Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  A minimalist narrative refusal that made me laugh out loud. Remainder resists its readers, but it does so with a smile. And then, toward its end, a mysterious “short councilor” appears, like one of David Lynch’s dwarfs, and finally asks the questions—and receives the answers—that the novel has denied us till now. Why are you doing this? How does it make you feel? In a moment of frankness, we discover the Reenactor’s greatest tingle arrived with his smallest reenactment: standing in a train station, holding his palms outward, begging for money of which he had no need. It gave him the sense “of being on the other side of something. A veil, a screen, the law—I don’t know. . . .” One of the greatest authenticity dreams of the avant-garde is this possibility of becoming criminal, of throwing one’s lot in with Genet and John Fante, with the freaks and the lost and the rejected. (The notable exception is J. G. Ballard, author of possibly the greatest British avant-garde novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, who raised three children single-handedly in the domestic tranquility of a semidetached house in Shepperton.) For the British avant-garde, autobiographical extremity has become a mark of literary authenticity, the drug use of Alexander Trocchi and Anna Kavan being at least as important to their readers as their prose. (The INS demands “all cults of authenticity be abandoned.” It does not say what is to be done about the authenticity cult of the avant-garde.) In this sense, the Reenactor has a true avant-garde spirit; he wants to become the thing beyond the pale, the inconvenient remainder impossible to contain within the social economy of meaning. But no: it is still not quite enough. The only truly authentic indivisible remainder, the only way of truly placing yourself outside meaning, is through death, the contemplation of which brings Remainder, in its finale, to one of its few expressionist moments. It also enacts a strange literary doubling, meeting Netherland head on:Forensic procedure is an art form, nothing less. No I’ll go further: it’s higher, more refined, than any art form. Why? Because it’s real. Take just one aspect of it—say the diagrams . . . They’re records of atrocities. Each line, each figure, every angle—the ink itself vibrates with an almost intolerable violence, darkly screaming from the silence of the white paper: something has happened here, someone has died.

  “It’s just like cricket,” I told Naz one day.

  “In what sense?” he asked.

  “Each time the ball’s been past,” I said, “and the white lines are still zinging where it hit, and the seam’s left a mark, and . . .”

  “I don’t follow,” he said.

  “It . . . well, it just is,” I told him. “Each ball is like a crime, a murder. And then they do it again, and again and again, and the commentator has to commentate, or he’ll die too.”

  In Netherland cricket symbolizes the triumph of the symbol over brute fact (cricket as the deferred promise of the American Dream). In Remainder cricket is pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark. Everything must leave a mark. Everything has a material reality. Everything happens in space. As you read it, Remainder makes you preternaturally aware of space, as Robbe-Grillet did in Jealousy, Remainder’s obvious progenitor. Like the sportsmen whose processes it describes and admires, Remainder “fills time up with space” by breaking physical movements, for example, into their component parts, slowing them down; or by examining the layers and textures of a wet, cambered road in Brixton as a series of physical events rather than emotional symbols. It forces us to recognize space as a nonneutral thing—unlike realism, which often ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

  Something has happened here, someone has died. A trauma, a repetition, a death, a commentary. Remainder wants to create zinging, charged spaces, stark, pared down, in the manner of those ancient plays it clearly admires—The Oresteia, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. The ancients, too, troubled themselves with trauma, repetition, death and commentary (by chorus), with the status of bodies before the law, with what is to be done with the remainder. But the ancients always end in tragedy, with the indifferent facticity of the world triumphantly crushing the noble, suffering self. Remainder ends instead in comic declension, deliberately refusing the self-mythologizing grandeur of the tragic. Fact and self persist, in comic misapprehension, circling each other in space (literally, in a hijacked plane). And it’s precisely within Remainder’s newly revealed spaces that the opportunity for multiple allegories arises. On literary modes (How artificial is realism?), on existence (Are we capable of genuine being?), on political discourse (What’s left of the politics of identity?) and on the law (Where do we draw our borders? What, and whom, do we exclude, and why?). As surface alone, though, so fully imagined, and so imaginative, Remainder is more than sufficient.




  What follows is a version of a lecture given to the students of Columbia University’s Writing Program in New York on Monday, March 24, 2008. The brief: “to speak about some aspect of your craft.”


  First, a caveat: what I have to say about craft extends no further than my own experience, which is what it is—twelve years and three novels. Although this lecture will be divided into ten short sections meant to mark the various stages in the writing of a novel, what they most accurately describe, in truth, is the writing of my novels. That being said, I want to offer you a pair of ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.

  You will recognize a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Mole skines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

  Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first twenty pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first twenty pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began
: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pileup of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first twenty pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first twenty pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

  Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter. . . . When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.


  It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone. I gather sentences round, quotations, the literary equivalent of a cheerleading squad. Except that analogy’s screwy—cheerleaders cheer. I put up placards that make me feel bad. For five years I had a line from Gravity’s Rainbow stuck to my door:We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function . . . zeroing in on what incalculable plot?

  At that time, I guess I thought that it was the duty of the novel to rigorously pursue hidden information: personal, political, historical. I say I guess because I don’t recognize that writer anymore, and already find her idea of the novel oppressive, alien, useless. I don’t think this feeling is unusual, especially when you start out. Not long ago I sat next to a young Portuguese novelist at dinner and told him I intended to read his first novel. He grabbed my wrist, genuinely distressed, and said: “Oh, please don’t! Back then, all I read was Faulkner. I had no sense of humor. My God, I was a different person!”

  That’s how it goes. Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write. Much of the excitement of a new novel lies in the repudiation of the one written before. Other people’s words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you’re going.

  Recently I came across a new quote. It’s my screen saver now, my little scrap of confidence as I try to write a novel. It is a thought of Derrida’s and very simple:If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.

  Which is to say: enough of human dissection, of entering the brains of characters, cracking them open, rooting every secret out! For now, this is the new attitude. Years from now, when this book is done and another begins, another change will come.

  “My God, I was a different person!”—I think many writers think this, from book to book. A new novel, begun in hope and enthusiasm, grows shameful and strange to its author soon enough. After each book is done, you look forward to hating it (and you never have to wait long); there is a weird, inverse confidence to be had from feeling destroyed, because being destroyed, having to start again, means you have space in front of you, somewhere to go. Think of that revelation Shakespeare put in the mouth of King John: “Now my soul has elbow room!” Fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move.


  Some writers won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own. Not one word. They don’t even want to see the cover of a novel. As they write, the world of fiction dies: no one has ever written, no one is writing, no one will ever write again. Try to recommend a good novel to a writer of this type while he’s writing and he’ll give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. It’s a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra—they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.

  Yet you meet students who feel that reading while you write is unhealthy. Their sense is that it corrupts voice by influence and, moreover, that reading great literature creates a sense of oppression. For how can you pipe out your little mouse song when Kafka’s Josephine the Mouse Singer pipes so much more loudly and beautifully than you ever could? To this way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even if it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber E. M. Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

  For me, that echo chamber was essential. I was fourteen when I heard John Keats in there and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class—though how archaic that must sound, here in America. Keats was not working-class, exactly, nor black—but in rough outline his situation seemed closer to mine than the other writers you came across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked “Apprentices Welcome Here.” For Keats went about his work like an apprentice; he took a kind of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free, in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban, lower-middle-class boy, a few steps removed from the literary scene, he made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence—he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own. And the feeling of apprenticeship never left him: you see it in his early experiments in poetic form; in the letters he wrote to friends expressing his fledgling literary ideas; it’s there, famously, in his reading of Chapman’s Homer, and the fear that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. The term role model is so odious, but the truth is it’s a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. I think of Keats. Keats slogging away, devouring books, plagiarizing, impersonating, adapting, struggling, growing, writing many poems that made him blush and then a few that made him proud, learning everything he could from whomever he could find, dead or alive, who might have something useful to teach him.


  In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical center of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 A.M., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you
wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything—I mean, everything—flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something—it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper—every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel. If you are fortunate enough to have someone waiting to publish your novel, this is the point at which you phone them in a panic and try to get your publication date brought forward because you cannot believe how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now, and if it isn’t published next Tuesday maybe the moment will pass and you will have to kill yourself.

  Magical thinking makes you crazy—and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems of structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved, and the whole chapter falls into place! Why didn’t you see that before? You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you read ends up being your epigraph—it seems to have been written for no other reason.


  When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it. Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding. With me, scaffolding comes in many forms. The only way to write this novel is to divide it into three sections of ten chapters each. Or five sections of seven chapters. Or the answer is to read the Old Testament and model each chapter on the books of the prophets. Or the divisions of the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Psalms. Or Ulysses. Or the songs of Public Enemy. Or the films of Grace Kelly. Or the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse. Or the liner notes to The White Album. Or the twenty-seven speeches Donald Rums feld gave to the press corps during his tenure.

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