous footnote to Howl, they’re not as well-discussed as ‘literature’ as I’d like. David Foster Wallace has elevated to that level and I feel like Zadie Smith’s footnotes should be too. Because they’re exactly how they should be: a mixture between reference – background information, fact, context, literary references; and direct addresses to the reader, bringing them right into the story, into her world as a writer, co-conspirators*
The opinions expressed here are strictly those of the person who gave them. I have no real literary wasta to cast, but I have become quasi-evangelical about this book. I keep imploring people to read it.
I don’t have nearly the same talent for piquing people’s interest in a writer as she does, which is a shame, because essay books often get left behind in an author’s oevre until far too late*, and it would be a great shame if the perception of Zadie Smith was missing the aspect from Occasional Essays.
*apologies for the over-familiarity – but it just felt like that.
*and what i would easily call my (fantastical) biography of Zadie Smith.
*which highlights her application of the relationship between author and reader, again
*thankfully roxane gay and te-nahisi coates are challenging this.