The Frontal Cortex

Zadie Smith and Realism

Zadie Smith has a terrific essay in the NY Review of Books on the future of the novel, or why realism – even when perfectly executed – has limitations:

From two recent novels, a story emerges about the future for the Anglophone novel. Both are the result of long journeys. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, took seven years to write; Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. The two novels are antipodal–indeed one is the strong refusal of the other. The violence of the rejection Remainder represents to a novel like Netherland is, in part, a function of our ailing literary culture. All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done–in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Notice the way she easily uses the language of the brain (“neural routes,” “receptive pathways”) to describe the function of fiction. It’s all very Woolfian, and reminds me of Woolf’s seminal essay “Modern Fiction“:

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old

Woolf doesn’t name drop neurons, but instead uses the language of contemporary science (“impressions,” sensory “atoms”). The connection between this Smith essay and Woolf’s modernist manifesto becomes even more explicit when Smith goes on to consider the flaws of realism (as represented by Netherland). She compares the depiction of reality in “realistic” literature to the flux of self-conscious experience, ridiculing the strict constraints of 21st century realism just as Woolf had mocked “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy” in 1925, for never grappling with the disorder of “human nature”:

Netherland doesn’t really want to know about misapprehension. It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

Read the whole essay.


  1. #1 Luci
    November 14, 2008

    Realism has ever been at odds with what is real. When realism is thrust upon a reader as granite-carved Truth, I usually see nothing but a cold tombstone and pass by.
    Alternatively, open any Woolf book at random. I find a fantastic passage in Orlando (ch. 2) about how humans experience time: pure neuro goodness. “This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less well known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”
    The novel is anything but realistic, but realities pour from every page, along with delight and surprise.

  2. #2 Greg
    November 15, 2008

    This is odd, as if novels existed only as part of an ongoing dialogue about the function and future of novels! Does anyone read for sheer pleasure anymore?

  3. #3 Matt
    November 25, 2008

    Writing is about honesty. If a writer is dishonest she is nothing. This is Smith’s real beef: that Netherland is dishonest in that it has fallen into a realistic style, rather than being honest about what it’s really like to experience the world in the twenty-first century.

    As far as I can see, she only uses the term ‘neural route’ to connote the idea that fiction forges new experiential routes in readers (or brings to light ones already in existence but not yet articulated). Her point is then that when fiction gets stuck in certain such routes it cannot serve this imagination-expanding function.

    As for the connection with Woolf: at one level this is just what I have said above; Woolf is worried about ‘set’ and limited ways of experiencing the world which block the writer from being honest about how experience feels from the inside (as it were). But on another level, the connection is more tenuous. Surely Woolf is railing in part against a kind of positivism (perhaps echoed in trite strands in neuroscience) that interprets what is really experienced in terms of what is real in science (hence, as the comment above highlights, Woolf thought it heavy-handed and reductive to think of experienced time in terms of clock-time – as did Heidegger, by the way.)

    Smith’s problem with realism is obviously different – it is not the novel versus crass positivism or the ‘common sense’ the latter might inform, it is a style of novel-writing versus what it’s actually like to experience the world in the twenty first century.

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