A love-hate relationship with Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith made her debut on my bookshelf a year ago, when I found her 2002 book The Autograph Man in a charity shop. Since then, and by virtue of buying most of my books in charity shops, White Teeth and On Beauty have also appeared. After reading three of her books, of going through the motions of loving and hating her books in equal measure, Smith’s presence there might not extend beyond this hat-trick. 

Smith is one of the most acclaimed writers of our time and has become an important voice in challenging racial prejudice in an accessible, engaging way

Smith is one of the most acclaimed writers of our time and has become an important voice in challenging racial prejudice in an accessible, engaging way. As the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, the prevalent themes of race and identity in her books are conveyed through the centrality of biracial characters struggling to find their place in Western society. Raised in London and educated at Cambridge, Smith started writing her first published book White Teeth while at university, receiving a six-figure advance for it. It brought her huge publicity and instant acclaim, winning the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Guardian First Book Award; and similarly featuring as a finalist for several other awards. Her following books have been met with a similar reception. After the publication of her second book, Smith became a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and in 2003 she was nominated by Granta magazine as one of the 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. 

What makes Smith’s books stand out is her ability to combine important issues with satire, inviting the reader to be her ally while ridiculing members of the public by reclaiming their racial tropes and stereotypes. White Teeth centres around the themes of history, the search for identity, and the ethics of science and multiculturalism; while The Autograph Man follows the protagonist Alex-Li in his empty attempt at soul-searching in adulthood, as he tries to reconcile the sudden loss of his father as a child. This loss underpins the character’s search for truth and authenticity (through the median of collecting authentic autographs), his obsession with gaining the autograph of a B-list celebrity, and his low self-esteem. Just as the Jones daughter in White Teeth are biracial, so too is Alex, the son of a white Jewish woman and a Chinese man, and the Belsey children in On Beauty. On Beauty brings to light female beauty standards, and the timelessness of taught female-self-hatred, as emphasised through the book’s different generations of women. The book similarly exposes racial micro-aggressions, particularly against black men; imposter-syndrome and searching for identity, purpose and belonging; and male infidelity and family breakdowns. Smith’s writing is mesmerising, not only in its subtle comedy, but in its prose and visuality. Her observations of people and their behaviour are cruelly witty, and she mercilessly uncovers negative emotions such as cynicism and judgement for what they truly are: jealousy and self-hatred. 

However, the reason I find Smith’s books so unpalatable are the characters

However, the reason I find Smith’s books so unpalatable are the characters. So few of them are likeable, and so few experience anything that even remotely resembles a character development in these lengthy books. Take Howard Belsey, for instance. Just as his wife begins to forgive him for his infidelity a year after it happens, he takes advantage of a young woman, Victoria, as she mourns the death of her mother, crudely represented by the scene’s setting at the wake itself. The nineteen-year-old is not only his student; but is the person with whom his son lost his virginity; and is younger than Howard’s own daughter. Howard’s exploitation of Victoria takes place relatively far into the book, just as the reader thinks there might be a genuine chance at reconciliation between Howard and Kiki. What’s worse is that, like with his first affair a year before, Howard hides his infidelity. White Teeth’s Samad Iqbal, and Alex-Li in The Autograph Man similarly cheat and are likewise forgiven by the end of the book. Zadie Smith’s work seem to suggest that men are doomed to implode their own internal worlds and that of their families; and that women are destined to forgive them. 

But perhaps this is the point of Smith’s books. While exposing the racial prejudice of society, Smith holds a up mirror to our personal lives, exposing the breakdown of values, love and respect within families and friendships. Her books are a reminder that, while the family is supposed to be a safe-haven against racism for families of colour, emotional abuse, misogyny, and restrictive gender norms can thrive there. Her books are such an uncomfortable read because the lack of character development reminds us that growing as a person is not an automatic thing, that it requires action and accountability from us to ensure we don’t get left behind. As much as I hate Smith’s books for the lack of character growth, this discomfort, a cautionary lesson from Smith, is something we must learn to sit with and learn from.

Image Credit: Suad Kamardeen via Unsplash

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One thought on “A love-hate relationship with Zadie Smith

  • This is an utterly ridiculous criticism.

    Since when is literary writing which seeks truth, supposed to serve up likeable characters, as opposed to believable ones?

    Character development is far more complex than going in linear fashion from bad to good, irredeemable to redeemed, a cheat to faithful. Is that what life is like? Is that what people are like?

    Howard’s development comes in the form of self knowledge. He learns he is a hypocrite and a fraud. He realises finally what he has lost in Kiki. He took his family for granted and then regretted it. That is character development. People don’t change much, and serious novelists should not be concerned with making a sentimental reader feel good. Go and read a fairy tale if that’s what you need.

    You also use just one example of a character that doesn’t ‘grow’ in the way you wished, to make a blanket statement on all her characters and by extension all her books. Kiki isn’t likeable? Irie isn’t? Levi isn’t? Mrs Kipps isn’t? Archie isn’t?

    I’m not sure what this website is but if its literary criticism it is frankly embarrassing. Sorry.

    Reply

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