How Should Fiction Be Read?

Don’t miss Zadie Smith’s bracing answers.

Among those who write for the desk drawer—students burning midnight oil on novels, poets trapped in salesmen’s bodies, lawyers tinkering with screenplays—Zadie Smith is both an envy object and a kind of hero, plucked out of the world’s slush pile to churn out three hefty, precocious books. But it turns out she has some desk-drawer accumulations of her own. “When I was growing up, I really admired academics,” Smith has said. “I really wanted to be a critic. Critics think of themselves as secondary to artists. They needn’t be.” In fact, Smith’s longest-standing project this decade—a thing she calls “a solemn, theoretical book about writing”—has yet to see the light of day. This fall instead brought her first collection of essays, culled mostly from newspapers and magazines. The collection is titled Changing My Mind, and Smith describes it in a foreword as being rife with “ideological inconsistency.” What’s striking, though, is how consistent the book actually is.

At first glance, Smith’s collection looks like a bizarre menagerie: A dispatch from Liberia abuts a study of Obama’s language; elsewhere are essays about Forster and Kafka and—stuck into the middle of the book like last week’s mail—a little treasury of outdated movie reviews. Read as a whole, though, Changing My Mind falls together with a startling focus. The book isn’t just a group of gently argued judgments and critical reinterpretations; it’s an unsettled look at the systems of thought that make those judgments and interpretations possible. Despite Smith’s novelistic intuition, her most resonant essays fixate on the question of how—with what mind-set and values—fiction should be read.

This problem will strike many people as familiar. We fall into a novel on the subway, enjoy a magazine short story in the bath, or tear through 60 pages before falling asleep in one of Borders’ very comfortable chairs—all without ever wondering whether we’re reading properly. The moment reading takes on a social component, though, matters of taste and judgment claim the spotlight. How to formulate a thought about a book? Which thoughts to formulate? Discussing a text with an English professor steeped in the New Criticism requires one reading method. Evaluating a mystery novel or joining in Oprah’s Book Club calls for different approaches entirely. But novels aren’t written for interpretive subcultures, and when we encounter fiction (and other people who read it) in the wild, it’s often unclear which way to parse and evaluate it, what kinds of things to focus on. Are some systems best for assessing the craft?

That question haunts Smith’s collection from the opening essay. Smith tells us how, first reading Zora Neale Hurston at 14, she pooh-poohed the notion of “identifying” with a black woman’s novel. “I feared my ‘extraliterary’ feelings for her,” she explains. “I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool.” The stakes here aren’t interpretive. (A sentimental fool has just as much to say about a good book as a frosty belletrist does.) They’re aspirational. “Extraliterary,” in young Smith’s mind, was anything a chin-stroking critic might frown on. Literariness, in turn, meant anything that yielded to highbrow reading methods. A surprising number of broad-minded people subscribe to this premise. Grown-up Smith, though, finds that she cannot. In the essay and several that follow, she tries to pin down a concept of literary reading that is free of ideological or status baggage.

Most of the writers who interest Smith are—at least in Smith’s telling—caught between literary value systems. She describes E.M. Forster hovering between a mandarin circle and a popular audience, helping translate highbrow taste for middling readers. George Eliot’s worldview passed from cerebral isolation—”books are stuff and life is stupid,” in Smith’s words—to a magic alchemy of the two, embracing both the life of the mind and life in the world to create Middlemarch. David Foster Wallace used the bells and whistles of metafiction to jostle readers out of their suspended disbelief and into “the procedure of another person’s thoughts” (in other words, to make them “read” through someone else’s mind). In an essay called “Two Directions for the Novel,” Smith uses a pair of recent books—Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder—to tease out two distinct ways of creating meaning in fiction: one popular and self-consciously lyrical, the other stark and esoteric.

Still, what happens when two competing paths are—as far as status and rigor are concerned—equal? One of Smith’s most lucid essays pits Nabokov’s reading style (based on the idea of the author’s absolute control) against Roland Barthes’ famous “death of the author” theory (that meaning is created in the act of reading, independent of the author’s wishes). The appeal of each approach is clear at once. Smith loved Barthes’ reader empowerment as a theory-minded college student, she says; as a fiction writer trying to communicate with readers, though, she favors Nabokov. Both perspectives reflect reading at its most educated and refined. Both are clearly very useful. And yet, try as she might, Smith cannot get the two to join together. They’re basically irreconcilable.

If you are a writer or an invested reader—Smith is both—this is the kind of thing that makes you hurl your Moleskine across the room and wish you’d gone to business school. How are you supposed to talk, or think, about the art of fiction if the art itself looks different depending where you stand? You can choose one way of reading and persuade yourself the other is completely wrong. (Some people do.) Or you can take up both of them at once, sort of, and end up trying to eat your dinner with a knife in either hand. Most likely, you’ll refrain from claiming anything at all: A classic symptom of this crisis is Smith’s self-described “ideological inconsistency.” In her case, though, that inconsistency becomes its own object of study. Take another step back from Changing My Mind, and you realize that the book is not simply preoccupied with different ways of reading. It’s concerned, more broadly, with the way that people move among competing systems of belief.

For Smith, the window onto this conflict is language. An essay on Barack Obama’s many “voices” finds her fascinated with the way we can don verbal styles as we put on clothes for an occasion, switching just as quickly to a new outfit a day later. The president can talk like “white Harvard nerds” and a “black old lady from the South Side” as circumstance requires, Smith observes; he can move among belief systems with equal versatility. She attributes this chameleon skill to Obama’s eclectic background: Living with two opposed arrays of beliefs requires being “flexible between these two fixed points” until you develop “a creative sense of dissociation” from the primacy of your own claims. A person in that equilibrium, Smith says, knows “the extreme contingency of culture.”

These are Smith’s heroes—people who can inhabit a particular way of thinking for a purpose and then, if necessary, put it aside for something new. Her nudniks are those caught in “ideological heroism,” pedants and dogmatists hogtied in the face of shifting circumstances. Look to Smith’s fiction, and you’ll find this preference just as striking: Characters mired in a single way of thinking haunt her books like hapless specters. In White Teeth, members of the science-minded Chalfen family end up blinded by the narrow rigor of their thoughts. In On Beauty, a few years later, Smith created Howard Belsey, a tragicomic art historian immured in his abstruse way of reading. Belsey is given to vaguely Structuralist riffs like “What we’re trying to … interrogate here … is the mytheme of artist as autonomous individual with privileged insight into the human. …” He wonders why the world of ideas has passed him by. His crucial fault, we’re meant to realize, is having just one set of tools.

Belsey is an intellectual caricature. But the problem he embodies is, for many people in the shoals of scholarship, quite bracing. In an essay published this past spring, University of Virginia scholar Mark Edmundson argued against the sort of theory-drowned approach that Belsey carries to extremes. To force a reading system on a work of literature, Edmundson suggested, is to miss the logic and, perhaps, the genius that the work would show on its own terms. “The problem with the Marxist reading of Blake is that it robs us of some splendid opportunities,” he wrote. “We never take the time to arrive at a Blakean reading of Blake, and we never get to ask whether Blake’s vision might be … good in the way of belief.” You can attack Tiriel with a Marxist hammer all you want, but the finer points of its construction yield only to the poet’s wrench.

To read well is to read through systems of belief that match the book in hand. This is Edmundson’s main precept (though he’s not alone in championing it), and it comes across as Smith’s unspoken ideal as well. The wild eclecticism of Changing My Mind reflects, if anything, the versatility that Smith embraces on the page—taking up the mantle of the theorist, the memoirist, the pop movie critic as circumstance requires. Each of these roles departs from the work she is best known for. Each requires starting, in some way, from scratch. In the end, one realizes, Smith’s collection is not so much a book about changing one’s mind as it is a guide to living, for a change, in someone else’s.