:: Article

Changing My Mind

By Max Dunbar.


Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith, Penguin 2009

Criticism is what Martin Amis said of the book review: the lowest and noblest art form. Most book-talk is workaday, narcoleptic, full of self-conscious literary wordplay; its house style is Guardian Lite. Zadie Smith’s collection, Changing My Mind, reminds as that criticism can be as fun and insightful in its way as fiction itself. In place of name-dropping and intellectual one-upmanship we get a genuine love of books and a passion to inculcate this love in others: a passion that finds its place not in round-table discussions but in drunken argument and affirmation, with close friends or completely alone. God knows how many people I’ve bored out of friendship by quoting, aloud, entire paras of Carl Hiaasen!

As its title suggests, Changing My Mind is animated by a love of the eclectic and the different. In the first essay, an appreciation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Smith demolishes the false gods of authenticity. She argues that black female characters (now that outright racist tropes are out of bounds, or at least the less subtle ones) have fallen victim to a ‘new fetishisation… earth mothers, African queens, spirits of history; they progress grandly through novels thick with a breed of greeting-card lyricism.’ In fact, as Hurston put it: ‘Negroes are no better nor no worse, and at times as boring as everybody else.’ Smith concludes: ‘It was not the Black Female Literary Tradition that makes Hurston great. It is Hurston herself… as exceptional among black woman writers as Tolstoy is among white male writers.’ And yet Hurston herself died a cleaner. No Hallmark ending for her.

Smith’s love of difference is illustrated best in her lecture ‘Speaking in Tongues’, a piece that also displays her gift for free association. She begins with speech itself. Why is the accent so important to the British psyche? Why does every Cheshire cowtown pride itself on a particular slant to the voice? Smith talks about the fate of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion; she loses her working-class tone without really learning RP and so is trapped in the limbo between two worlds: ‘neither flower girl nor lady’. Shaw portrays this as a terrible fate, and yet Shaw himself had a talent ‘he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, give Eliza: he spoke in tongues’.

From voice modulation to My Fair Lady Smith segues seamlessly to Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, arguing that the forty-fourth president’s story turns Shaw’s parable on his head. Obama’s family was spliced across races and continents, and his memoir is a goose chase for identity. Smith could have told him that the idea of a pure identity (like a pure culture) is just fantasy. I know Smith is tired of hearing that Obama is a ‘multi-racial’ president. But isn’t that his whole appeal: not so much that he’s black, more so that, with his haphazard and conflicted background, Obama represents more than the previous forty-three presidents the messy reality of the Western experience. To quote Irvine Welsh, another writer who transcended his roots: we’re all full of contradictions, we just have to work through them as best we can.

A reality that affects authors too. At the end of a discussion on Middlemarch Smith takes on the school of criticism that says everything has gone downhill since the Victorian novel. ‘Why don’t they write ’em like that anymore?… Except the George Eliot of today… might be like Mary Gaitskell, say, or Laura Hird, or A.L. Kennedy.’ Or perhaps she might be Zadie Smith.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 27th, 2010.