Among those who write for the desk drawer—students burning midnight oil on novels, poets trapped in salesmen's bodies, lawyers tinkering with screenplays—Zadie Smith is both an envy object and a kind of hero, plucked out of the world's slush pile to churn out three hefty, precocious books. But it turns out she has some desk-drawer accumulations of her own. "When I was growing up, I really admired academics," Smith has said. "I really wanted to be a critic. Critics think of themselves as secondary to artists. They needn't be." In fact, Smith's longest-standing project this decade—a thing she calls "a solemn, theoretical book about writing"—has yet to see the light of day. This fall instead brought her first collection of essays, culled mostly from newspapers and magazines. The collection is titled Changing My Mind, and Smith describes it in a foreword as being rife with "ideological inconsistency." What's striking, though, is how consistent the book actually is.
At first glance, Smith's collection looks like a bizarre menagerie: A dispatch from Liberia abuts a study of Obama's language; elsewhere are essays about Forster and Kafka and—stuck into the middle of the book like last week's mail—a little treasury of outdated movie reviews. Read as a whole, though, Changing My Mind falls together with a startling focus. The book isn't just a group of gently argued judgments and critical reinterpretations; it's an unsettled look at the systems of thought that make those judgments and interpretations possible. Despite Smith's novelistic intuition, her most resonant essays fixate on the question of how—with what mind-set and values—fiction should be read.
This problem will strike many people as familiar. We fall into a novel on the subway, enjoy a magazine short story in the bath, or tear through 60 pages before falling asleep in one of Borders' very comfortable chairs—all without ever wondering whether we're reading properly. The moment reading takes on a social component, though, matters of taste and judgment claim the spotlight. How to formulate a thought about a book? Which thoughts to formulate? Discussing a text with an English professor steeped in the New Criticism requires one reading method. Evaluating a mystery novel or joining in Oprah's Book Club calls for different approaches entirely. But novels aren't written for interpretive subcultures, and when we encounter fiction (and other people who read it) in the wild, it's often unclear which way to parse and evaluate it, what kinds of things to focus on. Are some systems best for assessing the craft?
That question haunts Smith's collection from the opening essay. Smith tells us how, first reading Zora Neale Hurston at 14, she pooh-poohed the notion of "identifying" with a black woman's novel. "I feared my 'extraliterary' feelings for her," she explains. "I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool." The stakes here aren't interpretive. (A sentimental fool has just as much to say about a good book as a frosty belletrist does.) They're aspirational. "Extraliterary," in young Smith's mind, was anything a chin-stroking critic might frown on. Literariness, in turn, meant anything that yielded to highbrow reading methods. A surprising number of broad-minded people subscribe to this premise. Grown-up Smith, though, finds that she cannot. In the essay and several that follow, she tries to pin down a concept of literary reading that is free of ideological or status baggage.
Most of the writers who interest Smith are—at least in Smith's telling—caught between literary value systems. She describes E.M. Forster hovering between a mandarin circle and a popular audience, helping translate highbrow taste for middling readers. George Eliot's worldview passed from cerebral isolation—"books are stuff and life is stupid," in Smith's words—to a magic alchemy of the two, embracing both the life of the mind and life in the world to create Middlemarch. David Foster Wallace used the bells and whistles of metafiction to jostle readers out of their suspended disbelief and into "the procedure of another person's thoughts" (in other words, to make them "read" through someone else's mind). In an essay called "Two Directions for the Novel," Smith uses a pair of recent books—Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder—to tease out two distinct ways of creating meaning in fiction: one popular and self-consciously lyrical, the other stark and esoteric.
Still, what happens when two competing paths are—as far as status and rigor are concerned—equal? One of Smith's most lucid essays pits Nabokov's reading style (based on the idea of the author's absolute control) against Roland Barthes' famous "death of the author" theory (that meaning is created in the act of reading, independent of the author's wishes). The appeal of each approach is clear at once. Smith loved Barthes' reader empowerment as a theory-minded college student, she says; as a fiction writer trying to communicate with readers, though, she favors Nabokov. Both perspectives reflect reading at its most educated and refined. Both are clearly very useful. And yet, try as she might, Smith cannot get the two to join together. They're basically irreconcilable.