Book Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Title: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Essays, non-fiction
Publisher: Penguin Press
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from the public library
First line: This book was written without my knowledge.

Vasilly from 1330v and I decided to read this essay collection together for the Essay Challenge and because we both had it on our to-read list. We both found the collection hit-and-miss. I slogged my way through the whole thing; Vasilly read the ones she enjoyed and skimmed the rest. I think she probably had the better idea, because some of the essays were just plain boring.

Afterward, she asked me, “Did you go into Changing My Mind with any expectations about the writing or subject matter?”

I answered, “I did have high expectations for the Smith essay collection, for two reasons. One, I adored her novel On Beauty. Second, I have been spoiled by essay collections like Yolen’s Touch Magic, Chabon’s Maps and Legends, and Fadiman’s Ex Libris and At Small and At Large – oh, and Hornby’s bookish essays – in which every single entry in those collections was amazing. My experience with Changing My Mind was much more hit and miss. There were a few I enjoyed greatly, several I found boring, and I will admit to skimming the final one about David Foster Wallace.”

We did both enjoy the first essay, “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” Vasilly will be writing more about that particular essay today at her blog, so be sure and click over to read her thoughts. As I read that essay, there was a question that immediately came to mind.

As an African-American woman, do you agree/disagree with the following passage – and why or why not?

“Gratifying as it would be to agree that black women writers “have consistently rejected the falsification” of their experience, the honest reader knows that this is simply not the case. In place of negative falsification, we have nurtured, in the past thirty years, a new fetishization. Black female protagonists are now unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid; they take the unreal forms of earth mothers, African queens, divas, spirits of history; they process grandly through novels thick with a breed of greeting-card lyricism. They have little of the complexity, the flaws and uncertainties, depth and beauty of Janie Crawford and the novel she springs from. They are pressed into service as role models to patch over our psychic wounds; they are perfect; they overcompensate. The truth is, black women writers, while writing many wonderful things, have been no more or less successful at avoiding the falsification of human experience than any other group of writers.”

Vasilly answered: “I haven’t read enough to say that it’s true of black women writers but I can say that this stereotype is true. Of the stories that I love that feature a black woman as the main character like Morrison’s Beloved or Pearl Cleage’s What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, it’s the flaws in the character that I have loved. No reader can relate to the main character who’s perfect in every way. There’s no story there.

I also think this stereotype was created because of the real world. As a black woman, I know that strangers often look at me as if they’re waiting for me to have an attitude about something. You know the obnoxious, head-swinging, finger-snapping female with whatever economic issues they think I have. But when I take out my book to read, I see people relax and how easy their perception of me changes. It’s sad really.

I think that’s why some black female characters are described in the way they are. It’s a shield from the world. It’s made to give people one less thing to judge black women by. But you don’t just find these characters in books written by blacks but also by other races also. A similar stereotype can be found about women of other races also.

I recently talked to another blogger, Ari from Reading in Color and she told me how much she loves Janie Crawford. To her Janie was this great character who was headstrong and could be a bit frustrating at times. That’s the kind of character I always want to read about. Someone with flaws but redeeming qualities, who is so realistic that I can be fooled into thinking that this person really exists.

I haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God yet but I do plan on reading it this month. Janie Crawford sounds like an amazing character.”

“Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” was another essay that I enjoyed, especially the following passage:

“After all, you can storm the house of a novel like Barthes, rearranging the furniture as you choose, or you can enter on your knees, like the pilgrim Nabokov thought you were, and try to figure out the cunning design of the place – the house will stand either way.”

This brought to mind another question for V:

Is the author’s intention upon writing the work important, or does only the reader’s reaction matter? And can you separate your “self” from what you read? Is it possible to approach a work of literature with a completely blank slate?

Vasilly answered: “As readers, we bring our experiences with us when we open up a book and begin reading the first page. There’s no way we can leave those experiences behind when we do so. Our experiences is what help us relate to a work of art. The author’s intention is very important but because the reader is a different person than the author, there are things that a reader picks up that an author may never notice until it’s pointed out to them.

I think the first time you read a book, you’re “rearranging furniture”. After that every reading of the same book is more about paying attention and seeing how this work was designed.”

Here’s another passage from the same essay:

“The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera. It’s a fortunate rereader who knows half a dozen novels this way in their lifetime.”

As for the rest of the essays, I told Vasilly: “There were a few essays on authors and/or novels that convinced me I have no interest in reading either those authors or those novels! πŸ™‚ Kafka and David Foster Wallace, for instance, seem like two authors whose books would be way too much work to read. I did, however, renew my pledge to read Middlemarch very soon after reading her essay on that particular classic.

Vasilly responded: “I remember reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” when I was younger and thinking it was so bizarre. Last year I read Wallace’s “This is Water” which is a speech that he gave to a graduating class. It’s a great read and really easy. I want to read more by DFW but I am pretty scared! His writing does sound like a lot of work which I don’t mind, but I hope to understand half of it when I do read it! :-)”

My favorite essay in the collection was “That Crafty Feeling,” about Smith’s writing process. I love reading about how writers work and then feel about their work after publication. Here are my two favorite passages from that essay:

“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 your 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….

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second – put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal – but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they’ve read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.”

So, to sum up: if you decide to read this book, be willing to dip in and out, skip around, skim until you find the essays that resonate with you. And do read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty – it’s brilliant.

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14 Responses to Book Review: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  1. I just purchased this book yesterday, great review and insight.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Dusky – thanks – it was fun to read it and discuss it with a friend. Hope you enjoy it.

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  3. Melissa
    Twitter: avidreader12
    says:

    Wonderful review. I’ve been on the fence about reading this one, because I too loved On Beauty, but I think I’ll pass. I am glad for the essay collections you mentioned at the top. I loved Ex Libris and I’ve really loved books by both Yolen and Chabon, so I added those to my TBR. Thanks!

  4. If I read this one, I’ll just pick the essays that interest me.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Kathy – that’s the best idea, I think. That used to bother me – the idea of not reading a book cover to cover, but it doesn’t any more.

  5. Kailana says:

    I am kinda curious about this book, but the library doesn’t have it and it doesn’t sound like it is worth buying. Good review of it, though!

  6. Em says:

    I must admit that I am not tempted to read this.
    I’m glad that you mention her essay on Barthes though, as I intend to review a few of his essays soon.
    Wouldn’t you try some of Kafka’s short stories? I agree, “The Metamorphosis” is weird, but it is a great story. It’s the only one I have read (13 years ago), but it has stayed with me since and I intend to read more of his stories.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Em – I might be willing to attempt Kafka’s short fiction – that doesn’t sound quite as intimidating. πŸ™‚

  7. Ash says:

    I love how deep you get into these essays! I’ve never read anything by Zadie Smith because it seems like all of her work is pretty hit and miss and I’d frankly rather explore essayists that aren’t so popular.

    • CarrieK
      Twitter: booksandmovies
      says:

      Ash – If you decide to give her a try, I thought On Beauty was brilliant. πŸ™‚

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