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A Touch Too Hip
on 17 December 2012
Changing My Mind is a middling collection of essays. There is great range but very little depth, and although Zadie Smith's interests and enthusiasms are contagious, the prose can be affectedly colloquial at times, a touch too hip. The essays roam over the various territories of literary criticism, film punditry, public lectures, reportage, memoir, and biography, all of which Smith competently handles. But despite her unmistakable voice, there are problems, and it's mostly a question of temperament and style.
Smith measures the power or merit of a work on its ability to rouse tears, and, by doing so, she's become the world's leading lachrymose critic. Smith cries when she finishes writing one of her own novels and when one of her favourite film stars dies. She also cried ('a lot') when she first read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and 'throughout the last fifteen minutes' of the film Tsotsi. Is this really a trustworthy response? Does the reader gain anything from these teary confessions? Not really. It smacks of hyperbole, which is unfortunate, as there are some truly perceptive and enlightening pieces in this volume.
The lecture 'Rereading Barthes and Nabokov' is magnificent, as is 'Two Directions for the Novel', the seminal New York Review of Books essay which rightfully caused a stir among the literati. 'That Crafty Feeling', a lecture devoted to the compositional processes of her novels, is a an intriguing insight into her methods, while 'Accidental Hero', an article on her father's wartime travails, is both funny and moving. But there are certain misfits. To make the book's chapter titles correspond to the type of writing or emotion ('Reading', 'Being', 'Seeing', 'Feeling', and 'Remembering') seems pointless. And for those who haven't read David Foster Wallace, Smith's lengthy discussion will be no enticement whatsoever, despite its awed and hagiographic tone.
But, despite the ephemeral film criticism, whose inclusion gives the volume a rather flabby feel, the overall tenor of the work is okay. Smith may have done her growing up in public, but it has been a pleasant trajectory to watch, as the shift from conventional novelist to modernist experimenter has dismayed some while undeniably tempting others. This book, then, may have a few unwarranted inclusions, but the work of Zadie Smith the memoirist and literary critic goes a long way to redeeming it.