I’m teaching White Teeth right now in my Contemporary Literature summer course at URI, so I’ve been binge-watching and -listening to recorded interviews and dialogues with Zadie Smith. I came across this 2011 conversation between Gemma Sieff and Smith today and needed to jot down a few gems.
Wherever you find good writing, that’s good writing. But for me the challenge [as a reviewer for Harper’s] is to read what I wouldn’t normally read. [. . .]
Obviously on the internet there are a lot of people who feel the main point of commentary is to give that final thumbs-up or thumbs-down [. . .] It’s up to critics to show—or book reviewers to show—that part of the act is not just thumbs-up/thumbs-down; it’s writing something which is beautiful and equal to the thing that’s been put in front of them. [. . .] The book itself is a challenge, and the commentary that you’re trying to write towards it should be—it’s not just a case of admiring the book but willing to be equal to it. [. . .]
I’m always a bit wary of kind of easy contempt for what people consider secondary literature: people like Bahktin or Derrida or Foucault, ’cause those writers at their best are the equal of any fiction writer. The writing that they did at their best is beautiful. Roland Barthes was a beautiful writer, both in fiction and non-fiction.
Smith also references Virginia Woolf a few times in this conversation (both as a novelist and as a book reviewer). Here’s one snippet:
The way Virginia Woolf did it [i.e. book-reviewing] keeps you honest and keeps you lively [. . .] The great thing about Woolf is that she reviewed books that most of you would consider very bad. You know, like Victorian penny dreadfuls and awful books by completely obscure women but Woolf was looking for the thing that interested her: sometimes it was the cooking habits of people in the East End or what people wear on Oxford Street [. . .] Tiny details that for her were worth the time reading this book. And the amount of books she read every day and the amount of effort she put into it without ever coming up with anything as overarching as a theory about writing. Woolf never really approaches that. She is much more interested in the individual book, the individual writer.
I’m beginning to think some comparative analyses of Smith’s and Woolf’s essays/reviews are warranted. Reading on . . .