In a review in the last issue, Scott Moringiello described his primary criterion for judging a critic: If a critic makes me want to read a novel or see an opera or painting, I judge the criticism useful. I thought of this rule as I was reading Changing My Mind, a 2009 collection of essays by the British novelist Zadie Smith. And surely it is a sign of Smiths critical powerand flexibilitythat after finishing Changing My Mind I wanted to, among other things, sit down and watch Adams Rib, Syriana, Romance & Cigarettes, and the entire seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wanted to read Tom McCarthys Remainder and President Obamas Dreams from My Father and reread George Eliots Middlemarch , David Foster Wallaces Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Vladimir Nabokovs lectures on Russian literature. Finally, I wanted to go back and give two of Smiths own novelsWhite Teeth and On Beautyanother shot. (I read White Teeth while spending the night in a Dublin airport; I dont remember much except for its frenetic energy. As for On Beauty, which is a re-writing of E. M. Forsters Howards End, I remember admiring the chutzpah it took to make such an attempt but also being unconvinced by the execution.)Changing My Mind gathers together essays that Smith wrote over the last several years, mainly for the New York Review of Books. As my list of things to watch/read above indicates, Smiths interests are varied. She writes on highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow topics; on television, film, literature, politics, and family history. Her writing is supple and often surprising. She is unafraid to pair seemingly incongruous subjects and see where this pairing will lead her. In one essay, for instance, she connects President Obamas philosophical outlook to John Keatss notion of negative capability, an imaginative responsiveness that enables the poet (or politician) to project himself into other persons and positions. (This essay was written in 2008. President Obamas empathetic imagination seems less endearing after weve witnessed the consequences of his on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand manner of dealing with Republican intransigence.)
Smiths essays are filled with moments of real critical insight. In an essay on Middlemarch, she grapples with Eliots strange decision to devote so much narrative attention to the novels less sympathetic characters (Fred Vincy, Bulstrode, etc.), and offers a short summary of the novels epistemology: In Middlemarch love enables knowledge. Love is a kind of knowledge. Smith alsodisplays the comedian's touch. Poking fun at how frequently music biopics contain a primal scene in which parents try to prevent the now-famous musician from playing music as a child, Smith writes, Parents ambitious of turning a daughter into a future Jacqueline du Pr would do well to smash up a cello in front of her. Reviewing Get Rich or Die Tryin, Smith addresses 50 Cent personally: I love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies.Some of Smiths pieces are deeply personal: Dead Man Laughing, a remembrance of Smiths father and his lifelong interest in comedy, is one of the most moving essays Ive read in a long time. Others are more philosophical, like her essay on Kafka and Jewishness. Most, however, move effortlessly between these poles: they use the personal to explore the philosophical, and the philosophical to better understand the personal.In her essay on Middlemarch, Smith marvels at George Eliots integrated sensibility: she thought with her heart and felt with her head. This is a good description of the artists gift. (It also echoes T. S. Eliots claim about John Donne: A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility.) And it is also a perfect description of what we look for in our best critics. For Smith, as for Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, or Denis Donoghue, affective and critical responses are not oppositional but dialectical: the feeling evoked by reading a great poem leads to an analysis of this feeling, which leads to a further, deeper, more personal engagement with the work, which leads to more analysis, ad infinitum. This is the standard by which I judge a critic: is she able to test thought against feeling, feeling against thought? Smiths writing, which shows us the delicate dance between appreciation and analysis, easily passes the test.