Zadie Smith: 'Read Better'

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Saturday, 27 January 2007

After reading Zadie Smith's final installment of advice for readers and writers alike in last week's Guardian Review ('Read Better', January 20th), I'm a tad confused. Has she never encountered the post-structuralist school of thought? Her otherwise interesting thoughts on reading and criticism seemed somewhat marred by her misplaced belief that ‘in the present literary culture, the idea of the individual reader [has] gone into terminal decline […] in writing schools, in reading groups, in universities.’ At Sheffield Uni, at least, this could not be further from the truth: the writings of Jacques Derrida, Helene Cixous, Deleuze and Guattari, among others, all being taught. These writers not only champion a reading open to the Other, to fluctuations in meanings and possibility, and to an individual and unique experience of literature that frees the potentiality of language, but also support the idea that, as Smith puts it, ‘the world is not as we say it is’. If any such ‘ur novels’ exist within the post-structuralist school, then, they are those inherently slippery and genuinely original pieces: Kafka’s The Trial, Woolf’s Between the Acts, Joyce’s Ulysses; in short, all those works that endlessly wriggle free from the blueprint of a single reading system. As one of Smith’s ‘young readers’, then, I am not, as she suggests, ‘struggling to choose from a smorgasbord of reading systems that are put before [me] in an average undergraduate week’. Far from it: my studies have made me well aware of the potentially infinite iterability and reinterpretation that all literary texts are open to; to the very ‘individual experience’ of literature that Smith would appear to be championing. Rather than being ‘trained to read only a limited variety of fiction’, then, I think that more and more readers are becoming aware of the importance of their individual experience of novels, and it is the post-structuralist ‘system’ of thought which Smith neglects that is, ultimately, helping to achieve this.

If anybody else has read the article(s), I'd be interested to hear what you think.