Peering Into the Brain of Zadie Smith

The British author is a magnet for armchair psychoanalysis

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Last November, the novelist Zadie Smith published a collection of non-fiction essays and criticism called Changing My Mind. Smith, the author of White Teeth and On Beauty, tends to take a highly personal approach to literary criticism, offering anecdotes from her own evolution as a reader. This in turn invites a healthy amount of Smith-centric psychoanalysis from other critics, who sometimes focus less on Smith's substantive points and more on what she might be unintentionally revealing about herself.

  • She's Having a 'Half-Acknowledged Crisis of Literary Confidence'  In a sensitive review at The New Republic, Adam Kirsch looks at the tension between Smith's stated position on lyrical, emotionally evocative writing (outmoded! inauthentic!) and the kind of prose found in her novels, which is... lyrical and emotionally evocative. Kirsch's conclusion? Smith is "a writer engaged in a reconsideration, perhaps a refashioning, of her own methods and values. She seems torn between her sense of what fiction ought to be--up-to-the-minute, theoretically informed, self-consciously strenuous--and what her own fiction actually is: traditional, popular, and affirmative, as well as intelligent and literary."
  • She Secretly Wants to Join the Academy  Shortly after the release of Changing My Mind, the anonymous university lecturer behind the blog Ads Without Products offered his or her own theory: Zadie Smith wishes she were a professor. "She in fact wants to be one of us ... [It] suggests something very promising about her, a sort of aspiration to gravitas that’s almost entirely missing from the scene nowadays." But Smith is unsuited to the academy, the blogger goes on to say, because she strives to keep self-vs.-other politics out of her criticism, and no serious consideration of literature can ignore those questions.
  • She May Not Be a Big Joseph O'Neill Fan  Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Sameer Rahim zeroes in on Smith's complaint about Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherlands. "Everything must be made literary... nothing escapes," says Smith, put off by O'Neill's grab bag of metaphors and fanciful imagery. Yet Rahim notes that Smith applauded those same qualities when writing about Nabokov in an earlier piece. "Maybe she has changed her mind about the value of such details," writes Rahim, "but I suspect she simply doesn’t like O’Neill’s writing, in which case she didn’t need to elevate that judgment into a dismissal of an entire tradition."
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