Zadie Smith on Leve, Etc

It looks like Harper’s has continually upped the space for space for Zadie Smith’s book column to the point that in May she covers just two books in four pages. That’s actually a fair amount of real estate for a “roundup,” so perhaps this new gig might not be a waste of her and our time.

However, that will only be if she manages to write some better criticism than what we see in her unilluminating and annoyingly hip thoughts on Suicide, which she seems to think is some kind of book of adolescent angst:

That mixture of thoughtfulness and self-regard, honest interrogation and mere posing—if I were fifteen, Autoportrait would be my bible. As an adult, I still find Levé hard to resist, perhaps because his adolescent aesthetic reminds us of the kind of writing that got us reading in the first place.

She both takes the book as some kind of suicide note and considers the book’s suicide victim as an obvious stand-in for Leve, two readings that are rather lazy and mundane. This is the way the whole review is. It’s not insightful at all, just kind of engagingly written and superficial.

Mysteriously enough, despite trashing Suicide as fatuous, adolescent, and cheaply philosophical, she then arrives at a positive verdict on the book:

Now, is all of this about you or Levé? Does the difference matter? It is as if Levé has found an existential way to depict a friendship: two souls intermingled in a pronoun. The sadness of this book is overwhelming. Yet at the same time it’s a cause for happiness, because it’s the final record of a writer who found, in the end, the correct vessel for his talents. In Suicide Levé’s fragments become wonderfully sharp, conjuring tragedy in a few sentences: “You kept a tape of the messages left on your answering machine by mistake. One of them went: ‘We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine. We’ve arrived fine.’ Uttered slowly by an old lady in despair.”

For her other book, Seven Years by Peter Stamm (cheers; two books in translation published by small presses), Smith delivers a fairly mundane plot summary and commits the unpardonable sin of parenthetically patting a translator on the head: “Stamm’s prose (beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann) is plain but not so simple . . .”

As with the review of the Leve, it takes on a chatty tone that strains for coolness:

A thin volume from Other Press ($15.95), it has a bewitching cover: a photograph of an antique bedstead with stylish contemporary sheets, set against a tasteful gray wall. I took one look at it and thought: God, I wish I lived like that. This bourgeois response proved thematically important, as we shall see. It gets under your skin, this novel. It welcomes you into a clean, modern space as appealing as that room—and then it really fucks with you, if you’ll excuse my Swiss-German.

Maybe one of Smith’s friends will tell her how this kind of writing sounds, since it seems that whoever edits her at Harper’s is willing to let it go.

Judging by Smith’s criticism that has been published previously elsewhere, she has much better work in her than this. I look forward to seeing it.

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Here’s an interview between Smith and the person who edits her — Gemma Sieff.

In this conversation, Sieff seems weirdly fawning and self-conscious around Smith; at one point, she abruptly interrupts Smith’s point about notetaking to ask her, “Do you think that I’m a good taskmistress?”

Perhaps that attitude is limiting Sieff’s ability to be a strong editor for Smith.

Wow. Just wow. She sounds like she’s, maybe, 18 years old.

It’s the great crisis of modern (commercially-backed) fiction that stooges like Zadie Smith and Safran Foer are being passed off as the modern exemplar of ‘novelist’ and ‘person of letters.’

And sorry to say this, since you seem to have some inexplicable affinity for the fellow, but Scott, I feel very much the same way about the gleefully self-parodying Geoff Dyer.


No apology/qualification necessary. This blog is big enough for disagreeing opinions.

Like any style, Dyer’s can develop problems if taken too far, and I mentioned some examples of these in my review of his collected criticism. But by and large I find that he honors literature by giving uncommonly perceptive, precise, and innovative readings of those books he likes.

She completely missed the point. Levé’s “I” is only partially autobiographical; it’s not marketed as a memoir for a reason. Foer is a pissant. Smith is a blight.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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