"I think people have an idea that when you produce a book, you’re saying, ‘I think this is what books should be,’ ” says Zadie Smith, who, at 30, is publishing her third. “But I write what I’m capable of, and sometimes I like it, and sometimes I don’t. I’m not a fool. I can see what’s shit about it.” Regarding her biting, poignant new academic novel, On Beauty, she says, “Campus novels are not my favorite in the world. But I have my lifetime to regret everything in the book.” Disparaging her latest work is a odd marketing tactic, I suggest. Isn’t she trying to sell it?
“No, no, the publishers are selling the book,” she avers. “I’m writing the book. That’s two separate deals. My dad sold things his whole life; I don’t sell things. I got into this business so I didn’t have to sell anything.”
Then again, perhaps Smith’s self-criticism is an act of critical jujitsu. The Cambridge-educated Londoner burst fully formed as a literary celebrity at 25, when her sweeping, multicultural novel White Teeth was praised to the heavens. Her beauty, brains, and mixed ethnic background made her a poster girl for Cool Britannia. Her second novel, The Autograph Man, was bound to be a disappointment, and, not surprisingly, the critical response was mixed.
Perhaps most disappointed of all, in retrospect, was Smith herself. “I hope I have the brain to differentiate when someone just wants to kick me down the stairs for a laugh, or when someone’s actually trying to explain to me what’s wrong with the book. When I was writing The Autograph Man, I thought my father was dying, I was incredibly miserable, I really disliked my life, and I wrote a book which was very angry and sad. But it also was about something important to me, and maybe I didn’t express it properly. On Beauty might be cased up in a nicer icing, but it is about many similar things.”
Smith’s icing is a structure that mimics E. M. Forster’s Howards End. And if the novel is more conventional than her previous books, its characters are more fully realized. Professor Howard Belsey and his tattered family have only the highest ideals, but temptation—particularly physical beauty—makes hypocrites of them all.
The public’s obsession with Smith’s own appearance has, she acknowledges, helped shape the novel. “I think if you’re a woman your looks are an essential part of you because the world makes them so. When my book came out, how I looked was somehow a topic of conversation. It’s incredibly insulting and absurd, but they do it to wind you up, so I have to try not to be wound up by it.”
Smith does very little press in England. “I want to get on the tube, I want to have a life,” she says. “I’m not interested in being stared at in coffee shops. America’s a big country. In America only a few weirdos read. I mean, it seems like a lot of weirdos, but that’s because you’re a very big country.”
She’s not too keen on her homeland these days. “When I talk about England now I just think about the England that I loved,” she says, “and it’s just gone. It’s the way people look at each other on the train; just general stupidity, madness, vulgarity, stupid TV shows, aspirational arseholes, money everywhere. It’s just a disgusting place. It’s terrifying. Maybe I’m just getting old.”
Smith spends a lot of time here; most recently, she absconded to Harvard for three semesters of teaching and writing. Though she started working on On Beauty there, Smith denies any direct connection between Cambridge and the book’s fictional setting—Wellington, Massachusetts. “Universities are universities—they’re just inherently funny places,” she says. Mingled in with the satire, too, is humble admiration. “I dreamt of being an academic, and I couldn’t cut it. I think they’re amazing. You need to have balls of steel to be an academic. I just haven’t got the balls. And also I haven’t got a Ph.D., which I believe is a key requirement.”
The author may yet submit a book of essays she’s writing for a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. She expects the nonfiction might be a greater accomplishment. “Writing a novel is quite stupid work,” she says. “In a novel you’re never wrong. Novelists aren’t intellectuals; they’re just intuitive, if they’re lucky.”
Perhaps Smith’s luck has turned. She’s been nominated for a Booker for a third time this year. Might she finally make the short list? “No, there’s no chance. Have you seen the fucking list? Any other year, maybe. But it’s a hell of a list, so whatever happens it’ll be . . . good for fiction!”