her footnotes are perfect: a review of zadie smith's collection of essays. yes, 6 years after it was published.
Since taking a sabbatical from making visual work, I've been absorbed by the written word - writing more and reading like my mind is a black hole; sucking in book after book, no rest in between. Close one, open another.
I haven't read like that since I was a child; weekday afternoons in the library, reading everywhere: the toilet, the garden, the bedroom - always getting in trouble for sitting with a book instead of doing chores.
In this recent craze I read Zadie Smith's occasional essays: changing my mind. Or inhaled, rather.
I should have had an inkling that this book would be like a glorious cordless drill, boring into my life, given the way it came into it:
I read the first essay in its natural habitat - as the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was the most intimate introduction I've ever read of a novel - like someone I was having a casual conversation with suddenly giving me a beautiful french kiss.*
I was struck.
I remembered relishing her exacting essays about art in the New Yorker - and, before I had even started the ZNH book itself, I was pining after a whole book more of Zadie Smith's essay.
The searching gods (ie: amazon) shone, there was such a book! Gasp!
Being the kind of girl I am, I tweeted about it:
dear twitter, it is my birthday tmrw. I would really like this collection of essays by zadie smith, please. best, http://t.co/yjkU54gh0e
— lauren brown (@sheseesred) February 7, 2014
A dear friend, one @purplesime responded thusly:
— purplesime (@purplesime) February 7, 2014
Arriving wrapped in gorgeous illustrated paper a few days' later, it sat in my bookshelf, waiting until The Right Time.
If you're thinking 'yeah, alright, enough about you more about the book', I'm sorry but it's not going to get all that much more objective.
My relationship to this book and to its writer has grown greater than mere critique, into some kind of literary love affair - less austen, more nabokov. It is a love affair somewhat reminiscent of the only time I have felt deep romantic love for another person (all the way from the part where my blonde and black hair meet, to the bottom of my size 37 feet.)
I have become so besotted by this book that, at one point in the middle of reading it, if I had passed her on the street, I might have had to hug a light pole in order to respect her personal space, rather than run up to hug her and not let go for a full minute.
A minute is a long time to hold onto a stranger in a fierce and loving embrace.
So that's how I feel about this book.
I would love to write a proper literary essay about it. But it's already 6 years old and all the best journalists and reviewing people in the world have written about it, so this will be for the latecomers and more along the lines of a long rambly blog post.
on y va.
so, it's about..
Broadly speaking, it's about culture.
But who wants to know about the broadly speaking. everything is, broadly speaking, about culture.
So, it's divided into four separate sections: seeing, being, feeling and remembering. Which set the architecture of the book into the human way of relating to things - especially to the kinds of things that a Zadie Smith-like human relates to. I'm sure it's not done by Zadie herself*, but it still seemed to exude her sense of a 'correct' way of these things and the best way to connect herself and the reader.
So this book of essays is also about Zadie Smith. More than just a reflection, it's like a relief mold - one gets to know her by the ways she speaks of others and who she speaks about.
Despite the humanities-like grouping or taxonomy of essay types, her real themes and methods jump and criss-cross all over the place, lovingly tangled like my headphones after a long day in my bag.
Actually, more like a rough-weave fabric. Or a drawing: the discreet and the continuous combined to create a texture. Themes about voice (including listening) - the author's and the readers': language, cultural history, literature.
And then in between those two layers, the essays were about those things we related to in that human way: books and their authors (in which she doesn't divorce the two - like I haven't here), film and its characters/actors, families and their characters/actors; and work.
A combination of authority and personality, she tells you something - facts, analysis, outlines - then reminds you that she's telling you these things; That she, Zadie Smith, has this understanding/experience/opinion and that you, dear reader, are part of the journey too.
Without being as obtuse as writing directly to the reader, she has a rhythm that says "stay there and listen this. Now, come and and watch it with me." Show and reveal. Authority and personality.
I don't know if, during her literature degree at Cambridge, she focused on comparitive literature, but this is the underlying form for much of her essays in this book. But rather than binary comparison, which helps no-one, she sets out with two distinct markers, but swims around them.
Even within the confines of a short essay, she is a novelist. and because of that, she makes occasional diversions, brings in extra characters or points that probably don't need to be there, but make the reading all that more gorgeous, because it is.
Endearing is a term that can be so patronising, so i'm loath to use it here, but there were some essays in which she did this, and what I felt was endearment. I felt like I was being reminded that this was a story too, not just instruction on valuable things to know.
speaking to me
The way i'm going to write about some of the specific essays is as though she wrote the book for me.
Yes, me. Personally.
Because that's how it felt. I don't know whether that's because this book attended to my particular language, or this time in my life right now, or if I would have always have felt this way, but I was consistently saying YASSSS!!! on the inside. Sometimes on the outside, usually between stations on the tube. It was slightly embarrassing.
With a serious, critical tone - and from what i gleaned from her essays themselves - this directness of a relationship with the reader is crucial to Smith's writing. It's what drives the way she writes. And possibly the authors she reads/falls in loves with/writes essays-like-these about, so it's not just me being self-absorbed. Not entirely.
I know there are some people there for whom the paper of the book is a sacred thing.
This next section may offend:
I write notes on my books, as i engage, or read sentences that hit me in the heart. I highlight, underline, ask myself and the author questions in the columns. But for the first time ever, reading this book, i have corrected an author! *gasp*
I never do that. It feels so presumptuous. I take the book as it comes and I fit myself to it for that time.
But i had such a personal connection with this book, such a way of relating, that when I read her gorgeous reflection on Katherine Hepburn and she used the word 'tomboy' to speak about Kate's childhood (one I also related to, by the way). I crossed it out and wrote 'girl'. To suit myself. Because I was so invested in this writing, in this book, in her stories, that I couldn't afford to feel the disappointment over a small thing like using language that perpetuates gendered stereotypes in girls. So I corrected it and kept reading.
Even as I write that, it seems really silly. But I also think it says something about the quality of Zadie Smith's work - that i feel so connected to it - that i have the audacity to correct her phrase. An arrogance I've never witnessed in myself with any other book. It sounds hideous, but it feels complimentary.
Less so, but along these lines, I mixed up the order in which I read.
Yup! Didn't read it from cover to cover. I cherrypicked this muhfucker.
I know, it's not particularly revolutionary - it's a collection of essays. But I am still a sucker for start-to-finish. I hate choose-your-own-adventure stories - I'm a compliant reader. But clearly, this one felt slotted into my own life enough for me to want the range of stories to be scattered around me like a shuffled deck of cards.
Perhaps i'm overstating it, but in the picking and choosing of reading the essays, according to what I felt, what I saw, how I was being - it felt like i was weaving those stories in with my life. Plaiting a little from hers, a bit from mine, left, right, under, over, until all the stories were finished and I popped my head up and out of the book and realised I was looking at it from the perspective of a Zadie Smith essay.
Not all books do that, you know. I have this romantic notion that they should. But they don't.
some specific bits that wove in
These are some of the particular parts of the book that needled into my consciousness. Not just about the what, but the how. And, again, they were areas that firmly tugged at the stitching between me as the reader and Smith as the author. They were particular times when she did that thing I mentioned earlier 'i'm writing about this in a particular way that you'll love and I know you'll love it too'.
seeing: at the multiplex, 2006. (aka comparitive literature for film)
Her short treatises on film are not initially set out as comparitive. but in this series of essays, they become comparitive through mere juxtaposition. and deliciously unlikely in their coupling: Shopgirl and Get Rich or Die Tryin'; Walk the Line and Grizzly Man; Brief Encounter and Proof.
Her language was refreshingly shorthand and removed - reminding us of the ways we approach films - interchanging characters and actors names with general descriptions - loose and personal.
seeing: katherine hepburn and greta garbo.
But the way Sadie wrote about Katharine was worth the wait. She highlighted all the aspects of Hepburn's character that highlighted exactly why I like her. And left out any of the ones I didn't.
Similarly, it was Hepburn's unquite real-life position in Hollywood to chip away at some of America's more banal and oppressive received ideas. Whenever Hollywoood thought it knew what a woman was, or what a black man was, or what an intellectual might be, or what 'sexiness' amounted to, Hepburn made a move to turn the common thinking on its head, offering always something irreducibly singular.
Not only did she remind me about the parts of myself that need/needed to connect to Katharine (headstrong, determined, feminist, struggling with being understood, etc) through the choices of the way she wrote about Katherine, but in doing so Zadie showed me a bit about what she liked/needed from Katharine too. And because they were the same, she placed herself firmly in my camp, as the kind of person that values those things too. Or perhaps I did the placing, but still.
reading: nabokov and barthes
Here's another one I put off for a while, but that got to me in the end. I do love roland barthes (I think I'm the only one who actually digs his Fashion System book), but in a book of essays, I was scared of reading about him. Especially being compared to Nabokov. I didn't know that much about nabokov, but have mixed feelings about Lolita and I was imagining the worst.
But this book, unsurprisingly, was a perfect pair to another of her essays about the craft of writing (see below), in that it quickly pulled apart and organised into a loose pile the relationship between the author and the reader.
Artists quite often use barthes and his writing about this to speak of the relationship between artist and viewer, so I thought I had an understanding of his perspectives. But having read it again with the position of the actual 'author' (ie: writer) in mind, I feel like they're very, very different kinds of relationships and it does a disservice to both to use them in the way it has been. Or at least the way that some of the artists i know have used it.
As she mentions in it, zadie smith is influenced by both schools of thought, but probably more likely from a position of Nabokov. That is: in which the author is 'in control' of the story and her position is to grab the reader by the hand and lead her through the story, dragging her along behind her in a way like an overworked parent in a shopping mall.
This method doesn't really leave much room for Barthes' mentality of this relationship (and perhaps 'purpose' of authorship) in which both partners create the story - it is a the moment of the author's giving and the readers' receiving: the 'birth of the reader as the death of the author' idea.
Every writer needs to keep the faith with Nabokov and every reader with Barthes. For how can you write, believe in Barthes? Still, I'm glad I'm not the reader I was in college any more, and I'll tell you tell you why: it made me feel lonely.
Although this essay is at the beginning of the novel, and does, in a way, underlay her relationship with us as readers, I'm rather glad that I particularly left it until the end. Until after I had enjoyed her amusing stories, been taking on the journey, analysed myself and her as the writer through her personal history and through her lecture on the craft of writing. Because, in this way, it was like adding a glaze over the top of the experience - filled in some of the gaps and elevated it. Rather than it dictating from the beginning how I should read the essays. In the mode of nabakov and barthes, it was using the nabokov method of laying out and establishing the way, in a barthes-like way. Meta.
being: trip to libya
This essay is in the section on Being that cuts to the heart of language and expererience. It is balanced between a lecture on writing and a lecture on language. In that sense it feels a little like being jettisoned - suddenly being flung out of the written word into LIFE.
However, I read this essay after the movie reviews and on the back of three family-related essays in a row, including her astute wit on comedy. Instead it was a welcome travel outside London, a welcome hit to the system and with a view of NGO culture in West Africa that I hadn't quite read before.
Oxfam had sponsored zadie's trip to monrovia and the outlying areas and it was originally published in the Observer - a Sunday publication with a focus on more indepth investigations on life, rather than news.
Unlike most of her other essays, Zadie herself is quite a bit removed from this one. She presents the situation from her position, and acknowledges her light-skinned, western perspective, but that's where the Zadie-ness of the trip finishes as she takes a break from herself as novelist and goes on a trip as journalist. I got the sense that she conserved a deeper and more intense experienced for herself, giving us a unique, but well-behaved account, leaving the guts of the trip in the sun to dry and become something else, not an article.
being: that crafty feeling
As I mentioned earlier, I skipped over this essay - reading the joyful and culturally-focused ones. I must admit that the title killed me a bit. Crafty? Feeling? And the first subtitle 'macro planners and micro managers'… blah.
But I got there in the end, and oh I fell in love. I think it was the second last essay I read - before the mammoth one about David Foster Wallace.
It was this essay that prompted me to consider planning more time in my day to write. And to perhaps consider writing something more seriously.
It is clearly for creative writing students - a frank and personal description about her craft of writing that is engaging, warm and generous. Self-deprecating and perhaps elevated by a little more confidence in the way in which she constructs a novel - is is an excellent 'example' of the theory (between Barthes/Nabokov) that she writes about earlier. It is also an extension of the personal, that we already read in previous essays.
Unlike her novels, which she says are invariably third-person, past-tense, this lecture, becoming essay, becoming book of essays is very much first-person, present-tense by a person who is used to leading a group along from the past to the present.
It is an inspiring essay about the normality of writing that isn't dripping with privilege or patronising - like those of martin amis or the other douche who was whinging about the demise of publishing recently. It is forthright, inclusive and self-actualised.
the footnote in her overview of david foster wallace.
Her essay on DFW deconstructs him as one of the most vital authors in English in contemporary times, and it's clearly borne of love and affinity and value. She speaks about his work and then, mid-essay, she speaks about his death. A suicide that happened in the middle of her writing about the work.
Anyway, as she's deconstructing his method and in the process, framing his genius for those of us who have never quite got it, she is also being methodical in the vein of DFW. she breaks his purpose down into two sections, investigating the first and presenting her case to me, the reader.
It's not an easy case for me to read and as she begins to follow this further, I find myself asking - but what about the second point. And then literally the next sentence is footnoted. With a note to the impatient ones, just like me. Not a reference for her information, but a note. Just like the ones i've included in this post. Where she speaks directly and perfectly to me and we have a brief moment - reader and author - and I trust her, implicitly, on this journey she's taking me. And so I learn.
As you can telll, I am a sucker for footnotes, afterthoughts, parentheses, appendices. probably because even the clearest storytelling needs context, underwriting and by-the-way.
Plus, my best writing has always been essays and academic investigations into blah, blah, blah, so i have a soft spot for them. Perhaps blogging has an element of that writing too, so it feels super personal. Either way, I love a good footnote. And her footnotes are perfect*.
I don't think I've ever written about footnotes with such praise. Apart from Ginsberg's infamous footnote to Howl, they're not that well-discussed as 'literature'. Well, not in my world. But I feel like Zadie Smith's footnotes should be. Because they're exactly how they should be: a mixture between reference: background information, fact, context, literary references; and direct addresses to the reader. she bring the reader right into the story. into her world as a writer. you become co-conspirators in this story (see above).*
As well as inspiration for this overly long and sycophantic blog about the book, I am inspired to pick up my footnote game. That, and investigate other authors who have a good use of footnotes.
The opinions expressed here are strictly those of the person who gave them. I have no real literary wasta to cast, but I have become quasi-evangelical about this book. I keep imploring people to read it.
I don't have nearly the same talent for piquing people's interest in a writer as she does, which is a shame, because I feel like essay books get left behind in an author's oevre until far too late. And it would be a great shame if our perception of Zadie Smith was missing the ones that you get from reading her special but Occasional Essays.
UPDATE: I don't feel quite so much like a dork for reviewing (so sentimentally) something that was released in 2008, after seeing bim adewumni's rad pieces on 90s teen flicks. yes!
UPDATE 2: i've decided to find out more about the footnote in fiction, and have already found a couple of interesting posts about such thing. on fiction and miskatonic.
*apologies for the over-familiarity - but it just felt like that.
*actually, what the hell would i know.
*and what i would easily call my biography of zadie smith. (er, lauren, wake up - Ed)
*which highlights her application of the relationship between author and reader, again.