4 Things Every Young Writer Can Learn From Zadie Smith

4 Things Every Young Writer Can Learn From Zadie Smith
Source: AP
Source: AP

Zadie Smith began her career as a prodigy. Her first novel, White Teeth, was published when she was 24. It was a critical smash hit. And while there are many writers who have faltered under the weight of such stunning success, Smith has only improved.

I am a recent convert the writings of Zadie Smith. My taste in literature tends toward plot-driven, genre-specific works that are about as far from White Teeth and On Beauty as possible. In my naiveté, I didn't see how literary fiction could impact my own work. I was so wrong. Since "discovering" her work, I have become increasingly enamored of her, as many aspiring writers are.

While I could go on for pages about the impact she's had on young writers, here are a few ways Zadie Smith is teaching the next generation of wordsmiths:


1. How to paint a picture with words.

We all know that a picture is a worth a thousand words. Zadie Smith, however, proves the opposite can be true. No picture can capture the world as vividly as she does through her artful language. My interest in her work came about when I attended an event featuring Smith at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. As expected, she was thought-provoking and witty, but her reading of her novel NW demonstrated the power and beauty of her words. Zadie creates snapshots of moments in time. She is a historian who crafts a record of London through fiction. NW offers a lens through which we can see her her hometown. She proves that neither a complex plot nor elusive concepts are necessary to create an intriguing piece. She relies on observing portions of humanity with insanely rich detail. With every "I've got to chip" and "innit," she pushes us deeper into a the world she has cultivated. She captures the beauty of mundane moment like riding the tube or staring at an apple tree. It is just as much psycho-geography as it is an in-depth character study — a rare combination.

2. How to be a relatable feminist.

Before everyone gets their knickers in a twist over my use of the f-word, consider this: earlier this year, author Lauren Sandler, along with a few others, concluded that having more than one child is not conducive to a woman's writing career. As a critically and commercially successful writer and mother of two, what does Zadie Smith do? She picks apart the argument, of course, and points to the inherent sexism in such a belief.

"I have two children. Dickens had 10 — I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque?" she told the Telegraph

With literary fiction still being very much a man's world, Zadie Smith's strives represent an important feat.

"I was tormented when I was a kid because I couldn't think of a woman writer who had a kid, with the exception of A.S. Byatt," she told the London Evening Standard. "It seemed like an impossibility. If there are 15-year-old girls out there who look at the Women's Prize and realise it's totally possible, I don't see what's wrong with that."

Yet Smith has been able to do so without getting pigeonholed as a radical or opinionated author. She maintains a balance, letting her work lead the way and her opinions follow.

3. Not to be restricted by expectation.

Zadie Smith's role as a feminist does not mean she is solely a role model for female writers. Many of her works feature male protagonists, and she doesn't solely explore feminine ideas (whatever those may be). Instead, Smith transcends the gender gap in literary fiction, which has largely remained in the realm of men. She is proof that talent can be enough to break boundaries that may exist in any industry.

What else can she do to surprise the literary world? What about writing a science fiction novel as her next project — which is exactly what she plans to do.

4. That perfection is a myth.

Publishing a critically acclaimed novel may seem like the height of success for many writers. If we just look at Zadie Smith's successes, it's hard not to be immediately intimidated. After all, how could it be within the realm of possibility to replicate such success? But Zadie has had her share of bumps, most notably her sophomore novel Autograph Man. Where White Teeth is widely revered, Autograph Man is considered a misstep for Smith. The New Republic even went so far as to describe her as an unsuccessful imitator of Dave Eggers.

Instead of getting stuck in the black hole that is the sophomore slump, Smith went on to write two more critically acclaimed, prize-winning novels. So what can we learn from this? Well there's the obvious "never give up" message, but more so it's that perfection isn't possible. If someone like Zadie Smith can get hammered by critics, the rest of us will too, if we're lucky enough to receive their attention.

The goal is not to be perfect, but to learn from criticism that is constructive and leave the rest behind. In Smith's case, if this means writing a critically acclaimed follow-up, we'd be so lucky. 

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Melissa Hugel

Melissa is a freelance writer and blogger. She has written for the Scottish Book Trust and regularly contributes to Edinburgh based Illicit Ink. A keen interest in all things pop culture, Melissa studied history and film at McMaster University, and has an MA in creative writing from Edinburgh Napier University.

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