“THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO ME” – The Guardian, October 13, 201
The byline of Zadie Smith’s piece, “Last week James Wood blasted modern fiction, calling for a return to feeling from self-conscious cleverness in the wake of the terrorist attacks,” promises a bolder and braver response than the young Smith delivers. Though she explains her point of view, she says later that this interaction shaped and changed her writing – her later novels are far more “modernist” and “realist” in tone (NW is a “London novel” in the olden sense). Here is Smith’s self-effacing beginning:
The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”.It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped – this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it. In fact, I have agreed with him several times before, in public and in private, but I appreciate that he feared I needed extra warning; that I might be sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.
At least she’s funny. Here Smith begins to explore with a bit more nuance some of her issues with Wood’s critique:
The first is this: any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna. You cannot place first-time novelists with literary giants, New York hipsters with Kilburn losers, and some of the writers who got caught up with me are undeserving of the criticism. In particular, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely “human” short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace. But even if this were not true, frankly, literature is – or should be – a broad church. Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned, I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise; the very books, in fact, which have cast such a tremendous shadow over two generations of American and English fiction.
What Smith points to again is a kind of multiplicity at the intertextual level of readership that her own novel seeks to create in a world she has written:
I read Flaubert and Nabokov for the varicoloured intimacies of life; I read Zora Neale Hurston to hear the songs of love and earth, and I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.
Here she does the same move as Wood on what writers “can” and “cannot” do, which I don’t love:
We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.
She discusses the pains of writing, the resistance to encyclopaedic knowledge, the call to arms in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for “a look to power sources.”
Except… er… it turns out that the plot is horrendously simple. It has to do with things like faith. Revenge. Poverty. God. Hatred. So what now? Does anyone want to know the networks behind those seeming simplicities, the paths that lead from September 11 back to Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and then back to Israel, back further to the second world war, back once more to the first? Does anyone care what writers think about that? Does it help? Or shall we sing of love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded? Must we produce what you want, anyway? I have absolutely no idea.
But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense. Bellow’s Seize the Day, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Nabokov’s Pnin – works that stubbornly speak and resonate, even in these image-led, speechless times. But it is a trick of the light that makes us suppose these books exist in soulful opposition to more recent examples of “dialectical devilry”. These books are works of high artifice, and there isn’t a decent novel in this world that isn’t; their humanity derives from their reverence for language, their precision, their intellect and, more than anything, from their humour.
It’s all laughter in the dark – the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.
But he might see even that question as too intellectual in approach. I think Wood is hinting at an older idea that runs from Plato to the boys booming a car stereo outside my freaking window: soul is soul. It cannot be manufactured or schematised. It cannot be dragged kicking and screaming through improbable plots. It cannot be summoned by a fact or dismissed by a cliché. These are the famous claims made for “soul” and they lead with specious directness to an ancient wrestling match, invoked by Wood: the inviolability of “soul” versus the evils of self-consciousness and wise-assery, otherwise known as sophism.
Thus Wood’s advice to Smith is “be more human… I wonder what to do with that one.” This becomes the strongest part of Smith’s response – how she demonstrates the way in which these novels are working with cultural materials in exciting ways Wood does not see:
I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on pages that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel and what James Wood feels; that is, this fear that has got us all by the throat. He argues against silence and against intellectual obfuscation. He says: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatised (again, in White Noise), it is difficult to discuss feelings when the TV speaks so loudly; cries so operatically; seems always, in everything, one step ahead. Yet people continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV’s colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans – Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore – for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation – brain and heart – present in their fiction.
Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché, and that – as Amis has argued so well recently – is the place where everything dies… I truly hope they are not cowed by these renewed assaults on “clever writing”, calls for the “death of irony”, the “return of heart”. There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers.
Smith seems to give a credit to American tradition, rather than accusing it of corrupting her work: “Sometimes it seems purely an American trick, this ability to draw the universe, as Carver and Fitzgerald did, into a circumscribed artificial, yet human, space.” Smith considers whether the novel itself still has value as a genre, something 9/11 has made her think about:
Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not? The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive.
She turns to the shorter novel (reminds me of what Woolf says about women’s writing!): “Personally, I find myself more and more struck by controlled little gasps of prose, as opposed to the baggy novel… Which seems the exact opposite of the American/ English instinct: I must cover the world in my shit immediately.” Her conclusion is uncertain and multiple, for which I am grateful. She speaks to Wood, but she is also speaking back:
Is it this reverence, this care, this suppression of ego that Wood wants to see from us? It is what I want to see from myself, but whether I will manage it is another matter. It will take sympathy – a natural instinct, a sentimental reflex – but it will also take empathy, which I still contend is largely a matter for the intellect. Your brain must be up for it, for making that necessary leap. At the moment, my brain feels like catfood. So I may never prove to be much of a writer – a real writer, the kind I like to read – but then again, maybe I will. I’m not sure how much it matters any more. But we shall see.