Why Zadie Smith Puts Fans Before Critics

The White Teeth author isn't worrying about the mixed reviews of her new book, NW.

Zadie Smith (Dominique Nabokov); Penguin Press

TR: How do you deal with mixed reviews?

ZS: An intelligent review is never too depressing, even if it’s bad; it’s the uncomprehending or spiteful ones that hurt. I can remember receiving a letter from David Foster Wallace a long time ago in which he mentioned how hurt he was by the reviews of his work in the New York Times. After he died, I was writing an essay about him, and so I looked back on those reviews and wrote about them, too. It wasn’t just that they were bad, in both senses; it’s that they were totally uncomprehending of what he was even attempting to do. And that’s the worst kind of review.

Of course, in his case the past got rewritten: After he died the same reviewers were keen to assure us that they had always thought the man a genius. But the truth is throughout his career all he received were mixed and patronizing reviews. It was the readers who understood the work and what it was attempting.

For myself, I’m just as thin-skinned as the next writer … the critique has to come to the book on its own terms. Just saying, “I prefer a plain story plainly told” — as if anything that deviates from some completely arbitrary idea of “plain” is a crime in itself — well, you can’t win with those folks.

TR: What shifts in multicultural London have you seen since writing White Teeth?

ZS: I’m not the best person to ask — I’ve been away from home for the better part of 10 years. I’m back in the summers. One summer there’s a royal wedding; one summer there’s a riot; the next summer, the Olympics. It’s hard to generalize.

But I guess I don’t think of the city as “multicultural London” any more than I walk into my mother’s flat and think, “Ah, there she is, my black mother surrounded by her multicultural family.” I don’t see it as a coherent entity that is in development or shifting. It’s a trap for nonwhite people to consider themselves as a sort of sociological experiment or the basis of a political debate. We are people; we exist.

The changes I see in London are almost wholly economic, and it is into this changing economic landscape that people of many colors must try to exist and survive. And it’s the same change you see everywhere. The rich are richer and the poor poorer.

Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Lewis is a former editor at Vibe, XXL and BET.com. Follow him on Twitter and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.

Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.