Posted on | November 1, 2010 | 1 Comment
I’m a little late to the conversation on this one, but a few weeks ago, Harper’s announced that Zadie Smith would be taking over book reviewing duties from Benjamin Moser, which left some of the blogosphere puzzled. Why would one of the most prominent novelists of the past few years want to busy herself with book review round-ups?
Recently, I was given a collection of book reviews by Virginia Woolf, which I’ve been dipping into between other readings. The fun thing about seeing a familiar novelist stepping into the role of critic is that it’s a chance to see the novelist take stock of herself, if only by displacement. In Woolf’s commendations and castigations, we can see her refining her notion of what constitutes good prose. (There’s also the literary catfight factor. Woolf on Forster’s A Room with a View: “we are conscious of some disappointment when for one reason or another it goes a different way, and the view is smaller than we expected.” Oh snap!) Her praise of the novelist Elinor Mordaunt lays out a vision of what it is to be a novelist in full command of her creative faculties:
Mrs Mordaunt’s mind is an extremely honest one, and where it points, she follows. She takes us with her, therefore, our intelligence on the alert, uncertain what is to happen, but with an increasing consciousness that all that happens is part of a genuine design. The writer is sufficiently the mistress of her art to hold this out firmly before us, without any of those sudden immersions in this character or that incident which overcome the ill-equipped writer and destroy his composition.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this review precedes Woolf’s best work by several years; she might as well be describing the author of To the Lighthouse.
Woolf’s reviews have an aphoristic quality. She opens with a general truth, then goes on to explain how a book conforms, or fails to conform, to the principle at hand. The remarkable economy with which she hones in on a writer’s intentions makes her all the more cutting when they go unmet. Opening a review of A Novelist on Novels by the critic W.L. George, she writes, “Mr George is one of those writers for whom we could wish, in all kindness of heart, some slight accident to the fingers of the right hand, some twinge or ache warning him that it is time to stop, some check making brevity more desirable than expansion.” Her wishing bodily harm upon a fellow writer notwithstanding, one gets the sense that she doesn’t mean it cruelly.
As wonderfully sharp as she can be in the negative, Woolf is even more persuasive when she comes upon something she likes. It’s here that her inheritance as a novelist is most evident: the language of approbation is the most difficult in which to avoid cliché, and Woolf has an eye for exactly what brings a novel’s elements into harmony: “The obvious thing to say about Mr Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel The Three Black Pennys is that it possesses form as undoubtedly as a precious stone shaped to fit exactly into a band of gold possesses form.” On the contrary, her image is far too precise to be obvious.
I’m not saying Zadie Smith is Virginia Woolf reborn—though I can’ t imagine she’d object—but only that, whatever her motives, Smith’s new Harper’s gig has admirable antecedents. As mentioned in an earlier post, Smith’s recent essays have caught her in the midst of a kind of existential reckoning with the realist tradition in which she typically works. “To love Forster is to reconcile oneself to the admixture of banality and brilliance that was his,” she writes a touch apologetically of a novelist on whose work she once saw fit to model an entire book. It’s impossible to predict what this new penchant for criticism means for Smith’s fiction, but I’m looking forward to reading as she tries to figure it out.