Saturday, 6 December 2014

In Conversation with Elizabeth Chadwick

By Gillian Hamer

Elizabeth Chadwick is one of Britain's foremost historical novelists. The Historical Novel Society recently called her 'The Best Writer of Medieval Fiction currently around.' She is published internationally and her work has been translated into sixteen languages. She is renowned for her extensive research into the medieval period and particularly so in the area of the Marshal and Bigod families. Her novels about the thirteenth century magnate William Marshal - The Greatest Knight, and The Scarlet Lion, have brought her international acclaim.
Photograph by Sandy McLeod.

From humble beginnings in 1989, after years of writing and rejections, finally Carole Blake of the Blake Friedmann literary agency became interested in The Wild Hunt, one of Elizabeth's books. A year later the book was published by Penguin and won a Betty Trask Award, which was presented to the author by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

In the past quarter of a century Elizabeth has gone on to publish over twenty further novels and has won many more awards and accolades. She has built an entertaining social media platform, and regularly engages with her readers.

So, let's talk to Elizabeth about this month's theme of 'voice'; how she become involved with a Hollywood blockbuster .... and much more!

Warm welcome to Words with Jam, Elizabeth, you’ve been called one of the UK’s most prolific historical fiction authors, where did your love of the genre come from?

I developed an interest through watching film and TV - programs such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII (the Keith Michelle version, not more recent editions) and a children’s TV programme titled Desert Crusader which was about a knight having adventures in the Holy Land. If you Google ‘Thibaud ou les Croisades’ you can see the episodes in the original French. It also developed from having a great history teacher when I was at junior school who made the Middle Ages particularly interesting. I enjoy historical fiction in general as a reader, but only as part of a broad and eclectic reading habit. You’re just as likely to find me with my nose buried in a modern thriller, fantasy novel, a work of literary fiction, or work set in a different culture All are grist to the mill.

Why the Medieval period in particular?

As above mentioned, my interest was sparked by TV and education. When I became interested in the knight from the holy land, I was inspired to write a story, and I needed to begin researching the period. I knew nothing about it, so it involved starting from scratch. The more I researched the more interested I became in the life and times, and the more I wanted to write about it, so it went round in a circle really, one feeding off the other.

Would you like to have lived in the periods you write about, is that part of the fascination for you?

No, I’m quite happy living in my own century with all its modern benefits such as access to good health care and central heating. We might moan but we don’t know when we have it good. I would, however, really enjoy going back in time for regular holidays. Now that would be fun. And I would make it so I could take all my modern technology with me such as a camera and digital recorder to make note of everything I experienced.

Which book do you wish you had written – and why?

I don’t think there’s any book I wish I had written. When a teenager I often pondered about writing about Native Americans. I suppose from the far outside, and at an age when I was still immature, I thought the lifestyle terribly romantic. But then I read Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebee Hill and that was so brilliant that it put all such thoughts to bed. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels. But it was for her to write that book of her heart, not me.

Voice is the theme of this month’s issue, and I can’t think of a more appropriate author to talk about voice. How do you make sure the voice is perfect for the character and the period?

You find your own voice. For me it’s an instinct thing. I was born doing it. It’s like asking a bird how to fly an aeroplane. Practically I would say do your research. Read around your period and obtain many views. This will give you depth. Get to know your characters and their world inside and out. You need to be in their skins as much as you are in your own. You have to become them because if you don’t, you might as well just be yourself in fancy dress. At the same time you also need a sense of detachment. You need to be inside your character, and outside at the same time making critical writerly decisions. That’s not something I can tell you how to do, you have to find it for yourself

Research, love or loathe? It must be a massive part of your books. How do you handle it?

Absolutely vital. The more you know the better your characters will be of their time and the more realistic they and their settings will be. That doesn’t mean you have to info dump it into the novel. Heaven forbid. It should all be an organic part of the whole. It has to come from your characters and their lives in their world, not the author’s voice-over.

Who is your favourite of your own characters – and why?

That would have to be John Marshal from A Place Beyond Courage. Mainly because he is often misrepresented in history. I went digging to find his story and far from being the bad parent and fickle turncoat that other novelists have sometimes made him out to be, I found him to be a man of deep integrity faced with some utterly terrible decisions with all the responsibility – and blame - lying on his shoulders.

Which historical character do you have a secret urge to write about?

I think it would be interesting to write about Henry VII in a positive light. Richard III has been rightly studied and vindicated after his centuries long role as evil, child murdering hunchback. But in some ways he has turned into glowing Saint Richard, and because of that, Henry VII has now become the evil, thin lipped, nasty, sneery villain. So in losing the pantomime version of one we have created the pantomime version of the other. So yes, I think I’d enjoy redressing that balance. I’m not anti-Richard at all, I just think that there’s a lot more nuance to it than black or white.

You must have been delighted to get the three book commission to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Why did you want to tell her story?

Whenever I look at a character, I am always asking them: ‘What can you tell me that you have not told anyone before?’ Eleanor had been on my radar for quite a while because she kept cropping up in cameo roles in my novels. I began asking her that question, and the answers proved very fascinating because there is an awful lot that has not been said about her before, or has been said with a very different slant. Readers keep writing to me saying ‘This feels like the real and definitive Eleanor out of all the fiction that I’ve read.’ Obviously I’m very pleased about that, but it is the result of intensive and extensive research.

How did you become involved in writing the companion novel to the film, First Knight, and how did the experience differ to writing your own novels?

My agent happened to sit next to another agent at the Frankfurt book fair who had been employed by the film company to find a writer to turn the script of First Knight into a novel. My agent said she had such a writer on her books and that was how it came about. Being as I had a script I had to adapt, it made it a lot easier; it wasn’t as if my page was entirely blank to begin with. All I basically had to do was put in link scenes and some extra descriptions. So in many ways it was a quick write.

Your first novel, The Wild Hunt, was published in 1989. You must have seen many changes in publishing in the past quarter of a century?

The Wild Hunt was published in 1990 having been accepted the previous year. Indeed there have been changes. The rise of the Internet, the rise of self publishing, which is both a blessing and a curse. I think it’s wonderful that authors are now able to get their work out there to readers more easily; our technology has made that possible. But at the same time not all novels are ready to be published when their eager authors put them out there. It’s always best to seek out professional advice on editing and cover design if you are self publishing, and to seek out professional critiquing services, if you’re at the start of your career and you think you would like to self publish.

What three pieces of advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers today?

Most importantly, enjoy what you do. Have a good time telling the story. Writing should be fun.
Sure there are rules for writing, but in the words of Captain Barbosa from The Pirates of the Caribbean they are more like guidelines really. Don’t ever become their slave.
Be professional. If you have a professional attitude to your work and to social media, it will stand you in good stead as a platform from which to promote your work

Your writing is so visual, perfect for the film medium. Are there plans to see any of your own books made into TV or film?

It’s not as easy as it seems from the outside especially with historical which tend to have huge budgets because of the costumes. You may find some of the really big named authors such as Philippa Gregory or Bernard Cornwell obtaining film and TV contracts, but there are only so many historical series that are made. My agency in the UK is a film and TV agency and they have contacts in the industry and do their best. As yet nothing has happened although we have had a few nibbles interest round the edges. Let’s hope someone comes and takes a proper bite! I have my fingers crossed for Eleanor or William Marshal.

Can you tell us your future writing plans?

I have the third novel in my Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy to write The Autumn Throne. After that I shall be returning to William Marshal to write the story of what he did in his missing years in the Holy Land.

Marketing for Authors - FBF 14 Reportage

Ich bin hier/I am here: © Alexander Heimann/Frankfurt Book Fair

A range of ideas emerged from The International Self-Publishing and Author Programme at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair on the subject of marketing.

The audience was most self-published or hybrid authors, but the information is equally relevant to trade published writers who are expected to do much of their own marketing. Discoverability is everyone’s problem.

Speakers included Porter Anderson of FutureBook, Edward Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives, Alison Baverstock of Kingston University, Orna Ross of ALLi, David Taylor and Robin Cutler of Ingram UK, Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, Hayley Radford of Authoright, Jonas Lennermo of Publit, Julia Koblentz of Nook, Dr Florian Geuppert of Books On Demand, Camille Mofidi of Kobo Writing Life, Matthias Matting of Der SelfPublisher Bibel, Meire Dias of Bookcase Literary Agency, Victoria Sutherland of Foreword magazine, author Lynn Isenberg, author Kit Berry and author Dmitry Gluhkovsky.

The number one point made countless times is that authors who don’t market, don’t sell. Whether you do it yourself or hire someone to do it for you, marketing is a vital part of connecting to your readership.

The very word ‘marketing’ makes many authors shudder. But it doesn’t have to be a chore. One excellent tip is to find the marketing channels that suit your personality type. If you enjoying blogging or prefer Twitter to personal appearances or relish getting to grips with metadata – choose what works for you and make the most of it.

“Getting attention is different to getting approval” – Alison Baverstock
Paulo Coelho. © Bernd Hartung/Frankfurt Book Fair

Social media: build relationships and be authentic. Be generous - with useful information, with support, with introductions and connections. Posting only your own stuff makes you appear amateur. Many organisations want to scoop up interesting, quirky, relevant tweets, which will drive traffic in your direction.

Platform: This should be about more than selling books. Blogs where the last post was February 2013 do you no favours. Change the title of a blog post and repost. Use search engine terms and keywords. Host interviews, create a community. If you don’t have a blog, write posts for other people. Kobo Writing Life has a blog which hosts authors with something to say.

Brand partnerships: Lynn Isenberg wrote a book called The Funeral Planner – chick-lit for entrepreneurs – and formed alliances with funeral parlours and obituary writers. For an author friend who’d written Dogphoria, a non-fiction book of pictures and quotes about the joy of dogs, she engineered a cooperation between PETCO (dog adoption charity), gaining attention and celebrity tweets.

To free or not to free. Opinions differed on whether making your work free is a worthwhile strategy. Only a portion, or the first of a series, was oft-heard advice. But Dmitry Glukhovsky put his entire book up on his site, gathered an eager readership and community who contributed to a gallery. He has now sold the rights for a video game. Wattpad and Widbook are two platforms where writers can gain an audience by sharing part or all of their work.

Reviews. Tailor your approach, remain professional and make it easy for people to say yes. Have a strapline, a brief blurb and a longer description all on a one page with cover, puff quotes and all relevant links.

Grunt work. It’s essential to get the metadata right, include keywords and SEO factors. In digital publishing, you can change the title, add a subtitle, get frequently searched terms in your description. Learn what the pricing sweet spots are and which countries/platforms respond better to higher/lower pricing.

Collaborate. Work with other authors. Find a group of writers in the same genre and put out a boxset or offer to appear as experts at a literary festival. Hold an event such as a launch party or pop-up bookshop. Build alliances with bookshops and cross promote each others’ work.

Books in Motion. © Bernd Hartung/Frankfurt Book Fair

Moment marketing. Especially useful for non-fiction, but can be applied to fiction. Look for parallels in the news. Set up Google alerts for certain keywords and connect the stories to your book. Become the go-to person on that theme.

Print. Some authors feel print is only worthwhile once the ebook is flying. Others emphasise the importance of having copies to sign and sell at events, as giveaway prizes. Printed material of some kind – bookmark, postcard, flyer – makes people remember and have the details to hand.

Finally, Joanna Penn, author of How To Market a Book, advises integrating marketing slots into your day.

You are a writer. Fit the marketing activity around the writing, not the other way around.

In this issue of Words with JAM, you’ll find a second FBF 14 summary:

Global Trends in Self Publishing

Plus if you’re thinking of attending the fair next year, check out this post:

Five Tips on how authors can get the most out of a book fair.

Global Trends in Self-Publishing - FBF 14 Reportage

By JJ Marsh

This year, I attended the International Self Publishing and Author Programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Seminars, panel discussions, informal discussions, insider opinion and up-to-the-minute observations on what’s happening in the publishing world.

Are there too many books in the world?
With speakers such as Porter Anderson of FutureBook, Edward Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives, Alison Baverstock of Kingston University, Orna Ross of ALLi, David Taylor of Ingram UK, Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, Hayley Radford of Authoright, Jonas Lennermo of Publit, Julia Koblentz of Nook, Dr Florian Geuppert of Books On Demand, Camille Mofidi of Kobo Writing Life, Matthias Matting of Der SelfPublisher Bibel, Meire Dias of Bookcase Literary Agency plus lots and lots of successful authors, the information was overwhelming. Here's my digested version of the big picture.

Global Trends in Self Publishing

Last year, the number of ISBN numbers purchased by indie authors surpassed those bought by trade publishing. The estimates of books published without ISBNs exceed 1 million. Trade publishing is watching the indie scene very carefully and regards it as “a seed bed”.

Established authors are considering the benefits of creative control. Edward Nawotka shared how the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Programme expressed an interest in self-publishing. Not for their students, but for faculty members - all successful authors and prize winners.

Self publishers are moving away from the Do Everything Yourself model and using expert resources. According to Alison Baverstock’s recent research, 59% used an editor, 26% availed themselves of marketing support and 21% had taken legal advice.

Success Stories
Companies are springing up everywhere to take advantage of this new demand. Freelance editors, designers, proofreaders, sales data tools, marketing services and specialists in intellectual property and entertainment law are a growing infrastructure to support the professionalism of the independent author.

Legal advice is an essential area. Without a publishing house’s lawyer to check copyright issues, potential libel and accusations of plagiarism or infringement, authors need to take this responsibility themselves. This gets more complex when dealing with translations. For example, while there is no copyright on titles in the UK & US, German laws prevent the use of a title if an existing work already holds that name. Pleading ignorance is insufficient. You’ll have to remove your book and may have to pay the other party’s legal costs.

Staying with Germany, a curious phenomenon is that many of the latest self-publishing initiatives have come from major publishers. One example featured in Publishing Perspectives’ Author Guide is 100 Fans (German only). This is a crowd-funding platform, supported by M√ľnchner Verlagsgruppe. When a writer’s campaign gains 100+ fans, the book is produced and distributed as both print and ebook. When it gets over 1000 fans, it receives frontlist treatment in the publisher’s catalogue.

A variety of platforms and formats is crucial to connecting with readers. Every single speaker stressed the same message: exclusivity is a bad idea. Joanna Penn made the point that few companies in publishing are too big to fail. Some presenters made a strong case for building a successful name in digital only before venturing into print. Especially as indie authors have a hard time getting into bookshops, due to basic economics. However, many voices spoke up for the value of handselling and the importance of the paperback to their readership.

Audience at the Author Programme
New formats including audiobooks, games, translations and TV/film adaptations are fertile ground for self-published material. The adage used to be ‘bring an existing audience’, but now opinion is changing. One of these formats might be the place you find your audience.

One instance is the huge potential emerging in China. Tens of millions of people are reading on their phones or other hand-held devices. In The Wall Street Journal, Wei Gu quotes authors such as Tang Jia San, Li Hu, Liu Wei and Zhu Hongzhi, all of whom are under 40 and each has become a millionaire since publishing online.

And to end on a high note, Alison Baverstock made two points about self publishing. Firstly, she has found a fundamental difference between self published and traditionally published authors. According to her research, which you can find in her book The Naked Author, self published authors are generally happier. Secondly, the supportive and generous nature of the independent author community makes it a positive and helpful place to be.

Long may that trend continue.

In this issue of Words with JAM, you’ll find a second FBF14 summary:

Marketing for Authors

Plus if you’re thinking of attending the fair next year, check out this post:

Five Tips on how authors can get the most out of a book fair.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Inheritance of the Meek by Sarah Bower

The writer of Genesis gives us a chapter on the emergence of heaven and earth from void and chaos. St. John the Divine – implicitly explaining why he’s possibly the better writer – manages the same process in five short verses, and begins, famously with ‘In the beginning was the Word’ – sic, capitalised (at least in the King James version, which is surely the only one for an Anglophone writer). The Word, John suggests, imposed form on the void. God created the universe by giving it a voice, by being its voice perhaps, in St. John’s mythology.

John isn’t the only writer I know of who cites as a reason for writing the need to impose order on a seemingly chaotic world. Writers’ minds tend to be full of questions. How, why, who, when, what if? Fiction writers go on to construct elaborate universes of their own in which to seek answers to these questions. They don’t always succeed. Perhaps the best writers never succeed and it is the journey that matters, not the destination. When you read a writer you respond to, of course, she may well offer you answers to your own questions even while failing to answer the ones she posed to herself. She has her own voice, but she also has the power to give you yours.

I recently read Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest. For those who have neither read it nor followed the controversy it has whipped up, it can be described as a romantic and social comedy set in a fictionalised (but very thinly fictionalised) Auschwitz. That’s right. A romantic comedy set in Auschwitz. Among the staff and their families to be precise. Most right-minded people’s initial reaction to this is to recoil with extreme distaste. It was mine, and then I thought, wait a minute, isn’t a book which causes me to recoil with extreme distaste from the Holocaust actually getting closer to the truth than one which fills me with pious indignation? By stripping the history of the moral accretions of the post war period, of the entirely inadequate sentimentality in which it has been clothed by subsequent generations of commentators who are both voyeuristic and cloaked with a guilt which isn’t, actually, theirs, hasn’t Amis shifted us closer to the right response? Disgust. This is a novel whose voice is imbued with what Hannah Arendt famously called ‘the banality of evil’ and it is the only piece of Holocaust writing other than Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man (which concludes there is no language to describe the Holocaust, no adequate voice in which to address it) which has in any way clarified the way I feel about it.

The relevance of this should be obvious. That species of banal, every day evil is still among us. It informs every genocide, every internecine war, every act of terrorism which has taken place since 1945 and probably all the ones before it as well. Behind every grandstanding jihadist there is a bully with a grubby, shame-faced desire to exercise power over someone else, someone weaker. Behind the mad dictator there’s an impotent wife-beater, a little man who erects huge statues to himself because he can’t erect anything else. Behind the rhetoric of nationalism lies the fear of scarcity. Wars are not fought for high moral causes but for economic gain, for land, or oil, or water, for whatever is in short supply and someone else will pay top dollar for.

The human species has a big, sophisticated brain that gives it self-awareness, the capacity to comment on and explain its own actions, to tell itself stories. Most of these stories are romances in the traditional sense of the word. They involve dashing action heroes of impeccable courage and stoic heroines of equally impeccable beauty. What derring do makes it possible to create a universe in six days? Or just by talking it into existence? Through our stories, our words, we justify and glorify and mythologise ourselves.

We make ourselves up. We know we do this, and we have mixed feelings about it. Making things up can be either self-deceptive or, as with my example of The Zone of Interest, it can reveal rather than conceal. We fiction writers expend a lot of thought and energy on the concept of fictional truth, fictional authenticity, this trick of revealing the essence of something by veiling it, like Salome, in make believe. We are, of course, liars, magicians, prestidigitators. We put words in people’s mouths, we govern their actions as surely as Derren Brown does those of his volunteers. We give voice to the impossible, the improbable, the feared and devoutly wished-for, to tigers and freaks and meek governesses with steel spines concealed beneath their corsets.

What sort of responsibility does this ventriloquism give us? I almost followed this question up with a qualification. Of course, I was about to write, when I talk about the fiction writer’s responsibility, I’m only talking about ‘serious’ writers, like Amis. I quickly realised how patronising that sounds, and how plain wrong it is. Popular novelists from Dickens to Joanna Trollope have written books driven by the desire to expose and explore social injustices. Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels are not only gripping whodunits but offer serious social commentary on contemporary life in Sweden, particularly the plight of asylum seekers and economic migrants. Even Mills and Boon has stuck a perfectly pedicured toe in the murky waters of women’s liberation in recent years. Their heroines are all career girls now. Fictional voices, however apparently frivolous, are invested with power. Mills and Boon has a readership of over three million in the UK alone, a figure politicians looking for votes can only dream of.

As with everything else to do with the process of creating fiction, the question of responsibility can’t be answered without recourse to the reader. A story is not merely the product of the writer’s imagination, it is the result of a conversation between the writer’s imagination and that of each reader. There is, in fact, a whole Babel of voices at work in the construction of a fiction – the author’s, the characters’ and the readers’. And really, the key voices are the readers’ because each reader hears and responds to characters’ voices differently. The writer’s voice is only one among many. When the author creates his characters he puts certain words in their mouths, but he has no control over how readers hear and understand those words. Everyone, author and readers alike, invests something of themselves and their own experience in the text, so everyone interprets the text differently. Every story is a potential recreation of the Babel tower.

Yet chaos rarely ensues from reading fiction. Fights don’t break out among book groups (well, depending on the amount of wine that’s flowed during their meetings…), book shops and libraries tend to be quiet and courteous places, reading – and writing – are civilised, mild-mannered pursuits. Why is this? It’s certainly not because writing and reading don’t matter. Books can – and have – changed the world. Where would we be without the brave voices of writers such as Arthur Koestler, Nadine Gordimer or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name but three I can see whenever I glance up from my screen at my bookcases. Two of these went to prison for speaking out against injustice. Two ended up in exile. Their voices speak truth to power and are dangerous.

Perhaps the responsibilities of writer and readers are less those of conviction or evangelism and more, shall we say, contractual. All creators of a text agree on some common basis of understanding. Without this, language as we comprehend it could not exist. It would just be noise. Babel. When verbal argument breaks down, war ensues. Writers and readers understand the power of the voice, even when it is no more than a whisper from the wings. They treat it with care. For this, in a world in which voices are increasingly raised in thoughtless ideological extremism and rhetorical fury, in which words are coming to be used with less and less sense of their meaning, we should be grateful.

To end where I began, with my own culture’s foundation myths, God wasn’t in the fire or the earthquake but in the still, small voice.

Sarah Bower’s latest novel, Erosion, written under the penname S. A. Hemmings, is out now and was at least partly inspired by the iniquities of the juvenile detention system.

Changing My Mind: Occasional essays by Zadie Smith

Reviewed by Rebecca Johnson Bista

Changing My Mind is the perfect mental challenge for those fascinated by the acts of reading and writing – surely all of us here. In 17 scintillating essays, covering culture, cinema, race, politics, identity and family as well as literature itself, Zadie Smith reveals more about the writer’s experience of reading and the reader’s experience of writing than anyone else I have read. She does so with a fierce and precise intelligence, a light touch of self-aware humour and a streetwise contemporary voice that draws you in and on through her philosophical arguments. She can move seamlessly from Heidegger and Spinoza to Katherine Hepburn and George Clooney; from literary theory to confessional sneak-peek into the writer’s secret craft, and from personal experience to international relations with the same confidential charm and laser vision.

The essays in this collection are arranged in sections. In the first, ‘Reading’, are her critical essays on authors including her beloved E M Forster and Nabokov, Zora Neal Hurston, George Eliot, Kafka, and a comparison between Netherlands (Joseph O’Neill) and Remainder (Tom McCarthy). The second, ‘Being’, includes essays on the craft of writing, Liberia, and Barack Obama’s “vocal flexibility” of bi-racial rhetoric. In the third, ‘Seeing’, is film criticism including an essay on the gender politics of Hepburn and Garbo. In the fourth, ‘Feeling’, are autobiographical writings; and in the fifth, ‘Remembering’, her essay on David Foster Wallace, which seems to sum up in a sense the essence of all else she has said about what constitutes the craft and significance of reading and writing.

Along the way we discover that Zadie the writer is a pantser (in NaNoWriMo terms, that is – she calls it a ‘micro-manager’) not a planner (I think we knew); that Zora Neal Hurston was her awakening into the possibility of a literary identity as a black woman; that she rewrites her first 20 pages dozens of times to get the tone and voice right for the rest of the novel, and that she’s ashamed to re-read her own work. We also find out that she thinks of novels as houses in which to live and writing as construction (including scaffolding); that she writes only one ‘draft’; that the writer, as person and creator, is just as important to her as the text itself and that David Foster Wallace is, in a sense, her ultimate reading experience.

In examining the elements that inform her readings and construct her writer’s world, she offers a beautifully delicate exploration of Forster’s “humane charm” and cultural acuity. She praises George Eliot’s “surround sound” and her ability to “pull it all out into the light” in terms of human folly and self-deception, and knocks Henry James from his self-important perch. She also looks at creative pleasure in Nabokov’s idea of inspiration, consisting of a hot, brief “rapture” at the conception of a book, followed by a cool, sustained “recapture” during which the actual labour of writing happens. Part of this, she says, leaving college-study Barthes behind, is the author being in control: “putting walls around the playground” to define and delimit the reader’s “play”.

In examining writers’ political credentials, historical circumstances and literary antecedents, she leaves no stone unturned. And by similarly setting out her own influences, history, family, political hopes, practice, voice and cultural context she shines the same light on her own writing, and the roots of her own ideas. She is particularly coruscating about notions of ‘ethnic authenticity’ and any hint of racial bad faith from any quarter – she’s down on “keeping it real” or any single unified concept of blackness (in literature as well as life) while also defining herself as a black woman writer. At the same time, she will not let this constrain her and insists pithily: “like all readers I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not my melanin count.” Smith has no limits but her own. And she is fully in control of those, delineating them with such pinpoint accuracy, brilliantly articulate thinking and erudite wit that there is little space for disagreement.

Having said that, Smith’s world is not for the faint-hearted. She leaves no place to hide and no zone of comfort in her writing. Her world is a very precise place in which every word, image and emotional response is critically analysed. She is as aware of context as she is of voice, of political implications, identity markers, the tone, texture and flavour of words and what they say about your origins, truthfulness and intentions. She misses none of the layers. There is no escape. Her essays are so dense with ideas that every sentence needs attending to. This is not a book you can knock off at one sitting. You will find yourself desperately needing to (re)read all of Nabokov, or George Bernard Shaw, or Begley’s biography of Kafka, or the complete works of Spinoza, or view the oeuvres of Garbo and Werner Herzog. You will feel inadequate, but in the nicest possible way.

Sometimes I found myself wishing she would not write with such precise fully-formed opinions or be so head-girlish about her moral authority and clear-sightedness and that just once in a while she would fumble her lines or come up against a limitation in thought or feeling that even her well-stocked mind can’t quite handle. She doesn’t. And yet, if I were Zadie Smith herself, I would also point out that of course I am aware that my wish is just a dog-in-the-manger fantasy born of envy and would immediately offer a more morally and emotionally impeccable alternative. Except that I confess I have no replacement, just an untidy, unattractive longing to be as smart, well-read and charming as she is. Zadie rocks.