Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith

I've been an avid reader since I learned to read (with a few "lost years" while my children were young). When I consider the essays of literary criticism in this collection by Zadie Smith, however, I wonder if what I do even qualifies as reading. She brings to the task knowledge of literary history and theory, analysis tools, and a willingness to read, reread, and read again in the pursuit of the "difficult gift" of understanding. Indeed, she advocates for that kind of close reading--and yet, I know that, while I may try to become a more careful reader, I will never construct sentences resembling this one (and dozens if not hundreds of others): "It's a little perverse, in fact, how profoundly he was attracted, as a fiction writer, to exactly those forms of linguistic specialization he philosophically abhorred."

So it may not be surprising that I preferred the essays in the volume that are not literary criticism. "That Crafty Feeling" explores how Smith approaches the work of writing a novel--something that is always interesting to the members of our book group. She categorizes writers as Macro Planners (who have the structure, characters, and plot of their book worked out before they start writing) and Micro Managers (who don't know what they are going to write until they start writing) and describes how she, as a micro manager, works.

In "Speaking in Tongues" Smith reflects on voice, examining what adopting a certain accent means in class-conscious England (Smith herself is a biracial Brit from a working class family who reports that she now speaks in the posh tones of someone educated at Cambridge--but regrets the loss of her other voice) and on what it may mean for the American president to be someone raised "between cultures, between voices." These two essays appear in a section titled "Being," which also recounts a trip to Liberia.

In "Seeing," Smith includes movie reviews, paeans to two of her favorite actresses (Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo), and an amusing essay entitled "Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend." The section "Feeling" includes three essays about her family.

Smith writes beautifully and I enjoyed many of the essays; the literary criticism was a tough slog and made me feel inadequate to boot. So my recommendation would be to be selective in approaching this volume unless you love literary theory and/or have no self-esteem issues!

Favorite passages:

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera.

It's oddly oppressive to set off on a journey into a place so thoroughly imagined by other people.

No comments:

Post a Comment