A review of Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
As a big fan of Zadie Smith's fiction, I was pretty disappointed by this collection. There are a few personal essays sprinkled in - and those are good - but otherwise it's a lot of referential inside baseball. Her writing is immaculate but even in the essays about her own life, she remains aloof and inaccessibly academic. She doesn't quite reach arch smugness, but there is an inherent elitism (and disregard for her own fiction) that makes her seem out of touch and also felt like a betrayal. She writes 30 pages about Barthes, Nabokov and Kafka, and then later deigns to include a brief review of the film "Date Movie," where she reveals, without irony or humor, that it's the worst movie she's ever seen. Thanks for that, Zadie.
In the literary essays, she assumes everyone has read what she's read. In an essay about her father's death and their shared comedy snobbery, she assumes that the existence of technical craftsmanship in comedy will come as a revelation. In the essay about David Foster Wallace she lets the reader know that, in the slim chance you've read DFW, you probably didn't understand or appreciate him. And if you did, it probably wasn't for the correct reasons.
These essays are tightly crafted and brilliant, but if you're looking for more Zadie because you loved On Beauty or, god forbid, White Teeth (which you're wrong to have liked) I think you'll be disappointed. Sadly, the beautiful and heartbreakingly restrained essays about her personal life are too few to redeem it and come off like a spoonful of sugar to help the literary criticism go down.