Zadie Smith

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.


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. And I could mention dozens of novels (I haven't been writing, but boy, I've been reading) that create a light in my head in between the news bulletins. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich - a miniaturist tale of a bourgeois man dying a bourgeois death - every time I read it, I find my world put under an intense, unforgiving microscope. But how does it work? I want to dismantle it as if it were a clock, as if it had parts, mechanisms. I wonder if Wood will take that question, then, as a replacement for my earlier one. Not: how does this world work? But: how is this book made? How can I do this?

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.

Well, it's a familiar opposition, but it's not very helpful (it's also a belief Oprah shares, and you want to be careful which beliefs you share with Oprah). I wonder sometimes whether critics shouldn't be more like teachers, giving a gold star or a black cross, but either way accompanied by some kind of useful advice. Be more human? I sit in front of my white screen and I'm not sure what to do with that one. Are jokes inhuman? Are footnotes? Long words? Technical terms? Intellectual allusions? If I put some kids in, will that help?

-from here, way back in 2001.

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