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Zadie Smith is an English writer popular for her novels, essays, and short stories. Her novels have received awards and praise from many publications and organizations, including Time magazine. Her writing style is uniquely reflective and witty, and she incorporates a variety of techniques to keep the reader engaged. This paper will focus on her non-fiction essay work and an analysis of her writing style.
A few patterns emerge when reading Zadie Smith’s non-fiction essays. Smith appears to be interested in reflecting on the past and using these reflections to create new ideas or overcome personal biases. These biases include not only the biases of the reader but also of herself. For example, in her essay for The New Yorker, titled “Some Notes on Attunement,” she explores how her perception of music changed over time. She describes her state of mind in a very informal way, even ending one of her paragraphs with a risqué statement such as this: “What did we need with white women?” (“Some Notes on Attunement”). Of course, this is not meant to be an inflammatory statement, as it only describes the opinion she had about music during her childhood. The article gradually transitions from her having no interest in white women singers to her being openly annoyed by them.
However, out of nowhere, she gains a deep appreciation for the experimental musician Joni Mitchell, whom she was once so annoyed by that she openly expressed those feelings. The article proceeds to analyze this situation, with Smith eventually finding it useful to stop trying to understand new forms of art and instead try to just experience them. Smith sums up this idea by saying this: “Put simply: you need to lower your defenses” (“Some Notes on Attunement”). She finishes the essay by talking about how different people have different sensibilities and how it would be interesting to experience her work through the perspective of other people. This idea of reflection and self-reflection on her and other’s beliefs are echoed in her essay titled “F. Kafka, Everyman” (Smith 57). It seems clear that to Smith, it is important to challenge the beliefs of her readers and herself to achieve new and more truthful ideas about a topic.
Zadie Smith projects an image of a witty, smart, and slightly irreverent person. Her writing is interspersed with asides and tangents related to the topic at hand. These techniques are used both as a way to break up the pace of the essay and as a literary device that creates a more personal connection between the reader and the writer. For example, in “Some Notes on Attunement,” she repeats the words of her roommate—”You don’t like Joni?”—multiple times throughout the text to signify how these words followed her long after she had heard them (Smith, “Some Notes on Attunement”). This technique lets the reader peek inside her thought process, subsequently creating a deeper connection with the text.
Moreover, Smith often uses the words of her friends and even strangers she has encountered to create an informal tone to the text. In “F. Kafka, Everyman,” for example, Smith uses the following words she heard from a stranger: “But you’re quite wrong! I knew Mr. Kafka in Prague—and he was never late” (57). These words serve to add some levity by creating a witty antithesis to a previous statement presented in the paragraph, and at the same time, they show that the author is not taking herself too seriously. However, this informality does not discredit the major ideas of the text but rather supports them by reflecting on the need for people to review and consider their beliefs.
The idea of reflection may not always be the primary theme of the essay, but it is very common in all of Smith’s writing. Smith’s essay “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” centers on the differences between the beliefs of Barthes and Nabokov regarding the nature of authorship (43). While their beliefs are similar, there are a few crucial differences that Smith covers in her essay. She talks about the idea of reading books multiple times to create a certain “floor plan” for the book, where the author might or might not be the author. This is shown in the following quote: “The only perfect tenant of the house that Nabokov built is Nabokov” (Smith, “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” 52). She means that the nature and beliefs of Nabokov shape his writing to include the ultimate truth that he was trying to communicate through his subjective point of view. She continues the essay by discussing how readers can experience the inspiration and feel that the author felt if they can adjust their mindset to the author’s point of view. She finds this practice very rewarding, and the idea once again connects to her focus on changing beliefs and perceptions.
The same theme is represented in her essay “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” This essay focuses on Smith realizing her inability to dislike the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Though the novel presents many literary techniques she finds to be cheap and meaningless, she nevertheless liked it. She describes her surrender like this: “I lost many literary battles the day I read Their Eyes Were Watching God” (Smith, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” 3). This essay is very emblematic of Smith’s work, which is perhaps the reason that she chose to open her book with it. Smith finds the experience of changing beliefs to be one of the most important to her. It is a valuable aspect that helps keep the reader’s mind open to new information and ideas.
Throughout her essays, Smith expresses many different feelings, but a feeling of awe and discovery seems to be the most prominent in the essays I have read. For example, while reading “Some Notes on Attunement,” the reader can follow her journey of discovery through her self-reflection. It has a clear narrative arc for her character, and the attention to detail throughout the essay paints a very vivid journey. Even though the story starts with her being unsure of why she would want to listen to white women singers, she develops such a strong feeling toward Joni Mitchell’s music that she is unable to control it. Such feelings of awe are also present in her essays on Nabokov and Hurston. While describing their work, she marvels at their writing abilities with very infectious awe. Despite my dislike of Hurston as a person, I was unable to deny Smith’s adoration of her work and found myself considering reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” sometime later. Her feelings sound truthful and are often relatable because people do tend to change their views on things over time. The witty and informal tone of her writing only serves to highlight those feelings.
Zadie Smith’s essays focus on the changing nature of human perception. By reflecting on experiences and beliefs, people can grow and change. Perhaps this opportunity for growth is why Smith finds this idea so compelling.
Smith, Zadie. “F. Kafka, Everyman”.Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2009, pp. 57-70.
“Rereading Barthes and Nabokov.“Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2009, pp. 41-56.
“Some Notes on Attunement.” The New Yorker. 2012, Web.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”.Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2009, pp. 3-13.