Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, February 25, 2008

Zadie Smith Speaks, Can We Take Her Seriously?

Published in "The Willesden Herald":

Novelist Zadie Smith, who has received a number of awards including the Whitbread First Novel award for White Teeth and the Orange Prize for Fiction for On Beauty, has caused a stir in the blogosphere and the mainstream media with a blistering attack on literary prizes. Writing in the Willesden Herald's blog she says that most literary prizes are "only nominally" about literature and are "really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies." Her comments were written in the context of the Willesden Herald's judges decision to cancel their annual award (after short-listing the top 10 stories) because the general standard of submissions was not considered high enough to award the prize. Says Smith, "Just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering by it, does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories of multicultural life on the streets of north London."

Okay, thank you, Zadie for your opinion. Opinions are always appreciated, however I don't know how seriously I can take yours on this subject.

It's long been known that literary prizes are politically motivated, given to substandard literature, or yes, "only nominally" about literature, itself. But Zadie, where were you when those committees awarded you your prizes? Out collecting them, of course, no doubt in the hopes of furthering your career, which you did. I didn't want to read a story of multicultural life on the streets of North London when you wrote White Teeth.

Personally, Zadie's comments would carry a lot more weight had she realized what we all know is (mostly) true and not accepted all those "nominally literary" prizes.

You may feel differently, but I found her remarks to be hypocritical.


Brooke said...


I was disappointed in White Teeth. After two of my most trusted Professors raved about it I found that my scruples would not allow me to continue reading the book for pleasure.

I understand that White Teeth is a work of fiction, yet the facets of the novel concerning Jehovah's Witnesses are so poorly researched and inflammatory that they ruined the read for me. Perpetuating myth through fiction has long been a tactic of malicious propaganda. While there are myriad ways to criticize any religion, perpetuating negative stereotypes and misinformation are not ones I consider highly intellectual, nor are they the means by which a novel achieves greatness. Can you imagine Tolstoy getting the intricacies of Russian military rank and status tangled and any of his work being able to stand on two legs? Of course, some might say that he was simply using the military as a context, and his real stories are in the relationships between characters. Yet, it wouldn't be the same, would it? I don't know what Smith's purpose was in using misinformation concerning Jehovah's Witnesses as the provacative backdrop for White Teeth -- perhaps she didn't take it seriously at all, but simply needed religious controversy, and chose accordingly. Whatever the case, in this age of easily accessible information, you would think that a writer scrutinizing ethnicity, national boundaries, economics, and gender would have been somewhat more responsible when exploiting a minority religion.

I suppose I bring this up because your post so straightforwardly highlights this aspect of her personality; she flirts heavily with sincerity, then fails to back up her claims.

Fabulous blog, by the way. I'm having a great time reading your posts.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
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