Zadie Smith Finds Her Way to Class

Todd Cronan in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Compassion might describe Smith’s basic approach as a writer. What motivated her to write? “Above all,” she says in a 2019 essay in The New York Review of Books, “I wanted to know what it was like to be everybody.” Her novels are tours de force of literary empathy, and White Teeth (2000), her breakout work, epitomizes a vision of multicultural possibility that the “less naïve” Smith could no longer accommodate. That world, the one she inhabited growing up, mixed “the relatively rich and the poor, the children of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Protestants, Catholics, atheists, Marxists” as well as those who are “religious about Pilates.” Smith celebrates a world where these people “are all educated together in the same rooms, play together in the same playground, speak about their faiths — or lack of them — to each other.”

At once we can begin to see the limitations of compassion, at least as a political idea. Smith’s empathetic universe is a world without ideology. Being rich and being poor, after all, are not subject positions worthy of affirmation; it would be perverse to celebrate a world flush with poverty. And yet Smith’s earlier novels revel in their capacity to turn ideological difference — Christian and Muslim, Marxist and atheist — into cultural difference, a choice between health food, exercise, and church on Sunday. No one wants to (or should want to) rid the world of cultures. Those differences should be celebrated. But the point of leftist politics, its difference from pluralism, is something else: to rid the world of poverty, which requires ridding it of the rich, first.

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