To illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: the personal and the morally / socially critical. Smith has an interesting family — older white father, black mother, rapper and comedian brothers — and she writes a few essays on family, specifically her father. She sketches a serviceable portrait of her father, barely touches on her brothers and her mother is utterly absent. The focus of these essays, the connection between Zadie Smith and her dad feel, for lack of a better word, constructed. Like these are the feelings an overeducated writer should have about her working class father. Not that she didn’t feel these things, but the writing does not convey real poignancy. It feels guarded, sanitized, and frankly dull. Along similar lines follow the Praising Obama essay, which may suffer more from reading five years after writing than any authentic emotional lack.
The latter flaw (social criticism) is exhibited in Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend, a piece that attempts to flay American celebrity worship and the absurd hullabaloo of Oscar weekend. It is written impersonally but implies a morally present writer. The epigraph to this book is by David Foster Wallace. He’s also the subject of perhaps the best essay in the collection. DFW, like Joan Didion who is also namedropped in the Oscar essay, could effortlessly dissect, censure, and simultaneously be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary culture. Smith has these writers in mind while penning this essay, but she cannot pull it off. She isn’t like Wallace and Didion who come off as fragile, vulnerable people. When David Foster Wallace prefaces an article on American cruise culture with “I filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.”, you believe him. Smith is too strong, too confident. She seems above it — not in some snobby English way, but I just can’t see her amongst the people, distraught by the people.
By contrast are the generous amount of film and literary criticism in this collection. When Smith is being serious and specific and the topic is something she clearly loves, the result is stellar. There’s an essay juxtaposing the hardline author focused literary perspective of Vladmir Nabokov versus the free-floating borderless version of Roland Barthes. And it feels important. How much should we interrogate what we read? How important is the author’s intention in this interrogation and analysis? She nails a similar topic again in her longest essay — a moving eulogy of David Foster Wallace via an analytic piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Self, solipsism, our consumption and immersion in media and advertising culture. The voracious reach of capitalism in her (our?) generation. It made me sad for DFW all over again.
This collection has increased by reading list. I feel mildly embarrassed for not having read any Henry James (who expressed similar sentiments to DFW for his time). Smith’s tribute to Zora Neale Hurston as a meditation on how, if it all, we might identify with writers or their protagonists and what this means to the work overall was enough to make me add Their Eyes were Watching God to my to-read pile. I am generally hostile to the notion that one must “identify” with the protagonist due to features like race, gender, class, but I guess that’s easy for me to say when my specifications (white/male/middle) fit the dominant cultural narrative. The film reviews are good too. A paragraph about Grizzly Man saying things I already knew still made me happy.
So wait. I have to rescind my earlier point about a lack of pathos or emotional oomph. When writing about literature and film, Smith nails it, concretely and via personal authorial voice. When she mourns Alyson Flannigan’s fall in her review of Date Movie, and describes feeling disoriented and weepy afterwards, I believe her. The connection and love she has for her father is not communicated nearly as fully or believably as her connection and love for Katherine Hepburn. Or Nora Neale Hurston. It reminds me of all time NBA great Larry Bird, when confronted by a kid telling him he was his (the kid’s) hero, replying when I was a kid, my dad was my hero. I hope I am not coming off as overly sentimental or critical here. I just think it’s funny. I am sure many of us, including myself, would be similar. Does this speak to Smith and Wallace’s distrust of our deep and concupiscent investment with media culture? Maybe. Probably.