A sparkling, bracing collection
Is writing fiction any different from writing non-fiction? After having published my new novel after two books of non-fiction, I’ve been getting asked this a lot.
My answer – and I know it might sound dilatory/evasive is this: It isn’t, fundamentally, different.Fiction requires a kind of research as much as non-fiction. Non-fiction requires imagination as much as fiction. Both are very hard work. The tools – language, structure, craft etc – one brings to bear upon both are identical. I think that the genre is determined by the material one has, and the manner in which one chooses to treat that material in the context of a particular book.
Many of the writers I admire (three random examples: Martin Amis, John Updike, Geoff Dyer) have written in both genres. And now, Zadie Smith, one of the finest young writers at work today, has published, after three novels (her debut, White Teeth, was one of the most important debuts of the Noughties, and her third novel, On Beauty is a work of great maturity and accomplishment) her first book of non-fiction.
In this piece for the Guardian on the eve of publication her new book, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Smith eloquently tackles the question of fiction versus non-fiction.
The collection – divided into sections titled ‘Reading’, ‘Being’, ‘Seeing’, ‘Feeling’ and ‘Remembering’ – is a joy. The section called ‘Reading’ is my favourite. Fizzing with a love for reading and writing, it is lively and learned, steeped as much in the demotic as the canon. Smith is particularly good on Nabokov and Kafka. Here is a sample.
Her memoir about her father and Christmas at home in the penultimate section is acerbic and thoughtful. And her taste in movies (in the section ‘Seeing’) is as catholic – ranging from Visconti to Garbo – as it is invigorating.
You can read Smith for fun; you can, for her insightfulness and erudition; and you can to nod assent as she admires anew a writer who also happens to be part of your personal pantheon.