New Essays on Zadie Smith

by Tracey L. Walters (Volume editor)
Textbook VI, 108 Pages


Decoded: New Essays on Zadie Smith examines the middle period of Zadie Smith’s illustrious career as a dynamic, experimental novelist of contemporary Black British writing. The five new essays in Decoded, written by innovative scholars in the fields of British literature and African Diasporic studies, bring together the most original and current analysis of Smith’s novels and literary criticism since the release of Smith’s NW (2012). Decoded includes discussions of NW, Swing Time, The Embassy of Cambodia, Grand Union, Changing My Mind, Feel Free, and Intimations. The essays delve into Smith’s philosophy about the role and responsibility of the artist, her ardent defense of the function of the novel in the digital age, and the connection between writers and readers. Also illuminated is Smith’s growth as a writer, her reconceptualization of racial identity, and shifting literary techniques from hysterical realism to social realism. Finally, the book discusses Smith's role as a public intellectua, and her evolution from an optimistic champion of multiculturalism to a subdued, austere realist who has broadened her social critique from the local to the global arena.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Modelling Citizens: From a Digital to a Literary Public Sphere in NW and Swing Time (Daniel South)
  • 2. Zadie Smith’s George Eliot’s Spinoza and Everybody: The Ethics of Austere Realism (James Arnett)
  • 3. Transmodern Identity Construction in Later Zadie Smith (Matthias Stephan)
  • 4. “[U]‌nder the Sign of Love”: Blackface Minstrelsy’s Trauma, Racial Exploitation, and Kinaesthetic Hauntologies in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Dr. Alberto Fernández Carbajal)
  • 5. The Quest for Knowledge: The Intellectual Woman in Zadie Smith’s Novels (Tracey L. Walters)
  • Contributors

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Zadie Smith: Critical Essays (2008) was a groundbreaking exploration of the novels White Teeth (2000), The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), and the short story “Hanwell in Hell” (2005). At the time of its publication, it made an important contribution to an emerging body of scholarship on Zadie Smith’s fiction. In 2013, Phillip Tew published Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond, an indepth edited collection of essays examining Smith’s writing from 2000 to 2012. Almost a decade later, Smith has authored a new novel, a book of short stories, a novella, and two collections of essays, enough fiction and non-fiction to warrant this new study. The five articles in Decoded: New Essays on Zadie Smith, focus on Smith’s most current literary output, and examine her evolution from an optimistic champion of multiculturalism to a subdued austere realist. Once the face and voice of multiculturalism, Smith has morphed into a transnational writer who has broadened her social critique from the local to the global arena.

It’s been twenty years since Smith published White Teeth, the novel that made her the darling of the literary establishment. White Teeth is by far her most successful novel. White Teeth sold more than 42,000 copies in its first print run and in 2002 it was adapted into a television mini-series. Subsequent novels also received critical acclaim. On Beauty (2005) was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Swing Time (2016) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and the collection of literary criticism, Feel Free (2018) was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. Undoubtedly, Smith has affirmed her place within British arts and letters as one of the most influential contemporary British writers, comparable to esteemed British authors Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, and more recently, Andrea Levy and Bernadine Evaristo. When Smith published White Teeth, she was merely a college student with wisdom beyond her years, using her writing to wrestle with provocative issues of the day, such as religious fundamentalism, eugenics, multiculturalism, and race and identity. Today, although Smith is a mature woman (a wife and mother of two children and professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University), there are still traces of ←1 | 2→the self-conscious teen trying to understand life’s biggest questions. Since the mid aughts, Smith has been preoccupied with digital technology. Like many writers in the digital age, Smith has reconciled with technology’s impact on society. Similar to the writers of the industrial age, she has been forced to adapt to a changing world, and her fiction and non-fiction reflect upon Big Tech’s impact on her fiction, her craft, and the broader society. In interviews, she expresses her aversion to social media, because of its effect on her mental health, productivity, and personal relationships. As a writer who focuses on the importance of human relationships, technology is an ever present adversary and with great frequency, Smith bemoans digital technology’s invasiveness and interruption of the natural world and the disconnection between the real and the manufactured worlds of the internet.

Situated squarely in her middle period, Smith continues to be a writer unafraid of pushing herself to create unique ways of crafting her stories. In NW and Swing Time, for example, polyphonic techniques are used throughout the novels. The short stories in Grand Union show her dabbling in different genres: dystopian fiction, surrealism, and science fiction. Smith’s freedom to explore different writing styles and techniques is mostly the result of not catering to the demands of her publisher or her readership. In each of Smith’s novels, novellas, and short stories, the plotlines differ and the characters are original, but the main themes: mortality, identity, empathy, and truth remain constant.

Over the years, literary critics have rarely come to a consensus about Smith writing. They are either extremely praiseworthy of her complicated plotlines, colorful characters, and comedic bent, or scathingly critical of her dense, rambling prose. This mode of writing drew the ire of author and critic James Wood, who infamously accused Smith of being a ‘hysterical realist’ and chided her for overloading White Teeth with copious amounts of detail. In an interview with Isaac Chotiner, Smith spoke with pride about writing White Teeth. “Whether it was good or bad or whatever, I was a kid….When I look back, it feels like a lifetime, and I just can’t imagine how it was written, but I’m glad of it” (Chotiner 2016). Smith’s criticism of her early work has softened. Previously, she referred to White Teeth as being a “fat and messy” novel. As a literary critic, Smith has the ability to be both critic and subject, and on occasion she responds to her critics’ opinions of her writing.

In the article, “This is How It Feels To Me,” she responded to Wood’s critique of White Teeth, as well as other writers he chastised for writing hysterical realistic prose: “The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”. It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose ←2 | 3→to be found in novels like my own novel White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention” (Smith 2001). To some degree Smith agreed with Wood’s assessment of her writing, but rejected grouping together the work of a novice writer like herself, with established authors and label them all as hysterical realists. Smith argued,

Biographical notes

Tracey L. Walters (Volume editor)

Tracey L. Walters is Professor of Literature in the Department of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, where she also holds an affiliate appointment with the Department of English, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Dr. Walters has published numerous articles on Black women’s literature and several books: African American Women and the Classicists Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison (2007), Zadie Smith: Critical Essays (2008), Zadie Smith (2012), and Not Your Mother's Mammy: The Black Domestic Worker in Transatlantic Media (2021).


Title: Decoded