Changing My Mind: On Fiction, Race, And How 50 Cent Is Like Samuel Beckett

Illustration for article titled Changing My Mind: On Fiction, Race, And How 50 Cent Is Like Samuel Beckett

Zadie Smith established herself as a literary wunderkind when she published White Teeth at the age of 25. Her collection of essays on topics ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to 50 Cent shows she's grown into something more.


Divided into sections titled "Reading," "Being," "Seeing," "Feeling," and "Remembering," Changing My Mind is a book of "occasional essays," which Smith describes as "written for particular occasions, particular editors." Because of this structure, the collection doesn't feel particularly unified, but that isn't necessarily a weakness. Different readers will likely find different essays to love, but even those that don't grab the heart tend to engage the brain. Not having read any George Eliot, I found "Middlemarch and Everybody" hard going at first, and all the essays in "Reading" are pretty unapologetic about the specialized knowledge they require for full enjoyment. On the other hand, Smith's writing usually had the effect of making me really want to read the book she was talking about, especially Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Smith writes,

This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston's skill. She makes "culture" — that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance — seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called "the romance of oneself," a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes "black woman-ness" appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions...

Almost — but not quite. That is to say, when I'm reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn't normally. Things like "She is my sister and I love her."

A more evocative description of literary identification I've never read, and Smith's examination of the ways her blackness does and doesn't influence the way she reads Hurston will resonate with anyone who's ever found a "sister" on the page, of any race. It also provides a corrective to the opposite but equally restrictive notions that we can only enjoy books whose writers we identify with culturally, and that cultural identification has no place in the literary experience.

There was a strain of nastiness in Smith's novel On Beauty — characters who lacked physical self-confidence sometimes seemed like the novel's whipping boys (or girls) — and that nastiness occasionally resurges in Changing My Mind. In "Two Directions for the Novel," it's pretty clear that Smith thinks writer Joseph O'Neill has chosen the wrong direction. Of a passage from his novel Netherland, she writes, "an interesting thought is trying to reach us here, but the ghost of the literary burns it away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing." "Two Directions" makes an interesting argument for Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder as a model for fiction that gains new flexibility by breaking through the restrictions not just of attractive language but of human psychology. But can't fiction writers learn to praise one kind of writing without denigrating another? Is literature really a zero-sum game?

In a way, though, Smith's meanness just added to the growing conviction I had as I read Changing My Mind: that I was being granted a peek into the idiosyncratic brain of a very, very interesting person. This conviction reached its apex with Smith's film reviews. Smith claims in the very moving "Dead Man Laughing" that at her audition for a comedy troupe at Cambridge, "I wasn't funny. Not even slightly." She appears to have rectified this. Here she is on Get Rich or Die Tryin', addressing Fiddy directly:

I love that there are more naked men in this movie than in Brokeback. I love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialogue: "I'm in it for the money." "For what?" "Sneakers." "Anything else?" "A gun." "What you need that for?" "I don't know." I love that you watched GoodFellas and Scarface, like, a million times and decided to ditch all that narrative arc crap and get straight to the point with a minimalist voiceover: "Crack meant money. Money meant power. Power meant war." I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated. I love that the boss of your gang is dressed like Brando and is doing the voice from The Godfather. And then there is this: "So that was the crew. Four niggas dedicated to one thing and one thing only: getting paid and getting laid."


And sometimes Smith is just bizarre. In her review of The Weather Man, she writes,

I think I found the film palatable because I read it perversely. As I see it, the film's central concept is the aversion most right thinking people have to the actor Nicolas Cage. And he accepts this mantle so honorably and humbly in the film that I think maybe now I quite like him. It's an honest and comic performance and seems filled with all the genuine humiliations that one imagine Cage himself has suffered in the past 10 years. I don't want to tell you any more about it — it's best stumbled upon without expectations but with my reading kept in mind.


This is basically an anti-review, and Smith's general approach to film reviewing is so funny and ad hoc and fucking weird — yet so frequently spot on — that it made mean wish she hadn't quit doing it in 2006. More than that, it made me wish I still wrote film reviews. Changing My Mind may be most inspiring to other writers — I don't know of anyone else who actually likes essays on writing, even ones as smart as Smith's "That Crafty Feeling." But anybody who appreciates frank and well-informed and slightly off-center thinking will likely find what I did — that Smith makes one want to read more, think more, and generally be smarter, which is about the best thing a writer can do.

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays



"It also provides a corrective to the opposite but equally restrictive notions that we can only enjoy books whose writers we identify with culturally, and that cultural identification has no place in the literary experience."

Just this morning I had a conversation about how frustrating/insulting it is that straight men, even the ones who believe in feminist ideal of equality and freedom of choice, stubbornly resist books or films with female narratives. If the protagonist is a woman, it is considered "chick lit" or a "chick film" and therefore opaque, unknowable, and uninteresting to heterosexual men. As though identifying with a person of the opposite sex were impossible (and yet it's something women do all the time, because of the dominance of male narratives in our culture).

Smith's commentary, particularly her mention that she actually really dislikes the concept of literary identification despite its strong pull, seems to highlight the aspect of identification that is most troubling. It is a way of saying, "I'm different, I'm special... in just the way this character is different and special. And thus I understand her and she speaks to me." When we read like this, it reinforces the notion that if you don't share the gender, race, or class of the character, you cannot identify. When instead I think we should all be learning that it is possible to identify personally with any well-drawn, fully realized character, out of a sense of humanness that is more universal than we like to acknowledge.