Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's With The Spate of Zadie Hating?

She's actually pretty good.
So freakin' sue me, but I really like Zadie Smith. That is to say, I've liked approximately 75 percent of everything I've read of hers.* And with such critically well-received novels** as White Teeth and On Beauty, and a robust roster of widely read essays, I would've thought Zadie's literary cred was unassailable.

Not so, apparently. But what stands out about a recent spate of Zadie hating, is the acrimony, and frankly, malevolence with which she's denounced. Far be it from me to make heads or tails of this. I just don't get it. Let's look at two examples.

In an essay published by Huffington Post Books, Ruth Fowler calls Zadie "a great literary bore." Fowler, who no one's ever heard of, goes on to say reading Zadie is like "being forcibly strapped into a Cambridge lecture theater and waterboarded by some bratty, egotistical over-read teen's pompous thesis on art." To punctuate that sentence, Fowler throws in a "Shut up, Zadie" and then calls her "as entertaining as an enema." Wow! I mean, that's some serious titty-twisting! And what's craziest of all is that the essay isn't even about Zadie! It's ostensibly a thousand-word whine about Tea Obreht winning the Orange Prize, couched as a complaint that MFA writers are apparently the worst plague to to be unleashed upon the literary world since, well, the plague. Fowler even has to remind herself she's not writing about Zadie specifically by throwing in the awkward transition "But back to Tea."

Another example: In his mostly very good, very funny (my review) satire How I Became A Famous Novelist, Steve Hely has his protagonist imagining what it'll be like once he cons his way into the upper echelon of literary society. He envisions Zadie leaning over to him at a dinner and telling him, "You know I'm on to you, you bastard." Then she smiles, and says, "Takes one to know one. I won't tell on you if you don't tell on me." (Then, later, they'd do coke off a manuscript.) The insinuation is, of course, that like the protagonist, she also is a literary fraud. But the significant thing here is that no where else in his novel does Hely mention a real-life novelist by name. Zadie's it. Other writers like Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich and Dan Brown are recognizable as ridiculous fictional characters, but Zadie's the only one who shows up as herself — as if Hely wants to be really sure you got his meaning there; that she's awful.

None of this make any sense to me. I was absolutely knocked over by White Teeth. When I finished it several years ago, I gushed to my reading log "this is one of the more enjoyable, best novels I've ever read." I loved On Beauty, too — if to a slightly lesser degree than White Teeth. (I wrote about On Beauty here, and if you scroll down to the bottom of the comments, there's another example of some really vitriolic Zadie Hate — and this one's even slightly racist!) Finally, Zadie's essay on David Foster Wallace that concludes her collection titled Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is just so mind-shatteringly amazing, I went into another two- or three-day "God, I really miss DFW" funk. (I wrote about that essay collection here.)

So, to reiterate, I just really am befuddled here.*** Why does such a talented writer draw such a visceral, negative reaction from what seem to be otherwise smart people?  Help me understand this. Please! 

*Her second novel The Autograph Man, and a few of the more academic essays in Changing My Mind comprise the other 25 percent.
 **Regarding On Beauty, published in 2005, NY Times reviewer Frank Rich wrote: "What finally makes "On Beauty" affecting as well as comic is Smith's own earnest enactment of Forster's dictum to "only connect" her passions with the prose of the world as she finds it." White Teeth reviewer Anthony Quinn called the Smith's 2000 debut novel "eloquent" and "wit-struck" among other praises.   
*** If you missed it in my post last year about Top 10 Humorous Book Related Anecdotes, here's a sort-of-funny Zadie-related story: As a "pick-up" line, I once asked a girl in a bar if she knew who Zadie Smith is, because she looked exactly like her. It didn't work.

25 comments:

  1. I stand by my earlier comment, despite its "racist" connotation. If you read On Beauty and think it's not the most cheesy, stereotypical, almost-parodic representation of African-Americans ever written, well, I'd argue you've probably never met an African-American. Her writing is predictable and boring, so I'd agree with "literary bore." And just because no one has ever heard of this Ruth Fowler, doesn't make her opinion any less valid. There is a distinct chance, however, that Fowler and Hely and myself are complete gits and Zadie is a genius. Either way, they're all cashing checks as writers and I pour things for a living, so I guess I really am the odd man out.

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    1. "There is a distinct chance, however, that Fowler and Hely and myself are complete gits and Zadie is a genius."

      Probably. This from a *real life* African American who bets calling something a stereotype captures the extent of your capacity for thinking about race or racial representation. Leave it for people who think about these things in more thoughtful, sophisticated ways. Zadie Smith included.

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  2. I think Zadie Smith is a great writer. "White Teeth" is terrific and "On Beauty" is very good, too. I'm always suspicious of authors who personally attack other authors, especially ones who have been highly praised.

    Fowler isn't an author,she "earns her living as a screenwriter" and thinks her love of books gives her the right to cast aspersions on any author she wants. Screenwriting isn't exactly the pinnacle of the writing world, as far as I know anyone. But if I was thinking of paying any attention to what Fowler wrote in her essay, she lost all credibility when she wrote about Zadie "Her essays "On Beauty" ...". On Beauty is a novel not essays. I suspect Fowler didn't read "On Beauty" at all. And authors have editors which is something Fowler seems to need!

    I haven't read and am not familiar with Hely's "How I Became a Famous Novelist" but nobody is loved by everybody! I also believe criticisms such as Fowler's and Hely's lie, at least a litle bit, in the world of the little green monster, jealousy.

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  3. I've tried to read Zadie Smith's books and have only gotten so far before putting them aside(White Teeth and Autograph Man). However,in my case,it's just a matter of not being the right time for me to connect with her.

    She is talented,judging from what I did read,but I think that the problem that many people have with her is that she's one of those "overnight sensations" of the literary world and folks are always going to be resentful of that,years after the fact.

    I don't hold an author responsible for my not being intrigued by their work as everyone else seems to be. Sometimes,it's better to wait until tackling certain strongly hyped books and authors to fully appreciate their worth. That happened to me with The Poisonwood Bible-just read that one two years ago and truly was amazed by it.

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  4. I have heard a ton of fantastic things about Smith and so she is on my 'authors to read' list. The article by Fowler was shocking and ridiculous. Personal attacks seem unwarranted, especially the kind that Fowler resorted to. Sure, you don't like a book. That doesn't mean that no one will like it or that it is worthless. Did you see The Reading Ape's post about that article? He has some really good points and I'd recommend checking it out (http://thereadingape.blogspot.com/2011/06/performed-indignation-in-book-site-that.html).

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  5. I think White Teeth is a fantastic book that only got better on my second read. I've also heard good things from people I respect about On Beauty, although I haven't read it. However, I completely understand that some people might not like Smith's style. I think White Teeth is a slow read, and might not appeal to some readers.

    That said, Fowler's piece was wildly unprofessional in my opinion. It is invective and profanity laced and she even admits that she didn't finish reading Obreht's, A Tiger's Wife, the book that is ostensibly the object of her ire. I also noticed, like one of the early commenters, that she calls On Beauty a book of essays. Sloppy.

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  6. Maybe people are just jealous the success of another. I read White Teeth a couple of years ago and quite liked it, but I don't have any real desire to reread. I'm intrigued by On Beauty because I loved Howards End, but in general I'm so over the remake/sequel/prequel/side character backstory trend in books these days. I wish writers would just make up their own characters and plots -- are they just getting lazy?

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  7. I gotta say I never read Zadie Smith, so I have no opinion on her. But Ruth Fowler's crazy rant made me want to go to my book store and pick up a copy of White Teeth or Changing My Mind, to see what that fuss is about. I'm pretty sure she's laughing right now, because that kind of rant is good for sales.

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  8. Zadie Smith is most definitely one of the leading contemporary writers today ; that matters. Come on White Teeth ! ( Ben rush out and get it ) Debut novel !Five years later clearly showing she's no sham with On Beauty. Zadie Smith a writer who held D.F.W.'s respect is no literary fraud.

    Who's Ruth Fowler again ?

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  9. This is a really good question and I suspect that the backlash has a couple of sources. One, she was the "hip" writer for a while and there is a certain segment of the literary community that cannot stomach trendiness, even if there is merit underneath the buzz.

    Second, I think there is a sense that she hasn't matched the quality of WHITE TEETH and is now sort of resting on her laurels. ON BEAUTY was solid I thought and AUTOGRAPH MAN at least an interesting mediocrity.

    Third, I hate to accuse people of jealousy, but I think there is something to it. She had such success so young and is so good-looking as well. Tearing her down makes people feel better about themselves. The performative quality of her prose, especially in WHITE TEETH, leads people to suspect tricksterism or sleight of hand; this gives them all the opening they need to attack.

    This question of "fraud" is interesting because it suggests that there is real/unreal literary merit, rather than perceived/learned/agreed upon merit. This is a problematic perception and one probably worth writing about elsewhere

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  10. I haven't read her books but dislike her as a person. About 10 years ago I heard her speak at a panel on "First Time Novelists" at the New Yorker Festival. The other 3 speakers were so genuinely happy and just thrilled to be there but Ms Smith, well she made it very, very clear that this was all a big bore, that we were imposing on her very valuable time, and that being a first-time novelist wasn't a special thing to her, and she was demeaning to the other partipants. I was ticked off.

    I've read interviews she's given too where she comes off as pretentious and like all us little people are just annoying her, when we're not boring her. I've heard very good things about her books, but after her attitude, they're ruined for me, so I'm not going to read them.

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  11. Gregster, I'm a Zadie fan too. I thought WHITE TEETH was a revelation and ON BEAUTY was absolutely delicious. Solidarity, brother!

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  12. @Kenneth - Actually, the fact that she's a nobody, combined with the sheer ugliness of her attack has to make you suspicious that she has a huge jealousy complex, and of course, that DOES make her opinion less valid. You should read Zadie's essay on DFW and then tell me if you think she's still a bore.

    @Amy - Good point about "On Beauty" and essays - I sort of just skimmed over that, assuming she was making some sort of joke about how boring the novel was by referring to it as essays. But now that you mention it, I wonder.....

    @lady t - Don't blame you for putting Autograph Man aside, but you must try White Teeth again. You mean, it's not the author's fault that you "didn't connect with the characters"? What a novel idea! ;) She is very, very talented - and you're absolutely right, with talent and success comes resentment from bitter idiots like Fowler.

    @Amy - Yeah, I just don't understand the degree of anger there - you'd think Zadie and Tea had stolen her boyfriend and kicked her dog, not both written well-received novels. I did see the Ape's article - and loved it.

    @LBC - Yeah, not every book appeals to every reader, obviously - that's fine if you're not a fan. But why bash it so unprofessionally and immaturely - especially when you've only deigned to read 50 pages of a book you trash? It could've been the best novel of all time, and she would've still bashed it, based on her crazy ideas about MFAs.

    @Karen K - You're right, I think jealousy plays a huge role here - but it may not even be jealousy of success. It may be jealous that a genre or style of writing Fowler considers to be boring is what is generally considered good, whereas her crappy, inaccurate style is rightfully considered crap. I know the retelling angle for On Beauty can be a hindrance to fans of Howards End, but it really is such a fantastic re-interpretation of the story, that I didn't even for one second consider the fact that Zadie might have lazily plotted. According to her, it was more a tribute to Forster than a ripping-off of him.

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  13. @Ben - Yeah, the idea that someone could inspire that much passion - even if totally misplaced and misdirected - is intriguing. Try Zadie! You'll love the DFW essay in Changing My Mind.

    @Charlie - Your point about a contemporary, literary writer who held DFW's respect being a good measuring stick for how good she really is is an excellent one! DFW was not afraid to hold back on what he considered stupid, boring or fraudulent. Of course, no more obvious statement has ever made than this: DFW's opinion is more important than Fowler's.

    @Ape - The idea of what constitutes a literary fraud is the real underpinning of Hely's novel - and it's sad that Zadie seemed to be his primary example. Couldn't agree more with all three of your reasons - I think I probably understood those, but you put the ideas of trendy, possible-one-hit-wonder, and jealousy really well. And I think jealousy is the key - again, not that Zadie's a better writer than her or has had more success, but maybe that Zadie's style is better-received than Fowler's drivel. Maybe?

    @Carin - Hmmm, Zadie must've taken a course in public relations between when you saw her and when I got to meet her at a book signing...or you just caught her on a bad night (or I caught her on a good one). It was rainy night in Milwaukee (of all places) on her On Beauty tour, but Zadie seemed as though there was no where else in the world she'd rather be. She was personable, articulate and damn funny. And after standing in line for 45 minutes for her to sign my book, I found her to be just as cheerful when I arrived - I was wearing a T-shirt of my alma mater's hoops team, and she immediately cracked a huge smile and said "Oh, Marquette basketball - do you play?" She won everyone in that crowd over and I never would've thought she could ever be considered pretentious or annoyed.

    @booksaremyBFs - Revelation, indeed. I remember I was trying to choose between White Teeth and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - and White Teeth was the eeny-meeny-miney-moe winner. Thank. God. ;)

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  14. I really loved White Teeth as well and thought On Beauty was a good (but not great) follow up. That article in HuffPo was outrageous. I think it was much more about the writer's publishing strategy (be as vitriolic as possible) than the literary worth of Tea Obreht or Zadie Smith. It's interesting what Carin said about being turned off by Zadie Smith's behavior at a reading. I think we'd all like to say we choose books for their literary merit alone, but its hard when a writer you really love disappoints as a person. For example, I'm not feeling too inspired to pick up any V.S. Naipaul books these days....

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  15. I've only read On Beauty and I thought it was fantastic. I don't get the ire launched at her either. There's one person I keep encountering online who really seems to hate her work and constantly resorts to personal attacks against her and misconstruing her words. I realize that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I can see why people might not like her work, but I don't get the viciousness nor the personal nature of the attacks.

    I've seen it happen with Jonathan Safran Foer as well though I haven't read him yet. Regardless, I see no reason to take it to a personal level. Some people! *scoffs*

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  16. Just look at Fowler's Twitter feed - http://twitter.com/#!/fowlerruth and website. http://www.ruthfowler.co.uk/Ruth_Fowler/Welcome.html - She's a nut job looking for attention.

    Also, I must say I read On Beauty and was greatly underwhelmed. It seemed like she ran out of plot halfway through, but kept writing anyway. But nothing to rant against.

    However, I understand completely why people hate Foer - I think he's an over-rated, pretentious sentimentalist.

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  17. I could not get through White Teeth. Perhaps, I was reading it at the wrong time. I think people are just jealous. It's really a hard world for lots of writers. Ms. Smith does get around. She writes, teaches and now has a gig at a magazine. It might appear to other folks that she's got it easy. Who knows? I think she is intelligent and smart about her writing and her career. Fowler's rant was just appalling.

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  18. Ouch. I read White Teeth when it first came out and thought it was brilliant. I was a bookseller at the time, and was absolutely thrilled when the rep presented me with a signed first edition. I also loved On Beauty, and I'm perplexed by the racially charged criticism. While race is always a touchy issue, I can't agree that the depictions of African Americans are somehow inauthentic. If I need to back that up with some kind of street cred, I'm married to a black man. And I know him pretty well. Actually, it has been my experience that African Americans are as diverse and varied as everyone else. The Fowler piece I thought was atrociously written, gratuitously profane, mean, and just plain jealous. In fact, if you ferret out the jealously, envy, and spite, there isn't much left to the arguments against Smith's writing. Her books are smart, entertaining (to me), and make me think. That's a lot to get from a book. If it isn't your cup of tea, well then don't read it. Am I missing something?The rants strike me as over-the-top performance. I'm glad you wrote this post Greg, I'll be interested to see what other people have to say.

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  19. @Jen - Outrageous is a good way to describe it! And you're right, bad behavior by writers tends to turn us off from their work - though, that shouldn't necessarily be the case (without getting into the whole separating art from artist debate again). I prefer to think of it the other way around - if I've seen a good interview with a writer, or s/he's written a blog or essay that's made me laugh, I'm much more apt to pick up their longer work.

    @booklush - I don't understand the type of person who'd make it their mission in life to disparage a writer they don't like. What's wrong with people? Isn't there much more productive and positive ways to spend your time? Whatever. Funny you mention Foer, and the commenter right below you says essentially what it is you'd heard about him.

    @Mike - I'm not sure I agree that On Beauty is underwhelming, but I'd certainly allow that it's not as good as White Teeth. I can see how people would think Foer is pretentious, but did you see him hold his own on Colbert last year? That should put those notions of pretentiousness to rest. I actually really like him - but why sentimental?

    @kinnareads - Appalling, indeed. It couldn't be more clear to anyone who actually does a fair amount of reading (as opposed to pretending they do in the interest of penning a vicious, idiotic rant) that, as you say, Zadie is a smart writer. You may be right about that over-exposure idea - we saw that with the push-back against Franzen and Freedom last year. Some people just like to be negative against what other people like.

    @Lisa - I think you win the prize for best description of Fowler's mess of an article. And you're right - her argument (after you get through the nonsensical namecalling) is really, really thin. The responses have been interesting - with the exception of a few people, most people have come to Zadie's defense. Of course, you'll never please everyone, but here's to hoping her next novel is so unbelievably, inarguably brilliant, it'll drive idiots like Fowler back to the pole where they belong.

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  20. I've only read On Beauty, and one of the families isn't African-Americans although they're black. One family is English and came to America on the basis of the husband/father being a guest professor. The other family, white husband/father married to African-American woman, had their older kids born in England.

    It seems to me that Zadie Smith keeps a low profile (I could be wrong on that, though), so maybe that is one reason what makes people feel safe in attacking her?

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  21. Mike embodies the situation nicely when he writes that Ruth Fowler is "a nut job looking for attention," whereas he "understand[s] completely why people hate Foer".

    Critics are jealous/illiterate/insane for disliking the writers *we* like. We don't often dismiss hyperbolic praise (of a writer we like) with the same cool, neurosis-exposing logic we shine on "rants" like Fowler's. All very human.

    Meanwhile, I've cracked some fairly disparaging quips about James Frey and Britney Spears but I promise I'm not jealous of either.

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  22. I think Hely's joke is that it would be funny IF Zadie turned out to be a hack, not that she is actually a hack.

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  23. This thread is really old... but in the slim chance of someone reading my contribution - Smith has a lot of defenders - that's for sure - and some detractors. I am one of those. I have always read widely and am very fussy. I really don't think she's very good. I have tried to get through her novels but am unable to because I find them boring and irrelevant. I also have this opinion of Salman Rushdie, although he was lauded as almost a genius at one point... I am not spiteful or jealous, though. I just don't think she writes well. And she has an awful lot of publicity compared to more gifted, lesser-known writers which must also invoke a lot of public ire. Dare I say it? I am a better writer than Smith! (I bet a lot of people can say that... but it seems that we must remain the small, silent, slightly shame-faced minority). Smith fans - go read some Dickens! Or Cormac McCarthy. Or Jeanette Winterson's autobiography. I must, however, acknowledge that Smith has a huge readership... Angela Carter is also a must - talking of geniuses, I mean. There are a lot of writers today who can only write about the world they inhabit - but what about writers who can create other worlds? Imaginative writers - like McCarthy again. These are of value to me. I go back to the classics when I'm flailing in doubt. They bolster me again. And then, armed with a good sentence and some morsel of truth, I am ready to face the world. I cannot get that from Smith - I get a lot of 'style' but I never can find the substance. I read a whole essay on Kafka that she wrote - and had no idea what her point was. That happens a lot with her. But, if that's your cup of tea, that's fine.

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  24. Having said that, I have to add this. I have read Smith's interviews in print and she comes across as an intelligent, likeable person. I think she knows a lot about books and writing, and the way she steeps herself in literature is inspiring to me. But I still don't think she is a good writer - at all. I think she's derivative, not original.

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