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Zadie Smith feels the entertainment media’s teeth

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A flurry of coverage of novelist Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, has been brought on by its impending UK television adaptation and her forthcoming second novel, The Autograph Man.

The Independent sympathizes with the British (or is it universal?) tendency to build them up, then tear them down. The BBC reports that she will be fleeing the intense UK publicity for the relative calm of graduate work at Harvard. The Guardian quizzes her on her feelings about the TV version of her work and presents a loafer’s guide for viewers. Fortunately, the Guardian also gives us an excerpt from The Autograph Man.

Says the Independent about her new novel:

What remains the same is Smith’s fascination with minority cultures, in the latest novel Jews. Black identification with the experience of Jewish life is hardly new: from the slaves in America singing spirituals about life in Egypt under the pharaohs to the post-war civil rights movements in the American South that drew on Jewish precedents… Her principal character, the autograph man himself, is writing a book cataloguing which characteristics and people are Jewish and which are goyish [gentile]; unsurprisingly the warm, humanly enhancing characteristics are Jewish, the distant, cool ones are goyish…

There is another Lenny Bruce riff that comes to mind when thinking of Smith’s own career thoughts: first to be a tap-shoe dancer, then a jazz singer and finally a popular writer. Bruce, discussing the survival strategies of minorities, instances entertainment as a traditional escape from enslavement and its modern form, pigeon-holing. This, he posits, is the real impulse behind black singing (“Hey slave, put that pick down and come over here and sing that song again”) and Jewish charm (“Hey Jew, stop building that pyramid and come over here and be charming”). Listen to Smith herself comment on her decision to give up her ambition to be a dancer: “Slowly but surely the pen became mightier than the double pick-up timestep with shuffle.”

It’s hard to imagine Zadie’s kind of candor about race and culture making it to American television, however satirically packaged. Maybe to the big screen, provided it’s branded as being from a known “irreverent” director. I look forward to renting White Teeth in 2004 or so.

Meanwhile with all the interest the media have given to Zadie Smith’s changing hairstyles, she has passed on the favor with the essay “On the Road: American Writers and Their Hair“.

[See more of Prentiss Riddle: books in my blog.]
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  • andi

    Unfortunetly, since hardly any teenagers actually READ anymore, not too many of them will see this review, nor any non-teenagers by the look of it.
    However I will put in my two cents anyhow.

    White Teeth was an amazing book and I suggest that anybody pick it up. It was funny,insightful of the teenage mind, and just overall good literature in my opinion.

    The Autograph Man on the other hand, was not so hot. Although I love Smith’s humour pertaining to “Jews and Goys”, it was a little less then exciting, and definitly not as good of a read as White Teeth. I’m sure there’s some hidden “symbolism” or something that they’re always telling us to read into in English class, but just as a regular old book to read for the heck of it, I’d say pass on it.

  • http://othelladub.diaryland.com dublin

    My friend, how can ya diss “The Autograph Man” – I can’t diss or praise it, due to my continued investigations of “White Teeth,” but I can say this – she’s got an ear for dialogue, she’s funny, and she’s one smart woman. If only lived down the hall from me in the good old days, when I was inhabiting a dorm. I might’ve summoned the courage to say “hi” or something. Damn!

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    I believe “White Teeth” holds up well as a paradigmatic coming of age novel by any literate person’s standards. I particularly find Smith’s description of young Muslim men’s flirtation with extremism in it almost deja vu. Following the Portland Seven terrorism case closely, I felt as if she had already written the preamble to it. Her description of racism among minority groups as also spot on — including the contradictory nature of it.

    I will be reviewing “The Autograph Man,” so I am going to save my opinion of it for that.

    It is refreshing to read some intelligent discussion of a race-related issue at Blogcritics. The stupid and bigoted usually take over threads touching on the topic and try to shut them down here.