We just can’t get enough of Zadie Smith. Her debut, White Teeth, has become a firm contender for space on the bookshelf whilst her latest novel, NW, was released back in 2012 to critical acclaim. Since then, York Vision has been the lucky recipient of a recent study of her fiction from Bloomsbury – “Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond”, edited by Philip Tew.
It’s hard not to give in to the hype surrounding an author who so deftly engages with vividly realised characters, across opposing cultures and generations. Zadie certainly doesn’t shy away from the tougher questions. Why do we fall in love with the people we do? Why do some people commit adultery? Why are the mistakes of family history passed down? What makes life truly beautiful? Hers is a fiction which is guaranteed to make you wonder.
1). White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s breakthrough novel of 2000, establishes her unique brand of hysterical realism and spans across three generations and three cultures. Expect riotous prose and an epic roam around London.
2). In 2002, Zadie followed this success with The Autograph Man, which throws the question of how we conceive of our idols and, fundamentally, ourselves, into the spotlight. It follows the exploits of Alex-Li, a twenty-something, Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer turned on by sex, drugs and organised religion.
3). Next came On Beauty in 2005. Enter the world of competitive academia, adultery and feud. The brain competes with the overruling force of the heart for the members of two rival families in this fictional feat set partly in New England and partly in New York.
4). Smith’s most recent full-length novel, NW, came in 2012 after a significant gap of seven years. Like White Teeth, this work is also set in London, but just as the writer has aged and changed, this novel visits different aspects of the city, focalised through native Londoner Leah.
Zadie granted an interview to the edgy and vibrant Book Slam movement – ‘London’s best literary nightclub’ – back in 2012, which shed light on what makes her tick. Of NW, she explains: “It’s the same streets. It’s probably not the London that’s different, it’s the writer – I’m older and different, I can’t stay the same person so perhaps that’s reflected in the style.” On writing about London whilst living in New York, she says: “It was really fun because you’re so moved back by nostalgia. I think I’ve always written about places when I’m away from them.”
In the past, Zadie has protested against tuition fees and campaigned against the closures of libraries. She’s a girl after our own hearts. “I’m not a sociologist, I try and write from my instincts,” she says. “White Teeth’s success has enabled me to write and to be free. I could never have written the books I’ve written without it. People love White Teeth, it’s given me a living and it’s given me independence as a writer.”
Of her gift of writing, Zadie is modest, and claims never to be satisfied with her own art. “It’s very hard to please yourself entirely, but that’s ok. It would be boring to sit around feeling quite pleased with yourself. I never feel the writings good enough, that’s just the way I am, but I’m always optimistic.”
Book Slam is based in London and delivers down-to-earth gatherings to the literati. Tellingly, the presenters of the podcasts are often under the influence. Check them out on Twitter and Facebook or download their podcasts from iTunes for interviews with contemporary writers such as Irvine Welsh and Caitlin Moran alongside cutting edge comedy and music.
Philip Tew’s collection of criticism surrounding this phenomenal writer is available from Bloomsbury and includes essays with diverse approaches to her work: narrative deception, identity and celebrity, the posthuman, personal and political histories, religion, hybridity and hysterical realism. An absolute must for anyone looking to dig deeper into Smith’s work.