In the foreword to Zadie Smith’s first non-fiction collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, the author of White Teeth taunts readers with a series of other projects she’s considered, including a serious book about writing called Fail Better. Fans of her three novels may hold her responsible for not following any of these threads, but even readers unfamiliar with her work will discover a voracious reader and a keen wit in these articles previously published in The New York Review Of Books and The Guardian, among other publications.
The collected pieces are separated into five sections according to rough themes—“Reading,” “Being,” “Seeing,” “Feeling,” and “Remembering”—and in their best moments, Smith approaches her subjects as both student and impassioned defender. “Seeing” is probably the most surprising for readers who may not expect her to be a Katharine Hepburn enthusiast, much less a film critic who covered one wide release per week for a year. In “At The Multiplex, 2006,” she excerpts short, wry reviews of movies from Munich to Date Movie, pausing to write of the 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, “My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five.” The title of the collection derives from a piece on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which a discussion of how “extraliterary” feelings shaped her appreciation of the book leads off a clever, thorough section encompassing Middlemarch, Franz Kafka’s day job, and E.M. Forster.
Smith delights in dismantling her subjects, from the narrative desperation of Shopgirl to the glorified image of the veteran in “Accidental Hero,” in which she sits down with her father to ask him for the first time about serving in World War II. In “That Crafty Feeling,” one of the rare pieces that references her own work, she even suggests a method for dismantling her own novels via the structures she uses to write them. “One Week In Liberia,” the weakest of the essays, could have used more of this probing spirit: On an Oxfam-sponsored trip to the country, Smith narrates her experiences at such remove, abandoning inhabitants’ stories mid-thought, that her reports take on a condescending tone, as if she’s skeptical about the purpose of the trip itself.
A similar abruptness inhabits the airless “Smith Family Christmas,” a family memory from the “Feeling” section that begins with a photograph, but never animates it beyond the page. But “Remembering”’s 40-page appreciation of fellow hysterical realist David Foster Wallace, complete with footnotes and the “keys” Smith used to access his stories, suggests that her curiosity and willingness to reject facile conclusions could fill several more books.