(Carried in The Hindu, July 2006. This was an interesting piece to write; I have never met Zadie Smith, and it was very strange, recognising how much in the way of personal detail you end up knowing about even the most reticent writers in the media age. And how little of that detail makes a difference–if an author comes up with something as good as On Beauty, you really couldn’t give a damn if she can outdance Fred and Ginger combined or if she has two left feet.)

Zadie Smith sings jazz and used to tap dance. Zadie Smith went to
King’s College, Cambridge. Zadie Smith’s real name was Sadie Smith,
but she changed it long before she became famous with White
Teeth , earning a record POUNDS 250,000 advance for the first novel
she wrote at the age of 21.

Zadie Smith doesn’t like references to her beauty, even though Google
Images carries over 3,600 pictures of the author at various stages.
Zadie Smith’s marriage to fellow writer Nick Laird is as perfect as
her acknowledgement to him in her third, Orange Prize-winning novel,
On Beauty : “I thank my husband, whose poetry I steal to make my
prose look pretty. …This book is dedicated to him, as is my life.”

Like many readers, I’m an unwilling player of Trivial Pursuit, the
Zadie Smith Edition. We know too much about her, and none of what we
know is of much consequence. We know that her name is a cliché: one
year, it’s Monica Ali who’s the “new Zadie Smith”, the next it’s Ali
Smith who’s the “new Zadie Smith”, and meanwhile the old Zadie Smith
is still very much with us.

Few authors have had a baptism like hers, or lived out early adulthood
under such an insistent media glare. White Teeth , published in
2000, was the work of a young, bright mind discovering history for
the sake of her generation. A generous blurb by Salman Rushdie, the
gust of publicity over the large advance and the rush of interest in
the “multicultural” novel sent it to the top of the charts. Zadie
Smith grew up like like celebrity child film stars, a
paparazzi-haunted writer whose prose was dissected on the books pages
just as her changing taste in clothes was analysed on the fashion
pages.

It was easy to forget that she was young, and White Teeth ,
inevitably, disappointed. A survey by The Bookseller
encapsulated the contradictory reaction to White Teeth : it was
one of the books most often picked up by reading groups, and it was
one of the books that reading groups most often expressed
disappointment with.

Meanwhile, Smith was on the successful writer’s rollercoaster, doing
the autograph softshoe shuffle, the book tour quickstep, the litfest
rap, the interview samba, and if she missed a beat, everyone noticed.
If she seemed tired or snappy, people complained about her aloofness,
her refusal to play the part.

Zadie Smith may have been a media creation, but her talent was
unmistakeable—and she rapidly outgrew the book that had made her
famous. Asked how she felt about White Teeth , “I wrote like a
script editor for The Simpsons who’d briefly joined a religious cult
and then discovered Foucault.” She meant it. Later, on yet another
book tour—they were blurring in Smith’s mind now—she wrote: “Any
original thought the writer ever had – every pretty black mark she
ever made on a piece of white paper – is replaced by the endlessly
reoccurring phenomena of the writer’s own name rising up at them in
embossed font on the front of a book they have come to despise.”

The response to her second novel, The Autograph Man , was
critical. It was about Alex, who becomes a collector of autographs in
the wake of his father’s death, and few things convey the dour,
schematic flavour of this novel more than the helpful questions Random
House offers on its website for the benefit of reading groups.

Sample: “Alex grows hysterical observing autograph collectors at the
convention in New York. “As if the world could be saved this way! As
if impermanence were not the golden rule! And can I get Death’s
autograph, too? Have you got a plastic sheath for that, Mr. Autograph
Man?” [p. 207]. What function does collecting and selling autographs
serve for Alex?”

Sample: “In what ways can the novel, as a whole, be read as a critique
of modern western culture? How do the characters, in the way they live
their lives, exemplify this critique?”

If The Autograph Man , written just two years after White
Teeth was published, reflected anything, it was Smith’s own
disillusionment. The novel exuded tiredness and disaffection, which
didn’t make it an easy read.

On Beauty took her four years to write. During that time, Zadie
Smith matured as a writer who was also a sensitive reader and critic,
as her classic essay on Kafka and the novel demonstrated. On
Beauty reworked E M Forster’s Howard’s End through the
stories of the Belseys and the Kipps. Part university novel, part a
hilarious dissection of a strong marriage torn apart by two affairs,
one played out as tragedy, one as farce, On Beauty’s greatest
strengths were the strengths of Howard’s End . Some saw it as too
slight—amusing but ultimately banal. Even so, it made it to the Booker
shortlist, and won the Orange Prize. With works by Hilary Mantel and
Ali Smith on that shortlist, it was hard to argue that On Beauty
had won for any reason other than merit.

In On Beauty , there’s a passage about Claire, a poet and mentor
to younger would-be writers: “Claire felt very tired. She was a poet.
How had she ever ended up here, in one of these institutions… where
one must make an argument for everything, even an argument for wanting
to write about a chestnut tree?”

This has been Zadie Smith’s predicament. Everything she’s written
about is placed under the microscope, everything she says is over a
live microphone. To judge a writer by the two books written before she
even reached the age of 25 is absurd. Smith’s talent has never been in
doubt, but in many ways, her pilgrim’s progress as an author begins
with On Beauty , not with White Teeth . Zadie Smith, the
oldest new kid on the block, is finally beginning to come into her
own.