Friday, March 5, 2010

Review: Changing My Mind – Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

It has almost become axiomatic to acknowledge Zadie Smith as the high-water mark of literary writers born in the 1970s. One merely needs to read the opening page of her debut novel White Teeth (published in 2000, when she had not yet turned 25) to realize just what kind of big, prodigious talent we’re dealing with here. Reading White Teeth when I did – about a year after it came out – left me at once energized and humbled. It wasn’t just the virtuosic abilities evident on every page that got to me; it was that someone of our generation, of my generation (Smith was born exactly six weeks after I was) could produce something so big and brave and marvelous at such a young age. And while I haven’t read her sophomore outing The Autograph Man (a rather dull excerpt of it, published in The New Yorker, turned me off), I did devour her third novel, On Beauty, when it came out in 2005. Since doing so, I have taken on a somewhat inappropriate sense of ownership over Smith and her writing in my own head; I feel like she is our writer, my writer. I feel like she belongs to us.

So here it is, four long years later, and she has brought out Changing My Mind, a collection of essays, journalism and bits of personal memoir that she has been writing for various mainstream publications since about 2003. I should admit here that I have a real soft spot for nonfiction books of this kind, when a talented novelist takes on long-form journalism/essays, using his or her creative writing skills to capture the details and insights that most workaday journalists and academics miss. I’ve read several of these types of collections over the years (see the list below for some recommendations) and I’m always astounded at the range of interests and capabilities that the authors show. Smith is no exception. In fact, I would say that Changing My Mind is the very best of these “occasional essay” collections that I’ve encountered.

The book opens with her delightful essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. I read this piece when Smith first published it in the UK Guardian a couple of years ago, and its placement here, at the beginning of the book, sets the stage for the whole “changing my mind” theme that permeates the collection. Smith’s mother gave her a copy of Hurston’s novel when Smith was 14, but she responded negatively to the recommendation right off the bat, convinced that the only reason her mother wanted her to read it was because, like Smith, Hurston was black. In fact, Smith came at the novel with a number of prejudices – a distain for overly lyrical writing, for deliberately aphoristic writing, for plots that centre around a woman’s pursuit to find a man – and very fixed ideas about what made for a successful novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God violated so many of Smith’s “rules” about good writing – and yet it left her weeping in juissance by the time she reached the last page. Funnily enough, when her mother asked what she thought of the book, the teenaged Smith’s too-cool-for-school response was that it was “basically sound.” Brilliant.

Speaking of funny, there are some rich moments of hilarity peppered throughout Changing My Mind – some belonging to Smith, some belonging to her subjects. An example of the latter would be her piece on E.M. Forster and his BBC radio contributions that aired from 1929 to 1960. As many of you will know, Smith holds a special regard for Forster’s work: The structure of On Beauty mirrors almost exactly that of Howard’s End. (As you can see from my reading log, I had the good sense to read the two books back to back.) What is evident in both Forster’s novels and in Smith’s analysis of them is that Forster, unlike many of his modernist contemporaries, took an unassuming, conservative, middle-of-the road approach to both his writing and to his stature as a writer. (Smith’s word for it: “middling.”) What wasn’t readily apparent to me – at least until Smith provided me with snippets from Forster's radio broadcasts – is that the man was also bloody hilarious. Behold this passage:
…[H]ere Forster is too humble: he knew more of his audience than the content of their passports. Take his talk on Coleridge of August 13, 1931. A new Collected is out, it’s a nicely printed edition, costs only three shillings sixpence, and he’d like to tell you about it. But he senses that you are already sighing, and he knows why:

Perhaps you’ll say “I don’t want a complete Coleridge, I’ve got ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in some anthology or other, and that’s enough. ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and perhaps the first half of ‘Christabel’ – that’s all in Coleridge that really matters. The rest is rubbish and not even good dry rubbish, it’s moist clammy rubbish, it’s depressing.” So if I tell you that there are 600 pages in this new edition, you’ll only reply “I’m sorry to hear it.”
Smith can also crank up her own humour, in an A.L. Kennedy sort of way, when sharing insights about her writing experiences in the essay “That Crafty Feeling”. (This might be a good time to mention that the only disappointment with Changing My Mind is the exclusion of her other essay about writing, “Fail Better”, [a writerly turn of phrase that I’ve always attributed to Mordecai Richler, but I think I’m wrong about that], which was also published in the UK Guardian. Thankfully, “That Crafty Feeling” makes up for its absence.) I was especially moved by the section entitled “Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking”, since I myself am right now in the middle of rewriting my own sophomore novel and going through much of the following angst:
In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post – I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a giant semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of the novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 A.M., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything – I mean, everything – flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something – it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper – every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel. If you are fortunate enough to have someone waiting to publish your novel, this is the point at which you phone them in a panic and try to get your publication date brought forward because you cannot believe how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now, and if it isn’t published next Tuesday maybe the moment will pass and you will have to kill yourself.

Magical thinking makes you crazy – and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems of structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved, and the whole chapter falls into place! Why didn’t you see that before? You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you read ends up being your epigraph – it seems to have been written for no other reason.
I loved this passage so much that I had to read it aloud to RR as soon as I got the chance, then hastily assured her when I finished that I don’t actually see her face as a giant semicolon.

The real strength behind Changing My Mind, beyond the unifying idea of how reexamining our opinions – either deeply cherished or mundanely peripheral – can help to change them for the better, is the sheer versatility that Smith displays in her subject matter. She is as comfortable writing a biographical sketch of Kafka and an analytical piece on Middlemarch as she is writing a feature article of Oscar Night or quick-hit movie reviews of recent Hollywood releases. In the penultimate section of the book, Smith writes a touching account of her father and how her impressions of him changed as he was dying. (It paradoxically reminded me of something Alice Munro said in a recent interview, about how when we’re in our thirties we tend to see our parents as just a nuisance.) Then, in the final section of the book, Smith switches gears and writes a dissertation-worthy critique of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s an irony in this essay that goes beyond the fact that Smith began writing it before Wallace’s tragic suicide in 2008: She goes to great lengths to analyze Wallace’s descriptive prowess of swimming pools in his short story “Forever Overhead”, pointing out how perfectly and accurately Wallace captures our collective memories of swimming as children; yet Smith herself exhibits this exact sort of talent when she describes Wallace’s work overall: “He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practice, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.” I suspect this is precisely how willing readers feel when approaching Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

The versatility on display in this collection lends a deeply felt sense of humanism to Smith and how she processes the world, and this infuses these essays with a charm that’s irresistible and refreshing. Of course, the true measure of success for Changing My Mind is whether readers will decide to follow Smith’s example and change (or at least round out) their opinions about something. For me, the collection achieved this. I am a notoriously bad re-reader; I’ve only ever gone back to a small handful of books over the years. I am forever trapped by this anxiety that I just haven’t read enough, that every person I know has read more books than me. But in her essay comparing Barthes’ notion of the Death of the Author with Nabokov’s belief in authorial privilege, Smith reiterates that wonderful Nabokovian maxim: “Curiously, one cannot read a [great] book: one can only reread it.” I have recognized the inherent truth of this statement from the very first time I heard it, but I am also intimidated by it.

Yet, Smith’s collection has changed my mind. I need to realize that reading widely isn’t simply about racking up the literary notches in one’s bedpost. It’s also about going back to works that I know are good and rereading them over and over, to understand better what exactly makes them so brilliant. With that in mind, I’ll probably start revisiting books a lot more often. I plan to go back and reread Kafka’s Collected Stories and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and (God help me) Middlemarch.

But you know, I think I’ll start with White Teeth.

Recommended reading: other collections of “occasional essays”

This is by no means an exhaustive list of this sort of nonfiction collection – it’s not even an exhaustive list of what I’ve read – and none of these books are quite as good as Changing My Mind. Still, I add them here for your own reference in case my review has sparked your interest in the genre:
  • Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, by Martin Amis
  • How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen
  • Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, by Margaret Atwood. (Titled Moving Targets: Writing with Intent here North America. I bought and read my version while living in Australia.)
  • Kicking Against the Pricks, by John Metcalf
  • Making Waves, by Mario Vargas Llosa.
  • When Worlds Deny the World, by Stephen Henighan


  1. Wonderful! I've been looking forward to this collection, and I'm pleased it didn't disappoint you.

  2. But were it necessary to be perceived as punctuation, I *would* in fact like to be a semi-colon--that's my kind of partial stop.

    "Fail better" is Beckett, I think one of the novels but I'm not sure about that.

  3. If you don't mind, Mark, I'd like to make a suggestion:

    Jonathan Lethem's _Disappointment Artist_ is worthwhile.

    & a comment:

    Henighan & I do not see eye to eye. His gaze burns. He writes with the tone of the wicked witch once she's doused. I.e., "What a world!"

    -- &

  4. &,

    Thanks for the tip. And I sympathize with your comment on Henighan. He burns a lot of people.

  5. You know someone who is an ampersand?